These are extracts from my sermon today on the Parable of the Wheat & the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 34-43).
I’m sure you’ve all heard this before: “I don’t like church because of all the hypocrites there.”
Story: A woman tells her Pastor she is going to leave his church because of all the hypocrites. He tells her first to walk around the church three times holding a full glass of water, and if she doesn’t spill it, then she can leave. She does so and reports back. He asks if she noticed any of those people while she was carrying the water, she answered no. He pointed out that she was concentrating on the water; similarly in worship she should be concentrating on the Lord, not the shortcomings of others.
This is an illustration of prioritizing our attention in church. Yes there may be ‘problem people’ in the pews, but that’s no reason to leave, or even necessarily to kick them out.
Today’s parable shows us that hypocrites will always be found in the church.
One of the difficult dynamics in church life is what you do with people who aren’t “getting with the program,” so to speak. Sometimes you see people sitting in the pews and you can’t help but wonder if they even care about the Gospel, if they really love Jesus, if they really believe what the Bible says. Sometimes you see people sitting in the pews whom you know they aren’t believers. They’re there for the fellowship, or the worship experience (be it contemporary or traditional), or perhaps even a sense of duty drives them to church attendance. What should we do about people like that, kick them out if they don’t believe?
According to our Articles of Religion, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (Article 19). Some take this to mean that only the faithful belong in church, and the rest should be ostracized until they repent – there have been some Protestant traditions in which that happened. But notice the Articles doesn’t say the visible church is exclusively faithful people; there is room for recognition of people who attend and participate but are not actually believing Christians. Some of them will repent and believe later, some of them will not. What the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds teaches us is that we should not kick those people out. It can be discouraging, even frustrating, to have people sitting in the pews next to you who don’t believe the Gospel they’re hearing preached to them week after week. But we must not chase them away.
We must not chase them away for two reasons. First of all, we do not know if or when they will repent, turn to Christ, and be transformed from weeds into wheat. If people instigate a purge and try to “purify” the congregation, potential new disciples could be lost forever. If people want to come to a place where they will hear the Gospel, by no means should we stop them. The other reason we shouldn’t root out the weed-members of a church is explained in the Parable itself: the good wheat could be uprooted and destroyed by accident. Those unbelieving churchgoers might be friends or family members of others who do believe; if we kick them out, we risk kicking out the whole family or group of friends! Even worse, such an act could be misinterpreted as a witch hunt, and the faith of other church members could be damaged simply by witnessing it. No, as Jesus said, we must leave the weeds among the wheat, and let God’s angels sort out who’s who at the End of Time.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean the Church is powerless to deal with troublemakers. Other passages of Scripture, such as in Matthew 18, explicitly deal with the godly process of helping impenitent sinners to reconcile with Christ and His Church. There is, as a last resort of church discipline, an act called excommunication – a removal from Communion. This is reserved for people who openly, publicly, and explicitly defy the Gospel of Christ, either by word or deed, and refuse all correction and godly counsel. Only after due process is someone removed from the communion of the Church, meaning they cannot receive Holy Communion or any other sacramental rite or ministry except Pardon & Absolution once they repent. Even at this extreme, though, the Church’s hope and goal is restoration: the apostate (person cast out) is only removed for the protection of those in the Church, and with the intention that they’ll see their removal from Christ and be moved to return to Him.
So when we look at the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, and note that the Weeds are supposed to remain, we find that speaks mainly to the “nominal” believers – people who blend in with Christians and cause little to no offense in the Church. A helpful illustration for this clarification is found in some of the older translations of the Bible, in which the weeds are called “tares.” Tares are a sort of weed that closely resembles wheat, especially when they’re small. Only when they’re grown large is it clear that the tares are weeds, not wheat, and by then it’s too late to pull them out of the ground without uprooting the wheat. Thus this Parable does not forbid all manner of Church discipline, but it does forbid witch hunts, persecutions, and, I might dare to say, other things like the Spanish Inquisition.
As for us, individually, what do we take home from this Parable? Like the Parable of the Four Types of Soil that we heard last week, we can examine ourselves to evaluate if we’re living more wheat-like or weed-like. Just as God can remove the rocky sinful heart and replace it with a heart of flesh (one that is truly alive), so too can God transform a weed into a wheat. Instead of scrutinizing the hypocrisy and spiritual wastefulness of others, therefore, this Parable should move us to consider our own growth in God’s field.
The weeds, or tares if you like, resemble wheat, especially when they’re new. We can’t just look on outward appearances; we have to look at the heart and mind inside. Traditional catechesis, that is discipleship and training for believers, strives to pass the faith from three different angles: the faith believed, the faith expressed, and the faith enacted. We ought to scrutinize ourselves in all three areas.
The faith believed: Do you affirm the teachings of the Church? Do you check with the Bible to confirm the ideas about God that you think up, and the ideas about God that you hear from others? Ponder the Creeds, read them and pray them often; let your knowledge of God be shaped by His Church rather than by the world that opposes Him.
The faith expressed: What does your worship life look like? Do you pray both with the Church and on your own? And how do those types of prayer inform each other? Ponder the Lord’s Prayer, use it often; let your love for God mirror who he has revealed himself to be rather than simply what you want Him to be.
The faith enacted: Do you act like a Christian? Do you strive to keep your words and your activities blameless before the Judge of All? Ponder the Ten Commandments, examine yourself according to their summary of the Law; let your lifestyle be one fitting of a student and child of the King, rather than the sinful riffraff that He rescued you from.
As you undergo self-examination, scrutinizing your heart, heart, and hands, you will always find room for growth. We will never see perfection in ourselves this side of Judgement Day. But as long as we are growing closer to Christ, we know we aren’t growing away from Christ. Focus on receiving Christ daily in every corner of your life, and eventually the fruit of the Spirit will begin to emerge. Don’t be fooled by outward appearances; be honest and real with yourself before God, and let Jesus the Good Farmer (and his assistants) minister to you.
Let Psalm 86:11 be your prayer today: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear thy name.”