Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The peril of judgment: Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

In every era, the church must find ways in which to speak the language of the times. Our vocation as preachers of the Good News depends absolutely upon our ability to proclaim the gospel in such a way that it engages the zeitgeist. This has always been difficult, but never more so than during those periods of time when the basic philosophical orientation of a culture is in flux. A cursory reading of history will reveal that the church has a record that could charitably be described as “uneven” during these challenging times.Today the greatest challenge facing the church is arguably the challenge to move from preaching in the spirit of modernism, with its delightfully comforting dualistic categories of good & evil, godly & worldly, gay & straight, toward preaching in a postmodern culture, where the value (and even the reality) of such hard and fast categories are increasingly called into question. In 2008, Ron Allen reminded readers of Homily Service that Jesus had addressed both the difficulty of making such hard and fast distinctions, and the wisdom of attempting to act upon them when he wrote an exegesis of this week’s Gospel lesson: Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43.

Some folk presumed to know fully and finally whom God would condemn. Others were uncertain as to whether their interpretation of God’s purposes was really adequate. Members disagreed with one another regarding how to respond to others who were drifting away. Allegorically, the field is the world. Jesus (the Son of Man has sown the good seed of alerting the world to the realm and some have embraced it. The devil, however, has sown bad seed in the world (evil) and some have allied themselves with it. In the early stages of growth, it is almost impossible to distinguish tender wheat from young weeds. The farmer (congregation) should let them grow together, trusting that at the apocalypse, God will send angels to gather the evil ones and destroy them, while the righteous “will shine like the sun.” The parable cautions the followers of Jesus not to assume the role of judge, but to be patient in the confidence that God will make the final determination especially with regard to ambiguous situations. In our culture, so quick to judge, this message is often welcome. We need to be patient with some of the ambiguities of history. However, this text raises the issue of the limits of tolerance. Is it sometimes necessary for a congregation to draw the line? If so, what are the criteria for coming to such a conclusion? [From Homily Service, 41.3 (11 May 2008 – 31 August 2008), pp. 109-110]
Indeed, the question remains “what are the criteria?” In 1996 Fr. Robert F. Capon applied this dilemma to the question of the forgiveness of clerical sin in particular when he said, “The hardest thing is to teach a two-year-old that a long stick has two ends: the one she’s holding with a short grip to move her doll furniture around on the coffee table, and the other that’s knocking her mother’s Limoges off the mantelpiece. Fuss long enough with running sinners out of ministerial employment, and you’ll knock all the crockery of grace off the church’s shelf.” (The Romance of the Word: Eerdmans 1996, p. 7.)

Ronald J. Allen is the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Preaching and New Testament at
Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the author of many books in the area of homiletics, most recently A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Really Believe.

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