In today’s Old Testament lesson, we are given a promise and a hope. In today’s Gospel lesson, we are taught something about how to live out that promise until it is fulfilled.
In our Old Testament lesson, Jacob has a dream. He dreams of a ladder standing on the earth and reaching up to heaven, and the angels of God are ascending and descending on it. God speaks to Jacob in this dream and promises him that all the families on earth will be blessed in him and his children, and also that he, God, will be with them and will keep them wherever they go. Now, great and future things are clearly promised in this dream. That is how the ancient church always took it. To the ancient church, the symbolism of the dream consistently signaled the ascent of God’s people to God’s heaven. Often, the ladder was seen as a symbol of the Cross, because it is the Cross that leads us to heaven. Some also saw it as a symbol of the church, which also leads us upwards, and because it is through the church that God’s graces, such as the sacraments, come down; others saw its rungs as the virtues that lead us to heaven; Augustine saw the angels ascending and descending as a symbol of good preachers who are the angels of God preaching Christ.
That is the promise. In Christ’s parable of the weeds we are told something about living it out. This parable, like last week’s, involves sowing. In this one, a farmer sowed good seed, but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, so that when the wheat came up the weeds did, too. The slaves of the farmer ask if they should go and pull up the weeds. “No,” the farmer says, “don’t do that. If you do you might uproot the wheat as well.” “It would be far better,” he says, “to wait until the harvest. It can then all be gathered into bundles, and the bundles of weeds can be burned and the wheat can be taken into the barn.”
That may not seem to say much about how to live out the promise to Jacob. Jesus helpfully, though, unveils to the disciples who each of the players in the parable is. He tells them that the sower is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seed is the children of the kingdom, and the bad seed is sown by the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, he says, when the good and evil are separated. His point then in the parable is a simple one: the promise of God in this world always co-exists alongside evil. Don’t expect it not to do so, and don’t expect the evil, no matter how great the promise, to go away, not yet. Once the dream is dreamed, it still has to be lived out in a world where the dreaming of heaven itself is lived out in a place where evil is always mixed with the beauty of the dream.
That is something that we need to take seriously about how to live out God’s promises. The Christian life is not frictionless. We do not glide easily and effortlessly from the dreaming of the dream to its fulfillment. We will always meet resistance.
Now, one of the reasons we need to take this seriously is because we don’t always believe it. Instead, we wonder, we puzzle long and hard, and we are confused by the puzzle of why bad things happen to good people. Indeed, the very long-lived popularity of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book by that title – it has been in print since 1981 – indicates that we are bothered by that question; to the degree that we are bothered, we would seem to assume that good people shouldn’t have bad things happen to them. We assume that once we dream of immortality, that immortality should be ours. Resistance or friction is unexpected and provides a seeming contradiction to what we have been promised.
People did not always think this way. In the medieval world, for example, people didn’t ask why bad things happen to good people. There was no point in asking it, for there was certainly no puzzle about it. Bad things happen to good people because there are bad people to do those things. That’s just the way it is, and you would have to be incredibly naive to think otherwise. Moreover, God’s mercy is for those who have suffered and who are afflicted. So, suffering of the good people in this life was actually a sign that God would be merciful to them in the resurrection. There was no particular puzzle; it was all working out the way one would expect things to work out. What did puzzle the medievals though, was when good things happened to good people in this world. They worried, because they were afraid that perhaps they had fared too well in this life, that they had gotten the benefits of the wicked, and that they would therefore have to pay in the next life. To them, Fortune magazine’s list of the richest people in the world would not have been a list of the blessed, but a list of the world’s most notorious sinners whose souls were in the greatest danger. Their faring well materially in the world was the anomaly that would be set straight in the final harvest, the medievals thought.
Now, I am not sure that we always have to follow them on this. One really shouldn’t be suspicious of happiness, at least if one has a clean conscience. But we do need to know that as we contemplate God’s promise and accept it for ourselves that we will have to live it out in a world where it will meet resistance, and where there will be friction because of the conflict between good and evil this side of the kingdom.
We need to know simply so that we are not ignorant or so that we are not surprised. We shouldn’t be disappointed when the good we are promised doesn’t come to us gliding over a frictionless surface. But we need to know it also, because in that fact of the co-existence of wheat and weeds, and in what Christ teaches his disciples about what to do with that co-existence, is something that is important to Christian life. For in the fact that God’s promises of good always meet with resistance and with friction is born a very specific way of life, and faith itself. In the fact of friction is born the need for patience. As St. Paul says in this morning’s epistle lesson, it is out of the world’s groaning to be born that we learn patience.
Patience is required, of course, simply because good and evil are mixed and will remain so until the kingdom comes. Therefore, we need to hold our horses, as it were. Impatience isn’t going to make things happen faster any more than the magical thinking engaged in by a taxi driver who honks his horn to make traffic move. But patience is more than that. Patience is more importantly the activity of Christian faith. Patience is what Christian faith does in the world in the face of evil.
This might sound rather paradoxical as patience and waiting would seem to be a lack of activity. But consider the parable again. When the servants discover that weeds are growing alongside the wheat, they want to pull them up. But the farmer tells them not to separate the two. Instead, they are to wait for the end to make that separation so that the wheat is not harmed. Now, as I read this, at least as it applies to the question of how to live with the existence of evil, the farmer isn’t exactly telling them to do nothing about the existence of evil. He is telling them not to pluck up and destroy. He is telling them not to be violent. He is telling them that righteousness will triumph but it won’t triumph by their trying to destroy evil by attacking it by force. That would just perpetuate violence. Remember, while in the parable these are weeds, in real life, the evil that is being talked about here is people. So, in this case, righteousness, real righteousness which is what the sower wanted to plant, requires another way of being than we are used to. What, then, is the alternative to violence and force brought on by impatience? It is not doing nothing. It is, instead, simply patience. Patience is not passivity, but the way of living of the one who is not violent and does not use force to try to make good appear. Patience is a way that we treat others, and a way of life that lives with evil but is not evil.
What I want to suggest is that, in a world where good and evil always seem to be mixed up, there are such things as “works of patience.” What might these be? Psalm 37 suggests these things: “Trust in the Lord and do good... Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act...Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently...Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret, it only leads to evil.” Trust, commitment, delight, stillness, waiting, and refraining from anger and anxiety, these are works of patience. They let God act. They do not force things. They are ways of being faithful to God and others.
They can be contrasted with the works of impatience. Consider how the work of impatience is often undertaken. We see something that we think needs improving. We say, “Somebody needs to do something about that!” We then answer our own question by saying: “That somebody should be me!” We assume everybody will thank us. Then, in the course of trying to solve the problem, we trample all over process, all over fairness, all over respect for everybody else and their duties. We engage in a kind of mild, self-justifying violence. Not surprisingly, things don’t get better when self-designated leaders try to take over out of impatience. They usually get worse and nothing is ever improved in the long run by working this way. For whatever evil is forced out by violence and impatience is just replaced by new forms of violence and impatience. Patience works differently.
The works of patience are played out on all sorts of levels. They can be a part of dealing with everyday problems. But they can also be an incredibly important alternative to the way that we approach very big problems, too.
Let me cite Leo Tolstoy once more this year. In the later years of his life, Tolstoy wrote a lot on non-violence as a way of life. At the root of his thinking on all these issues was his reading of the Sermon on the Mount, from the Gospel of Matthew, which as a philosophy of life he took literally. Now, Tolstoy got a lot of resistance to his views. The Imperial Russian government did not appreciate Tolstoy’s constant efforts to get young men to avoid joining the army and his work was constantly censored by it. He was forbidden to publish. He also got a lot of philosophical resistance as well. Many thinkers the world over constantly criticized his literal appreciation of Jesus’ teaching as being unworkable. Imagine, they complained, if people did not resist evil with things such as police forces and armies and wars. Evil would run rampant. The idea of non-violence, they condescendingly conceded, is a nice idea, but it is utterly unworkable in this world where there is evil. Tolstoy’s response was simple: Of course, it is not workable with human beings as they stand. But these teachings were never meant to be workable in the world as it is. Jesus gave new teachings, and they required a new way of life. They were never meant to fit into the old way at all. They were meant to replace it. And, of course, they had to replace it, because simply to repeat the old violences, which everybody everywhere always does in the name of justice, just means that the old violences continue unabated. When one tries to get good by violence and force, well, then, the weeds win and so does the one who sowed them. Now, Tolstoy was often a man who was personally irascible and impatient. But he understood well the works of patience, even if he wasn’t always good at their finer points. But, in the hands of others who were more personally patient than he, people such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., his writing on the works of patience did give way to a better way of life.
Jesus tells the disciples that they are not to rip up the weeds. He tells them to have the patience that trusts that God will make good on his promises, and that Jacob’s dream will come true. But never forget that in telling them to have patience he is not telling them to do nothing, nor is he telling them just to have less violence than other people. He is telling them how to live with resistance and with friction by developing the works of patience. To live like that, to live practicing the works of patience is to trust that God will provide, and that God will change the world and transform his people. That alone will realize the dream of the ladder that ascends to heaven.