July 13, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Author: Scott Hoezee
The “Parable of the Weeds” is part of a cluster of parables that has to do with God’s kingdom (and the Year A Lectionary is dealing with these various parables one at a time). It is also one of several that has to do with seeds and agriculture. Over and again Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of God is never quite what you might expect.
The Parable of the Sower made clear that although the “seed” of God’s Word is powerful enough to change the world, it is at the same time oddly vulnerable, too. It can be snatched away by birds, burned up by the sun, choked by thorns. The parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast indicate that the kingdom is far smaller and more subtle than you might guess. The kingdom is the single most powerful and important reality in the world, but it does not have the flash, glitz, or razzle-dazzle you ordinarily associate with mighty movements of history.
Much of that is shocking. Apparently God would rather work behind the scenes. Apparently changing people’s hearts is a quiet and gracious business more than a noisy and forceful affair. What’s more, the growth and spread of this kingdom is going to extend throughout the world but it may never exist in a pure state. To make that point Jesus tells a parable. A farmer carefully plants an entire field of wheat. His furrows were pin-straight, his wheat seed was of the finest quality. He did it all right and went to bed that night content that he had done everything he could to ensure a bumper crop some months down the road.
But while he took his well-earned rest, an enemy came in and, with equal care, planted weed seed in the same furrows. Worse, the weeds he planted were something called “darnel,” which looks almost identical to wheat. But if you don’t separate the darnel from the wheat before grinding, the resulting flour will be inedible. So once the wheat starts to grow, the farmer’s hired hands notice the presence of the weeds, and what’s more, they see it growing almost as uniformly as the wheat itself. This was no accident, no stray spores that drifted in on the breeze one day. This was an act of agricultural terrorism!
In a huff the servants ask the master farmer if he wants them to go and start plucking out these dastardly weeds. It was the logical thing to do. The last thing you wanted was for the darnel to go to seed because then even next season you’d still have a field full of weed seeds. But contrary to all agrarian good sense, the farmer tells the hired hands to leave it be. They’d sort it all out later at the harvest. If Jesus’ listeners knew anything about farming (and presumably a lot of Jesus’ audience did know about such things), then the shock of this story is the idea that any farmer would do nothing about such a situation. At least not right away.
But that’s probably a clue that this story is not about agriculture but instead it’s about theology. (The Bible is not The Farm Journal magazine: do not consult it for best agricultural practices!!). Overall, it is not too difficult to figure that out. Nevertheless, the disciples later come to Jesus to ask, “Could you spell things out for us a wee bit more?” Jesus obliges, but you can almost detect a little weariness in the rather dry way that Jesus connects all the dots for them in verses 37-43.
Have you ever told someone a joke that this other person just didn’t get? If so, then you know that your then trying to explain the joke pretty much takes all the fun out of it! Indeed, have you ever seen someone burst out laughing once you finished explaining a joke? Generally what happens is the other person responds to your explanation not with a laugh but by saying, “Oh, now I get it. Heh-heh. Very funny.”
But that was not the reaction you were looking for when you told your joke in the first place! So also in Matthew 13: there’s something a little dry about Jesus’ having to spell things out so simply for the disciples. The punch of the original story gets lost a bit. In fact, if you read only the parable, then in the end you are left wondering just what it might mean to let the wheat and the weeds co-exist and grow together for now. You ponder how and why pulling up the weeds would threaten also the wheat. And if you see that the wheat stands for the true members of the kingdom and the weeds for imposters, you end up wondering how you should behave when forced to grow right alongside of nettlesome folks.
That’s what happens if you read just the parable. But once you get finished reading the explanation, you are tempted to forget some of that and instead start rubbing your hands together because you feel so satisfied to know that all those annoying, “weedy” folks will get their comeuppance in the end. Suddenly you start to wonder less what it means to be wheat in the midst of weeds and start to focus more on that coming day when the roll is called up yonder and the weeds get burned at long last. After all, Jesus’ closing image of the righteous shining like the sun is stirring (all the more so when set to music in that well-known piece from the oratorio Elijah). It turns your thoughts away from the field and to the future.
But I want to suggest that although we accept and must understand our Lord’s explanation for his own parable, we need to be cautious about not missing the punch of the parable itself. Because the parable is not so much about all wrongs getting righted by and by but is more about our lives right now. At bottom this parable is about patience. This parable is not first of all about what will happen to the weeds at the last day but about how the wheat has to react during all the time that leads up to that final sorting out.
The farmer in the parable seems to believe that the weeds themselves won’t threaten the wheat–the two are capable of growing together. The weeds do not threaten the wheat but instead the threat comes from how we react to the weeds. The danger is not being in the presence of sin but trying to root out all the sin we see. But that means that the real challenge presented to the church by Matthew 13 is finding the strength to resist the temptation to take matters into our own hands and start yanking up every sinful thing we see every time we see it. As Robert Farrar Capon points out, when in verse 30 the master tells the servants just to “let” things be, the Greek word used there is the same word used in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere for “forgiveness.”
Those who have ears to hear . . .
Sometimes Jesus can startle us with the simplest of things. In Matthew 13:38, for instance, when Jesus spells out the parable to his befuddled disciples, he tells them that the “field” in question in this parable is ho kosmos. Most Bibles translate that as “the world,” and that’s accurate. And yet “cosmos” in both English and Greek can also stand for not just the earth but the whole of the universe, the whole of God’s creation. Apparently the scope of where the Son of Man is going to sow his good seed—and, alas, the scope of where the evil one will sow his counter-seed—is not limited but affects everyone. Maybe this is why, after the gospel began to be proclaimed, the Apostle Paul will say in Colossians 1 that the gospel has been proclaimed “to every creature under heaven.” In that same passage, Paul makes clear that Jesus and his gospel affected and applied to not just local concerns but to what Paul again and again describes as ta panta or, loosely translated, to “the whole kit-n-caboodle”! In other words, even this simple parable is not small and local. These words are literally cosmic in their sweep!
In my neck of the Reformed woods, an English professor named Stanley Wiersma used to delight folks with his Garrison Keillor-like musings on life in Iowa and in the churches of Iowa in particular, all written under the nom de plume of Sietze Bunning. In one of his more indelible portraits in the book Purpaleanie and other Permutations, we meet a man named “Benny” in a poem titled “Excommunication.” Benny Ploegster is an alcoholic who regularly attended church. For three years Benny had been under discipline: first a silent censure, then a more public censure that initially left his name out of the matter. Later it was announced publicly that it was indeed Benny who was under scrutiny. Three years is a long time to work with someone, and so finally Benny’s persistent struggle with the bottle led the church (and God, too, apparently) to run out of patience. So a deadline was set, and when Benny was unable to meet that deadline by cleaning up his act and repenting of his wicked, boozy ways, a date was set for the public excommunication.
Benny attended his excommunication.
He even stood in the midst of the congregation while the pastor solemnly read the standard form that designated Benny a “Gentile and a publican” with whom the church was to have no further association. Benny stood there and heard it all. As Wiersma put it, “It was not in protest, although the dominie [pastor] thought so, and it was not in stupidity, although the congregation thought so, that Benny stood up for excommunication and until he died of cirrhosis he attended as regularly as before. He did not partake of communion. Like Jacob wrestling with God and saying, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ our Benny was wrestling with us and with God. Though he lacked Jacob’s talent for articulation, his standing said as explicitly as its verbal equivalent: I will not be cut off as though I do not exist. I am God’s child, all right, God’s naughty child, but still God’s child: Benny. And what of us who attended church regularly out of custom and superstition and without much desire and without any questioning that we had a right to be there? What of us who had never wrestled like Benny? Though he did not intend it, by standing up to be excommunicated, was Benny excommunicating us? The church is gone now, the lumber used for a cattle shed, but in memory the place where Benny stood is forever holy ground. Was Benny excommunicating me?”
Sietze Bunning, Purpaleanie and other Permutations. Middleburg, Iowa: The Middleburg Press, 1978, pp. 55-57.
Author: Stan Mast
You don’t have to feel close to God for God to be near to you. You don’t have to reach out to God for God to come to you. And you don’t have to be a perfect person for God to bless you. Jacob is a case in point.
We are following the Hebrew Patriarchs on their journey through the Middle East with Yahweh, their covenant making and keeping God. They are not always saints, as we saw last week in those stories from Jacob’s life. Here’s the sequel of those stories. After cheating his older brother out of both his birthright and his blessing, Jacob is on the run from the murderous rage of Esau.
Oh, his mother has, once again, manipulated things so that Jacob’s departure from the family home in Beersheba appears to be a high-minded quest for a bride rather than a desperate flight for his life. But make no mistake, Jacob is the real villain in the story.
As his name indicated, he was a born deceiver, a habitual schemer, a smooth little weasel, and a half-hearted believer, if he was that at all (more on that in a moment). Most of us church folk would have a hard time even talking to such a scoundrel, so the thought that Jacob would be given this splendid vision of God may strike us as unreasonable and unfair.
There isn’t any evidence that Jacob himself expected any vision of a heavenly ladder. Some psychologically oriented readers might speculate that in this dream Jacob was simply projecting the expectations of his ambitious ego. But if we imagine our way into his psyche that night, a self-generated vision like this seems most unlikely. I mean, he was alone, away from the shelter of his mother’s tent for the first time in his life, exposed to the elements and wild beasts and robbers, not to mention his brother’s rage (who might have been right behind him, for all he knew).
His fears might have been deeper than his fear of Esau’s vengeance or the darkness of this place. I suspect that he was also haunted by the knowledge that he had done wrong. After all, he did possess enough inner honesty to admit his guilt when he said to his mother, “If my father happens to touch me, he will see that I am cheating him….” He knew he was a sinner.
There is no reason to suppose that as he lay his head on that stone, he prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” He was a man in isolation, alone with himself, far from home, from other humans, and most of all from his God. Or so we may think.
But as he fled his brother, his God followed him. There is only one explanation for what happened that night in that dark place—God’s amazing grace, his sheer unmerited grace. Contrary to the ever popular spiritual, the ladder Jacob saw in his dream was not “Jacob’s ladder.” He did not build a ladder to God and climb that “stairway to heaven” by a succession of good deeds and proper prayer. (Most scholars favor “stairway,” thinking of the ziggurats that were so common in the religions of the ancient Middle East.)
No, God built a stairway down from heaven to earth and then, standing atop that stairway, rolled down incredible blessings that shaped the rest of Jacob’s life. I love the way Kathleen Norris puts in her delightful book, Amazing Grace. “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in the open country, is not to strike him down for his sins, but to give him a blessing.”
What a blessing it was! Be sure to focus on that—not the special effects of this spectacular vision, the ladder/stairway, the angels going up and down, but the blessed word of God to this unbelieving sinner. Yes, unbelieving sinner—not only has Jacob shown a total lack of moral integrity, but also a lack of any real trust in God. In his egocentricity, he grabbed what God had promised to give him.
But God makes his promise anyway, again. God had already spoken part of the promise to Abraham and Isaac. Now God lets it be known that he will still keep his promise to and through a wretch like Jacob. And God makes it even more personal than ever. Not only will Jacob’s descendants inherit the ground on which he slept, but God will also be with Jacob in whatever happens and will never forsake him.
Make sure that your congregation gets the Gospel message here. This story shows us that God will speak and keep his promise to us, not because we deserve it, but because his is the way of forgiveness and restoration. We may be undeserving and unlovable, but we are so important to God that he lets down the ladder and comes to us. We simply do not understand the Bible and the Christian faith based on it if we do not understand this. It is the story of God invading the very center of our existence because he wants to find us, speak to us and bring us back to himself.
Jacob responds to this vision of God’s amazing grace in typically Jacobean fashion. First, he bursts into a jubilant and honest confession of faith. “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Words that any one of us might speak—God is with us and we don’t know it. As I said at the beginning of this piece, you don’t have to feel close to God for God to be near you. You don’t have to reach out to God for God to come to you. And you don’t have to be a perfect person for God to bless you. Well said, Jacob.
Overwhelmed with fear and awe, he continued to confess his newfound faith. “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Was it? Or is this the ecstatic exuberance of a man who knows the reality of God for the first time and gives his subjective interpretation of his experience. I say that in the light of later history, when the Temple in Jerusalem became the house of God and when, later still, Jesus said, “I am the gate….” (More on that later.)
Suffice it to say that this was the first time in his recorded life that Jacob confessed his faith in the God of his forebears. As far as we can tell, he had no personal encounter with God before this. He’s been raised with the knowledge of the God of Abraham and Isaac and he had been told the promises. So, the words of Yahweh in this dream would not have been brand new to him. But his early story gives no evidence that his upbringing had taken hold of his heart. He knew all about this stuff, but God was just a word, not a living part of his life. Until now.
This was the beginning of his conversion. It’s not done yet, not by a long shot. He will continue to wrestle with God in his scheming deceitful way. Do we hear that in the verses immediately after the Lectionary lesson? In verses 20-22, he seems to be bargaining with God. In the vow he makes, there’s a conditional character to his confession: “If God will be with me and will watch over me… and will give me food and clothes, so that I return safely to my father’s house, then….” Three conditions, followed by three commitments. If God takes care of me, then….
Listen carefully to the “then:” “then Yahweh will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” Even after this magnificent revelation of God’s grace and glory, Jacob isn’t ready to give exclusive loyalty to Yahweh until Yahweh gives him what he wants. He is still managing his life by his own efforts—“this stone that I have set up will be God’s house.” Who does he think he is? And his willingness to give his whole life to the God who has given him everything is not there yet; it’s only a tenth of what God has given him.
Before we get up on our Pharisaical high horse and criticize, we would do well to look in the mirror. How often is our commitment conditional? How far along the road to conversion are we? How much do we still think we can control our own destiny, even the form of our worship? How much are we willing to give back to the God who has given everything to us?
Including his own Son. As you preach on this story, don’t fall into the old story-with-moral trap. The story is about Jacob, of course, but ultimately it is about the God who is there even when we don’t know it, feel it, experience it, or believe it. It is about the God whose grace invades our lives in awesome ways, especially in the person of Jesus, the ultimate Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It isn’t a stretch to preach Jesus from this story, because Jesus used this story to preach about himself. As he was recruiting Nathaniel to be one of his 12 apostles, Jesus alluded to this story when he said, “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (John 1:43-51).”
The important thing to catch in Jesus’ words to Nathaniel is the change of position that has taken place. God is no longer at the top of the ladder; he is at the bottom. He is here with us. He is clothed in the rough clothes of our humanity. He is no longer restricted to an awesome and otherworldly revelation of his glory. He is one of us. Here at the bottom of the ladder, he is the very gate of heaven (John 10).
So, as we close our message, we can assure our people and ourselves that God is here, that God wants to bless us, that grace and mercy are available for all our needs. If we will lie down quietly at the foot of the cross, resting our weary selves on the Rock of Ages, we will discover that this is the house of God, the very gate of heaven—not because we are holy people, but because Jesus is here.
That’s true wherever we go, however far we may feel from God, however afraid and lonely and guilty we may feel, even if we have wrestled with God and lost. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, even though I may not know it.
The old pre-Civil War spiritual, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” was a mixture of commitment and confusion. As I’ve said, it wasn’t Jacob’s ladder. He didn’t build it and he didn’t climb it. Jesus is Jacob’s ladder and we get to heaven by trusting him. Think of Jesus as the escalator who carries us into the presence of God. But there is also something admirable about that old spiritual, because it expressed the dedication of enslaved people to soldier on with Jesus in spite of their conditions. “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, soldiers of the cross…. Sinner do you love my Jesus…. If you love him, why not serve him, soldiers of the cross.”
Kathleen Norris in Amazing Grace tells a marvelous story that helped me feel the power of Jacob’s experience with God. One day she was waiting at an airport, when her attention was captured by a young couple with a little baby. The baby was staring intently at passing people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried looking, he would respond with absolute delight, with the kind of whole body smile that only babies can give.
Norris writes, “It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become a gate of heaven. As I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted. And as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done” and see our face, a face he loves, even the two faced Jacob.
Author: Scott Hoezee
With some frequency you run across such sentiments in the Psalms if not in the wider Scripture. God is praised for being compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Language to this effect pops up in Psalm 86 too when you get to verse 15. But look closely: this is only partly a source of praise and happiness to this particular poet. Mostly, this has a bit of a Jonah-esque feel to it.
Jonah, of course, is the prophet who fled God’s call to preach repentance to the Ninevites not because—as is too commonly thought—he was afraid of failure. No, Jonah fled out of fear that he would be successful. Those rotten Ninevites would repent. And God would forgive them, more or less inviting them to be members of Israel’s otherwise Members Only Club of people who worship the one true God Yahweh. Well, one near shipwreck and one giant sea monster later and God gets Jonah to Nineveh after all where, sure enough, Jonah’s preaching is effective and also sure enough God relents from frying them all in some divine BBQ of judgment and wrath.
Jonah is fit to be tied about it and when God next catches up to him to ask “Why the long face, Jonah?” Jonah spits back at God that divine reputation he has for being compassionate and slow to anger and abounding in love and all that jazz. Long about the moment you wish God would have a bit of a short fuse to fry off Israel’s enemies and God instead relents. “I just knew you would be nice to those people” Jonah as much as says. God’s being “slow to anger and full of compassion” is not a counted-cross-stitch wall hanging of Christian encouragement. It’s an accusation on Jonah’s lips. It is nearly a lament!
Psalm 86:15 is not infused with that kind of angry bile. But, neither are these words about the divine character singularly being expressed here as a positive. The psalmist, after all, has just noted that there are ruthless people intent on ruining his life. He is asking for God’s protection from these people at a minimum but more than that, he’s asking that God flex some holy muscle here and smack these people around a bit so that the faith of the psalmist can be vindicated and the threat from this particular group of enemies may be quelled.
In this sense you can read Psalm 86:15 this way: “Look, O Lord, I know you can put up with a lot from even rotten folks like these ruthless and relentless enemies and all. You are hard to rouse in anger. You have got a lot of patience in your crankcase. I get that. But this time can you suspend all that for a bit and get moving against these people. My honor is at stake. Don’t just sit there and be all compassionate—DO SOMETHING!”
Deep down I suppose Jonah knew and this psalmist knew and we all still know that if the God of Israel, now revealed as also the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, really is full of compassion, mercy, and grace; if this God really is abounding in steadfast love, then this is cosmically good news for every one of us. It’s good news for every one of us because most of the time we are on the receiving end of all the saving and forgiving goodness this makes possible. Take away these divine character traits and we none of us would have too much reason to be certain we can be saved from our own sinfulness.
We know that. But when the sauce for the goose that we like when we are the goose becomes sauce for also the gander when the gander is someone we don’t like . . . then it gets a little tougher to accept (it might even make it a bit more likely for a time that we will forget that we need the same saving sauce in the first place). When we watch wicked people prosper without consequences, we seethe a little. Why doesn’t God do something to upend them and their plans and schemes?
When we seem to get in trouble each time we so much as utter a little fib but then when we see powerful people lie constantly with nary a ripple of consequence, we get a little upset. Where is God’s justice in all this? “If I did something like that even once, I’d be fired, my reputation would be in tatters, I’d be ruined. But THAT guy over there does stuff like that repeatedly and it seems only to enhance his life. Look, God, I know you are gracious and all but honestly . . .”
Maybe the psalmist knew this a bit more keenly than we sometimes do (or than old Jonah seemed to know it). After all, in verses 11-12 this poet asks God to show him God’s faithfulness so he can follow it and to give him an undivided heart so he can serve God. That would seem to indicate that the psalmist knows he cannot achieve righteousness or a holy lifestyle on his own. He will need infusions of help from his ever-patient, always-loving God to make it as a believer. Even so, when watching his enemies get away with stuff . . . well, he just has to ask God that despite all those good traits God has, please don’t let these people get away with this stuff forever, OK?
In the end we never are very good at figuring out just how God administers God’s own justice. We often hear a line quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.—and it has gotten quoted a lot in early 2020 in the wake of the racial reckoning that has come following especially the murder of George Floyd—that the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. Most of the time when that line gets quoted, though, the emphasis falls on the “long” part. We hope things are bending toward justice but in the meantime . . . it’s taking a while.
The psalmist may say something similar in the psalm’s last line: “Just give me a sign that you are on duty, O Lord” is what he essentially writes. Sometimes seeing a sign here and there is enough to bolster our faith. We live every day off the riches of God’s compassion and patience and grace and if all of that goodness sometimes means God is patient with also some people with whom we’d be OK with God’s not being so patient, well, we can deal with that perhaps so long as we see encouraging signs now and then, here and there, that things are headed the right direction.
One of the jobs of us preachers is to spotlight those signs when we find them in this world. We spotlight them in our preaching as part of our proclamation that God is on the move, that Christ is Lord, and that in the end God will be all in all.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the “Fellowship of the Ring” consists of four Hobbits, two men, one elf, one dwarf, and one wizard. The Hobbit Frodo Baggins is the ringbearer who has to do what he can to get the dreaded and evil Ring of Power back to the only place where its evil can be unmade: the evil land of Mordor. But early on in their quest this Fellowship gets fractured and two of the Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, leave the rest of the group and disappear for months on end. The rest of the Fellowship, including the wizard Gandalf and the other Hobbits, Pippin and Merri, have no idea where Sam and Frodo are or even whether they are still alive. It had been ages since they had any clue of their whereabouts. There had been no news, no signs they were still OK and trying to fulfill their quest.
But there is a wonderful moment—captured nicely in the Peter Jackson film—when Gandalf and the Hobbit Pippin run into Faramir who had only just recently encountered Frodo and Sam out in the wild. When Faramir catches sight of Pippin, the glint of recognition in his eye tells Gandalf and Pippin that this was not the first Hobbit Faramir had encountered recently. Indeed, he had just seen two other Hobbits named Frodo and Sam and for Pippin and Gandalf, this is the first sign in many weeks that Frodo and Sam were still alive. The look on Pippin’s face at this revelation is one of profound joy and wonderment.
So it can be for believers when we, too, now and then encounter signs that Jesus is on the move, that the kingdom is advancing. The poet at the end of Psalm 86 prays that God just give him a sign. And when such signs of hope come, our joy is great!
Author: Doug Bratt
Parents take better care of their attractive children than they do their less attractive ones. At least that’s what an article in the 2008 edition of The New York Times reported Canadian researchers discovered.
Researchers at the University of Alberta observed more than 400 parents’ treatment of their children during 14 different trips to supermarkets. They noted that the more attractive their children were, the more likely their parents were to belt them into a grocery cart seat. Homely children were more often out of the sight of their parents who frequently let them wander more than ten feet away.
Dr. W. Andrew Harrell, the executive director of the Population Research Lab at the University of Alberta and the research team’s leader saw an evolutionary reason for the findings. Attractive children, he insisted, get the best care because they represent the best genetic legacy. “Like lots of animals, we tend to parcel out our resources on the basis of value,” Harrell claimed. “There are a lot of things that make a person more valuable, and physical attractiveness may be one of them.”
Of course, more study is needed to determine if, in fact, parents actually treat their attractive children better than they do their more “homely” ones. But Romans 8’s proclaimers might invite our hearers to think about what would happen if God treated God’s attractive children better than God’s ugly ones.
Reformed Christians profess, “Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God.” However, we also profess that “we . . . are adopted children of God – adopted by grace through Christ.” If God were to treat God’s most attractive child the best, Romans 8’s proclaimers and hearers would be in much trouble.
Jesus Christ alone is, after all, God’s perfect Son. Even when Satan and his henchmen tempted him, he remained perfectly obedient to his Father’s will. Jesus’ followers are, as Paul implies in our text, considerably less perfect. So we are God’s naturally unattractive children.
Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contrasts the claims of living according to our sinful nature with the claims of living by the Holy Spirit. Living “according to the sinful nature” may take the form of blatant immorality or the pursuit of self-righteousness.
God’s adopted children confess that we have all too often willingly lived according to that sinful nature. We almost habitually choose our own righteousness over God’s righteousness, and disobedience over obedience.
For Paul, however, to live according to the sinful nature rather than by the Spirit is to choose death over life. Those who live as though we’re their own masters choose the death of hope and purpose, and eventually, if unchecked, eternal death.
To act according to God’s ways, to live by the Holy Spirit, is to, by contrast, choose life over death. Jesus’ followers who let the Spirit put to death our natural inclination to disobey God choose the lively way that has meaning and purpose. Those who imitate Jesus Christ in our thoughts, words and actions live in a way that leads to eternal life, not death.
So Paul isn’t offering two equally valid choices in Romans 8. Choosing between living according to the sinful nature and living by the Spirit isn’t like choosing between, for example, a Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich and a Burger King Whopper.
So Paul’s not calling Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters to somehow exercise our free will and declare our preference. Far too much is at stake here for that. Since this is a choice between life and death, there is no real choice to be made. We want to choose life.
Even God’s adopted children can’t, however, do that on our own. The notion of free will outside of God’s redeeming work is a myth. Satan, sin and death naturally enslave even our choices, our will. You and I naturally choose to disobey God.
However, God’s Holy Spirit doesn’t leave us enslaved to Satan and his thugs. The Spirit graciously frees God’s sons and daughters’ wills, giving us an identity and moving us to gladly obey the Lord. So God’s adoptive children don’t gladly lead lives of self-interest and self-direction. Our stature and status as God’s children determine both our identity and our behavior. God, after all, as Paul notes in verse 15, did not give us “a spirit that makes” us slaves “again to fear.”
Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a remarkable novel. While some of the events it describes make it almost unbearable to read, it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read in years.
Amir, a child growing up in Afghanistan in the late sixties and early seventies, narrates The Kite Runner. He’s a kind of “slave to fear.” Young Amir’s fear, of his father, physical harm and several other things motivates nearly everything he does.
Particularly poignantly, Amir’s fear prevents him from stopping bullies from mercilessly torturing his servant and friend, Hassan. Eventually, however, he begins to break out of his slavery to fear. Much of the good that Amir does later in The Kite Runner is motivated by his newfound courage.
By God’s grace, because God has adopted us as God’s sons and daughters, Romans 8’s proclaimers and hearers aren’t slaves to fear. Christians’ fear of Satan, suffering, death, judgment or anything else no longer motivates us.
God has, after all, graciously freed God’s dearly beloved people from all fear in order to joyfully serve the Lord. In fact, the Spirit empowers God’s adoptive children to obey God not even out of fear of God, but out of an eagerness to thank God for God’s gift of salvation.
This Holy Spirit moves Christians to cry, “Abba, Father,” an emotional, passionate, intimate and yet also public name for God. It’s the same intensely personal, even desperate way Christ addresses his heavenly Father in Gethsemane. After all, Mark 14:36 reports that he cries, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
“Abba” certainly has a very intimate flavor. Some have compared it to our own word “Daddy.” However, “Abba” isn’t exclusively personal. It certainly isn’t a sentimental term for our heavenly Father.
After all, our God who in Christ and by the Spirit’s power adopts us as God’s children is also almighty and awesome. So our address to “Abba, Father” conveys the same spirit as our address to our “Father who art in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer. It recognizes that our heavenly Father is also the majestic creator of heaven and earth who also cares for all things God has made, including us, God’s puny, adoptive children.
However, because God is almighty God, even God’s adopted children would never dare call God “Daddy” unless the Holy Spirit prompted us to do so. It makes me think of the two ways of addressing another person in German: with the formal “sie” and the more informal “du.”
Traditionally, one always addressed another person with the more formal “sie.” It was considered cheeky to address a person more informally. In fact, many Germans traditionally had a kind of ceremony that included a toast and a handshake that moved your conversation from the formal “sie” to the informal “du.”
Christians’ natural relationship to God would be the far more formal one. I’ve even heard Germans pray using the more formal language. By the Holy Spirit, however, God gives God’s adoptive sons and daughters the right to refer to God more informally and intimately. Because of what Jesus Christ has done for us, God gives us the right to call the Creator and Sustainer of all things “Daddy.”
God’s adoptive children, however, don’t just have the freedom to gladly obey and call God “Daddy.” After all, “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (17).
Of course, since we’re still “heirs,” we haven’t yet received our full inheritance. We’ll fully claim our inheritance only in the future. Yet Christians know what we’ll inherit. God’s adoptive children will inherit the free, unlimited and unrestricted enjoyment of God’s glory in the new creation.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ is no longer an “heir.” He has already received his inheritance. God’s only natural Son now rules with our heavenly Father in glory. God’s adoptive sons and daughters, Christ’s “co-heirs” who suffer with him can expect someday to share in that inheritance. God’s adoptive children who suffer in taking up our crosses and following Jesus will share in his great glory in the new heaven and earth.
The reality of that adoption in some ways sets this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers apart from those outside of God’s family. Yet by professing this separates us, we don’t mean that it isolates us from those who aren’t Christians.
Rather God’s adopted sons and daughters’ newfound status sends us right to those who aren’t yet God’s adoptive children with a new kind of concern. After all, we love those outside God’s family with the kind of love that is in God, that was revealed in Jesus and that God pours into our hearts by the Spirit.
In 2007 one of India’s oldest and richest family business’s fights over an inheritance transfixed the country. An eccentric citizen had left her $1.1 billion worth of assets to her auditor. That heir, however, didn’t just stand to inherit the full estate. He was also in line to completely control of one of the family’s companies and have a say in the way the family ran many of its other businesses.
Of course, family members insisted that, with the rest of the estate being worth about $9 billion dollars, they weren’t interested in the wealth that was at stake. “It is a question of the family’s honor,” they, of course, maintained. “We are fighting to keep an outsider and a trespasser away from the family, its heritage, and its method of functioning.”
God is prepared to leave God’s children an inheritance that’s worth immeasurably more than billions of dollars. Yet God’s adoptive children have no need to fight over that inheritance. God, after all, doesn’t treat God’s attractive son, in fact God’s only natural Son, Jesus, better than God’s treats God’s homelier children like you and me.
Nor does Christ begrudge his adopted brothers and sisters our share of our amazing inheritance. In fact, he gave his co-heirs our share of that inheritance by willingly living, dying and rising again from the dead for us.