How should we treat ‘immoral’ people?

24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43 – NRSV

It’s distressingly common to hear Christians denouncing others (including fellow Christians) for their lack of morality and demanding that those they see as not following ‘biblical teaching’ must ‘repent’ before they can be fully accepted into ‘God’s church’. But is this teaching itself biblical, or a uniquely human distortion? (Click on the title to read more)

Jesus’s habit of teaching in parables presents us with challenges, because often his stories have their roots in the Jewish culture of first century Palestine, and that makes it difficult for us to unpick analogies that are so distant from our own time and world. Translations of the Bible can, and do make this situation worse.

Those who denounce others whom they see as lacking morality often stress that the Bible is a simple book; all we need to do, they say, is to read it, accept it and implement what it says. But is this is correct? Is Jesus’s teaching always simple to understand in our modern world?

The passage above lies at the heart of Jesus’s teaching about ‘sin’ (which I’ve chosen to refer to as ‘immorality’ as the word ‘sin’ is so alien to our world) and therefore addresses very directly many of the current disagreements within the global Christian Church. But I believe it also has a great deal to say about what Christian values are. The reason this matters so much is that my experience, like that of many others, has been that society at large seems to have, at best, a very hazy idea of what Christianity means, and an even hazier idea of what its relevance is to today’s world. I have no doubt, for example, that many people are put off Christ’s teaching by being led to believe that behind it lies a ‘holier than thou’ attitude.

The traditional interpretation of the above passage would be something along these lines: ‘The devil comes and tempts people to act immorally. Those who succumb to that temptation, the ‘immoral’, live their lives among God’s moral people, ie Christians who go to church. When those moral people ask God for permission to expel the immoral from his Church, he says no, wait until Judgment Day, when I’ll come and burn them in eternal hellfire, whilst taking you, the moral churchgoers, into heaven.’

Its first hearers in Jesus’s world knew that the plant translated as the word ‘weeds’ in the story, zizania in the Greek, and either tares or darnel in other English translations, represented a serious agricultural problem for their pre-industrial age. Darnel (the correct botanical name is ‘Lolium temulentum’) was a prodigious self-seeder and its seeds could make those who consumed the resulting flour extremely unwell, as it was a mildly toxic narcotic. To them in their time and place, there was absolutely no question; without asking the Master’s permission, you’d have immediately entered the crop and rooted up the darnel.

So it would have come as a huge shock to them that the Master advises against removing these noxious plants from the valuable wheat crop. What is Christ actually teaching here?

The first thing to point to is that to me, at least, the view that people are made up all of wheat, or all of darnel, either entirely moral or entirely immoral, is counter-intuitive. Picture yourself, for a moment, as a plant standing in the field in the parable. When you look at your fellow plants, do you see wheat or darnel, moral or immoral? I have to own up to seeing plants that are all, without exception, a mixture of the two. If we’re honest, don’t we (all of us) need to accept that we try our level best to be wheat all the time, but actually we often find ourselves slipping into darnel-mode? Do we believe that Christ actually thought that some were so moral that they were the finest, purest, 100% genuine moral wheat all the time, without exception? Surely not, he’s a far better judge of humanity than that!

In addition, the traditional interpretation seems to suggest that it’s impossible for those we think are darnel to turn into wheat, or for that matter, vice-versa, moral into immoral. It’s nice and neat and plays to our prejudices to suggest that once people start to behave badly, they’ll remain that way, but can you actually change a bad person into a good one by denouncing them, rejecting them and insisting that they repent? My experience has been the opposite and if you look at this story alongside most of Christ’s other teaching, we may even reach the conclusion that what actually most mattered to Him was people being persuaded by his teaching to struggle, even if unsuccessfully, to become more like wheat and less like darnel? Shouldn’t we listen carefully to the Master in the story even, or perhaps especially, when his advice sounds so wrong?

The Master in the story responds to the question from the slaves by not accepting that the darnel should be rooted up, but instead he says: ‘Let them grow together until the harvest’. Christ is not teaching judgment here, but patience. Socrates said: ‘He who takes only a few things into account finds it easy to pronounce judgment’. Christ is telling us that God’s way is to be patient with those who are slow to come to him; God’s way is not about perfection or absence of immorality; it’s about self-examination; it’s about deliverance, it’s about mercy and forgiveness and it’s about freedom to deny or accept our own faults. Above all, God’s way is not about us using God’s name to denounce others as somehow less worthy than we are.

If that’s the teaching of this parable, then how is this relevant to our own world and place? In recent years, have we’ve had several events in our news at home and abroad, which have put on display a desire to rush into judgment and condemnation of others. I notice this almost every time there is an accident in which people’s lives are lost. The implication is often that those in charge have deliberately set out to kill, maim or injure people.

Many of us now seem to see deaths as either a failure of medicine, or as an act of callous and deliberate murder, with these being the only two possibilities. It would seem all we need to do is to identify, instantly, those who are responsible, so they can be punished. How and when did our traditional British values of tolerance and patience and acceptance of others, get turned into the policies of the lynch mob? When did we decide to start finding that people were guilty until proven innocent? In stark contrast with this, what this parable is saying is to be patient, to let them grow together, to leave the judgment to God. Do we see each other, on life’s road that we all know is so littered with pain, (including our own contribution to the pain of others), as fellow weak humans, or do we see others as ‘enemies’, who must be taught a lesson? What difference, not just to the state of our world, but also to our own behaviour, would it make, if we viewed the world one way rather than the other? John Petty said ‘Good people trying to do good can do more real damage than bad people trying to do bad’. It’s quite clearly true that those who are tried and found guilty should face justice, but are we in danger of seeing others as guilty without trial and hence 100% pure evil and immoral darnel and fit only for what the parable describes as ‘the furnace of fire’?

Jesus teaches us to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. But a human weakness writ large is to want to judge and blame others for everything bad that happens to us. It seems to me that this is a kind of modern reversal of Christian teaching, that historically has always encouraged us to try with all our might see the best, not the worst in people. Our world over my lifetime has progressively moved away from any belief in God. Once upon a time, you’d have heard statements such as ‘one day they will have to meet their maker’. Now that so few people believe in God, are we in danger of taking God’s powers to ourselves, and making ourselves the judge of all others?

For those of us who do claim to have a faith, it may be easier to agree that God alone has the wisdom and judgement for many of the issues that confront us. It’s hugely significant that one of the features of the plant darnel is that it can very easily be mistaken as wheat, other than just before the harvest, when it turns black, rather than the golden colour we associate with wheat.

Is Jesus telling us to leave judgment to God, in the sure knowledge that on Judgment Day he will wreak his wrath on our behalf on those whom we have previously clearly decided deserve it? God’s judgment, thank the Lord, is deeply mysterious; unfathomable even. It’s just as well, when we show daily how poor our own judgement is! So will God allow the immoral to go without punishment? I think that question deserves a blog post of its own in due course!

Ultimately, the parable of the wheat and the darnel shows us that Christ’s teaching is not about the rejection of others; it’s not about uprooting those we view as immoral; it’s not about judgment nor is it about refuting what we see as the errors in others. Instead, it’s about patience, love, empathy, tolerance, mercy and trust in God. All of us who claim to follow Christ, ultimately are jointly responsible for reminding the world of this, and that we’re all of us, without exception, an extremely uncomfortable mixture of wheat and darnel, moral and immoral. It’s what makes us human, and it’s the reason why we all, at the end of our lives, need to find ourselves facing a patient, merciful, loving and forgiving God, not one who shares all our worst prejudices.

 

3 thoughts on “How should we treat ‘immoral’ people?

  1. Best yet James. You’re a talented preacher. I agree with most of what you said. Like 99% of it, but it is my current 1% darnel-ness that wanted a poke at a certain Wallaby (ex) fullback.

    Why would I want that? Mainly because I want the group I most associate myself with, Christians, to do it right. Every single time. Is Israel Folau wrong in what he said and has he damaged his cause (the Kingdom of God, rather than the multimillion dollar sports endorsements he had). I think he’s wrong. I also think he couldn’t give a fig for what I think of him and his moral pronouncements. Freedom of speech, thought and belief are more important than getting it right every time. Who does manage to achieve that anyway? The last person who got it right all the time was crucified. I’m going to hang with the fallible humans and do my best for today.

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  2. Very thought-provoking and immensely helpful.
    The older I get the more I am happy to leave ‘judgment’ to God. God’s judgment starts and ends with love not wrath or vengeance. And thank goodness for that – I certainly can’t throw any stones.
    Your explanation of wheat and darnel is a vision of hope – for me, for the church and for the world.
    Thank you James.

    Like

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