Proper 11A/Ordinary 16A/Pentecost +5
July 17, 2011
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
Whenever I am forced to interact with the medical establishment, I like to try to get my money’s worth. For example, whenever I have x-rays, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) or other images taken, I like to request copies to take home with me. I figure, my insurance is paying for them, so I should have them. I highly recommend this – it’s both educational and fun (not least for the look of utter bafflement on the poor receptionists’ faces).
This is what my brain looks like. You can clearly see the frontal lobe (the seat of Judgment and Decision-Making – not too badly damaged), the right and left hemispheres, etc. Many socio-biologists and philosophers conclude that all of what makes us human boils down to this picture. And they have a point. The brain controls a baffling amount of personality, perception, thought, language, and other things that fall into the “human” side of the “human being”. Dr. Oliver Sacks has demonstrated in books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat that when parts of the brain are injured, our sense of meaning and our very selves are fundamentally altered.
In Psalm 139, we can see many of the paradoxes of the human condition. On the one hand, we have a sense of the marvel of the physical human:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (vv. 13-15).
On the other hand, we have the disquieting feeling that all the wonderful stuff we are made of is hemmed in by something we can’t understand, which is much bigger than we are:
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (vv. 1-5).
Such is the dilemma of the human being. We were marvelously created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and yet we are still frustratingly limited, finite and mortal. We have infinite thoughts, desires and expectations, yet at the end of the day we are still tired and worn out.
Another image of the human condition comes to us from the Torah portion for this week – Jacob’s Ladder. As Jacob (son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham) is sleeping in the desert on his way to Haran, he has a dream “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (vv. 12). At the right is sculptor Phillilp Ratner’s rendering of Jacob’s Ladder. The twisting spiral ladder may bring to mind another ladder: The Crick-Watson model of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic code for all life (left). Rabbinic commentators, such as Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, have seen the ladder as a symbol of human existence on earth: “Like the ladder, each of us is firmly planted on earth–we are corporeal beings with bodily needs and earthly desires. But through religious practice and striving, we are capable of ‘reaching upward’”.
It is also telling that, in Jacob’s dream, Yahweh stands beside him, blesses him, and says that his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (vv. 14).
We are dust, (and to dust we shall go) but we are blessed dust! In our coming and going, up and down the ladder of life, the Lord stands beside us, affirming our nature. We are not completely Fallen (material), we are not unconditionally Divine (spiritual) – we are both! Yahweh promises Jacob (and us), “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (vv. 15). As we struggle with our dual nature, we are not alone. The unconditional, Covenant-backed love (Hebrew: chesed) of God goes with us.
The Gospel parable of the wheat and the tares (weeds) also addresses our dual nature. Jesus says to His followers, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well” (vv. 24-26). So there are both seeds and weeds in the Kingdom of God! When – in the parable – the planter’s servants helpfully offer to weed the field, the planter says “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (vv. 29).
Jesus later explains that the weeds (“the children of the evil one” – vv. 38) will be separated from the wheat (“the children of the Kingdom” – vv.38) at the harvest (“the end of the age” – vv. 40), and the weeds will be thrown into the fire “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv. 42). In spite of this alarming imagery, some commentators have taken away a more humane message: In God’s own time, using God’s own standards, God does the weeding – not us! William Loader, Murdoch University (Uniting Church of Australia), says that the message for us is, “Don’t weed! Never uproot people in your mind or attitude by treating them as no longer of any worth!” It is interesting to note that tares – the weed mentioned in the parable – look remarkably like wheat, so weeding by humans would indeed uproot the good along with the bad.
We have to live and grow with both wheat and weeds – in our own lives and in the lives of others. We are ladders that go both up and down, standing firmly on earth and stretching up into the heavens. We are fearfully and wonderfully made – and so is everyone else! Let us go in peace and keep that thought before us in all our dealings.