Just when I thought this week that I could hear no more tales of misery and grief from poor, wretched, starving, bombed and disease-wracked Yemen – where cholera is rampant and Covid 19 claims the lives of a quarter of all those that contract it, I did.
Incredibly, this year already some one hundred thousand desperate Ethiopians fleeing famine and fighting in their own country have crossed by boat to Yemen hoping from there to travel into Saudi Arabia and find work. But in recent months, gangs of Yemeni thugs and traffickers have rounded up exhausted Ethiopians as they have stumbled on to Yemen’s shores, imprisoned, abused and tortured them, releasing them only on payment of money from their families back in impoverished Ethiopia. The cruelty is mind-numbing.
Last week, in his most helpful and beautifully illustrated talk, Mark cautioned us against listening too often to the news. I have tried to heed his counsel but did watch a documentary about elections in Kenya and of the courageous attempt of a young Kenyan of great integrity running for Parliament. He was not elected – the bribes of the bullies won the day – and thirty or more who had threatened their election chances were murdered. ‘For how much longer must we endure this?’ shouted a disappointed supporter of the young man who was not elected.
And it is out of a background similar to this, charged with the same emotion that prompted Jesus to tell the three parables which are before us today. Each deals with growth and all emphasize the need for patience.
Let me explain! Jesus was hugely popular. The crowds enormous. His teaching riveting, while his touch brought sight, help and hope to thousands. It was a time of great excitement and expectancy.
But if his hearers were travelling a road in Palestine, they had to get off it to make way for Roman soldiers, the greed of the empire’s hated, quisling tax collectors knew no bounds, while at many crossroads there hung on crosses the moaning bodies of their fellow countrymen who had offended Rome.
In the hearts of many of his hearers and on the lips of some, would have been the anguished cry, ‘How much longer?’ And there would have been some, even among his own immediate followers, urging him to ‘go for it, rout the Romans and bring in your kingdom.’
Parable of the Tares
The Parable of the tares sounds strange to our ears and with its later detailed explanation some may feel uncomfortable. But apparently, the practice of deliberately sowing weeds – and the text here actually indicates poisonous weeds in a rival’s corn field – was common. Roman law actually covered such an eventuality. The farm labourers – so keen to uproot immediately the weeds and cautioned against doing so, represent perhaps, the hot heads, the up and at ‘ems among Jesus’ followers.
The message of the parable is simple – there will come a day when all people will be called by God to account, and while for some that will be glorious – for others it will be bleak. It is a message that runs throughout Jesus’ teaching and is especially prominent in the parables. It is not a topic often spoken of or addressed. Graphic medieval pictures featuring the torments of the occupants of hell and, the threat of hell sometimes held over congregations by fervent preachers hoping to persuade their people to opt for heaven have caused many to jettison judgement from their thoughts of God altogether. Many opt instead for an indulgent, genial God of their own making, ready to overlook our prejudices, infidelities and cherished grudges and their consequences. But that’s not an option Jesus leaves us, nor do I really think is one we would want him to.
There comes to mind that challenging refrain about Aslan, in several of CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, namely, ‘He’s not a tame lion!’ And some words in a similar vein come in that wonderful book The Go-Between-God: ‘We are looking for a sensible family-size God dispensing pep pills or tranquilizers as required with the Holy Spirit who is a baby’s comforter; no wonder the Lord of terrible aspect is too much for us.’ The theme of judgement is inescapably there in the teaching of Jesus and I have suggested we would not want it any other way.
What otherwise of the murderers of Srebrenica, the tyrants and despots who strut the world’s stage causing misery to millions of their own, or those who from the comfort of luxurious, air-conditioned offices can do the same through manipulating the world’s money markets? But lest we grow smug, we would be wise to remember Jesus’ caution that we will be called to account for every reckless word we utter. (Matthew 12.36)
Consider the source
This is a popular saying in our family, especially after hearing a particularly outrageous statement. They are good to ponder when thinking about Jesus and his solemn words on judgement, for the one who spoke them was the same one who with infinite tenderness said to a frightened woman in a jostling crowd, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’ And who, standing on a hillside, wept for a city whose destruction he so accurately foresaw. There is about Jesus both an aching tenderness and compassion but also at times a terrible severity.
The example of Pope Francis
There is much speculation today on, ‘What after Covid 19? – globally, nationally and in our churches and I don’t think we have even begun to see the extent of the fallout from it. Pope Francis has spoken of the need now for conversion in our care for the planet, urging us ‘not to go back to where we were’, and John Bell of the Iona Community recently asked, ‘Will we continue to live so irresponsibly that we will have to take our grandchildren to see the insects and animals we once enjoyed in the wild?’
I have, over the past months of lockdown, spent many long nights at the Samaritans listening to calls – fearful, bewildered, frustrated, angry and desperate – cries growing more shrill with each passing week.
One day after one such night, I read some other words of Pope Francis; they seemed so timely. ‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security. If there is something which should rightly disturb and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation borne of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life… My hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security… within habits which make us feel safe while at our door people are starving while Jesus does not tire of saying to us; ‘Give them something to eat.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, Joy of the Gospel)
May God give us the grace, faith and courage with the Pope to both embrace and help heal a gasping planet and , to point its anxious and desperate people gladly to Jesus Christ our Saviour and our Judge.