In the Name...
A fiery preacher was once banging his pulpit and regaling his flock on the torments of Hell including weeping and the gnashing of teeth when one old fellow had had enough of this rant and stood up with his dentures in his hand and shouted, "I ain't got no teeth." Unfazed, the preacher glared at him and said, "Teeth will be provided."
The wisdom of Solomon is proverbial, but, I think the late King Feisal of Saudi Arabia might run a close second. Early in his reign, it seems, he was confronted with a difficult problem. A man had been sleeping under a palm tree while another man was in the tree collecting fruit. The man in the tree slipped and fell and landed on the sleeping man killing him instantly. In accordance with tribal justice, the widow demanded the offender be put to death.
The king asked had the two men been enemies? Was the fall intentional? The widow replied that the men were complete strangers and the fall was not deliberate. The king then offered the widow money, but, she refused. The king tried to reason with her, to make her see that the death of this man would bring her no benefit. But, she was adamant. Finally, the king said, "Well, it is your right to demand his life, but, it is mine to decree how he shall die. He will be tied at the foot of the tallest tree and you shall be carried into it and dropped down upon him until he is dead." The woman decided to accept the king's money, after all.
Condemning those who are perceived to have done us harm, real or imagined, is a human tendency which is seriously challenged in today's scriptures.
One of the oldest questions with which Christians have struggled is: Why does God allow evil to exist? This is a real question and one which many good people have asked down the centuries. If God indeed loves good and hates evil, why doesn't he, in his goodness and love, blast all the bad people to tiny little pieces? Well, many have given many answers but, one which our lessons lead us to consider today is that God's apparent leniency is not a sign of disinterest or weakness. Rather it's a sign of his great strength. It's not a lack of character, but, the mark of an incredibly strong character because this leniency is literally heaped on everyone in sight.
Looking back into the Old Testament, the passage we heard today from the prophet Isaiah is part of a larger discourse on judgment and redemption. And in it Isaiah says that, in essence, even though God has the power to do whatever he wants, and so could destroy everything evil, what he really wants is for us to reject evil and return to him of our own volition. And that evil he wants us to reject includes making judgments on other people.
In another place it is shown that God's patience with Israel's enemies, and the opportunities he gives them to change their ways, is designed to give the people of Israel hope that when they offend or wrong God they too will benefit from his patience so that they can also repent and return to the Lord.
Indeed, if you notice, that while God often helps the Israelites defeat the Egyptians or the Philistines or the Babylonians or whoever, it's always on a case by case basis. He never wipes out all the Egyptians or all the Philistines or all the Babylonians or whoever wherever they may be throughout the world. You'd think he'd do that and permanently remove the threat, but, no, he doesn't. He doesn't make blanket judgments the way we humans often do.
This lesson of God's patience and appears also again in the Gospel. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a farmer who is confronted with a serious problem. His field is filled with both wheat and a weed called darnel which can only be distinguished from the wheat when the growth is well advanced. The farmer's servants want to root out the darnel, but, the farmer tells them to leave it alone. His worry is that, in their zeal and confusion, the servants will end up destroying the wheat as well. So he orders that both be allowed to grow - only at the final harvest when it is very obvious which is which will they be separated and then the weed which took advantage of and benefited from the care given the wheat will suffer a very different fate.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus reached out to all sorts of people: rulers and prostitutes, tax collectors and terrorists, children, widows, soldiers and lepers. Blanket condemnation of one group or another was something he refused to buy into. On the contrary, he scandalized everyone, even his closest followers at times, by making it his business to seek out those whom everybody else had written off. The Pharisees, whose name derives from the Hebrew verb to separate - "pharash", thus, the "separated ones" - the Pharisees constantly criticized him for associating with the wrong people. After all, if he was a man of God, how could he stand to be around the ungodly? Didn't he know he had to keep himself separate? But, Jesus knew, as God knows, that all communities are mixtures of people - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and, in reality, it isn't always easy to tell which is which.
We all know the story of the fellow who went to heaven and found it to be a glorious place with streets of gold and shining palaces. Then, in the distance he noticed what looked like a fortress, a dark foreboding structure surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire, and he asked what it was. "Oh", St. Peter, replied. "That's where the Southern Baptists live. They think they're the only ones up here."
St. Paul makes the same point in his first letter to the Corinthians when he says "There must be no passing of premature judgement. Leave that until the Lord comes." Note, however, that did not stop him from condemning individual behaviour that he found harmful or offensive. Indeed, he had a lot to say to the Corinthians about their need to shape up. And we need to remember Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, "Go and sin no more" - not, Be more discreet next time. The point is that God has standards and his patience is giving us the gift of time to discover those and see how they benefit us.
St. Paul knew first hand that we can be terribly wrong about people. After all, Paul himself got it terribly wrong about Jesus when, as a good Pharisee, he went around zealously hounding Christians, putting them in prison or even putting them to death. We don't realize this today, but, his reputation was so bad, that, after he converted, a lot of Christians didn't believe he was for real. So, Paul knew first-hand the up-hill struggle of overcoming the judgment that people had pronounced upon him.
The message of the parable still challenges us today. Man is not God. And it is not our business to pronounce the final judgment on anyone. Yes, there will be a Judgment Day and that is something we can and should let people know. But, the good hope of which Isaiah spoke is that there can be life changes before that day comes and the existence of that hope should never be denied - least of all by followers of Jesus.
So, we may give thanks that God is so generous with all those bad and ugly people. It means there's a chance for us, um, good ones, as well.
In the Name…