Subversive stories

Professor Sarah Mortimer
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity


Holy Eucharist

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In 1565, in the relative safety of Elizabethan London, an Italian refugee called Jacob Acontius published a book that he knew was both ambitious and incendiary.  It was called the Strategies of Satan, or the Devil’s Cabinet-Councel DISCOVERED.    Satan, Acontius argued, was the oldest and craftiest fox in the world, and he’d found that the best way to hinder the spread of truth was by turning Christians against each other.   Certainly Acontius had good reason to believe this – the Reformation was bringing division all around him and he himself had been travelling through Europe in the hope of finding a place that would accept him and his own, heterodox ideas of faith.  Eventually he came to England, now open to Protestant exiles after the death of Queen Mary.  The Church of England was quite open-minded, by contemporary standards, but it wouldn’t have him, so he joined the little Dutch Church in London, itself a disparate group of refugees from the Low Countries and beyond.  But even this most radical of churches threw Acontius out, and though he remained physically safe, he never found a spiritual home.

            In the book itself, Acontius described in colourful detail all the means and strategems Satan used to stir up Christians to oppose and exclude each other.  For him, this devilish ruse is a travesty of the true message of the Gospels.  Instead, he claimed, at the heart of Jesus’ message is an attitude of inclusion and openness, an attitude demonstrated most clearly in the parable we heard in our reading today: the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  The story is probably quite familiar to us, another agricultural tale about sowing and seeds…  But Acontius’s fate reminds us that this is a deeply subversive parable, one which challenges some of our dearest assumptions, in the church, in society, in our own lives.  If we attend to it closely, we will find in it the means to resist some of what Acontius saw as Satan’s most deadly ploys, particularly the temptation to weed out the impure and troublesome in the name of our own vision of God.

            In Matthew’s explanation, it is the final judgement which is emphasised – the moment when the evil doers will be thrown into the blazing furnace.  But in the parable itself the focus is a little different, on the servants who are bewildered by the sudden growth of weeds in the field they tend.  They know their master sowed good seed and they cannot understand how this disaster has occurred – but like good servants they are willing to go and sort it out.  How much more bewildered are they, then, when their master tells them to leave the weeds be, not only to allow them to grow in the field but to nourish and nurture them, just like the wheat.  In this field, the field which is the kingdom of God, the good servant is not the one vigilant in protecting their master’s crop but the one who tends all that is growing, who makes no distinction in their watering between the seeds and the plants, between wheat and weeds.  Matthew’s Jesus tells us that God sends his sun and rain on all people, the good and the bad, and that if we wish to garden in his field, in his kingdom, we too must tend and steward all the plants we find.

            But that is not to say that the parable is not also about judgement.  Indeed, it is precisely because the plants will eventually be separated that the servants in the field can leave them alone.  Their attitude of generous acceptance is made possible because they trust their master, they know that he will, in his own good time, harvest the field and gather the wheat.  Their neighbours, watching the weeds grow higher and higher, probably think that the servants are lazy, ignorant or untrustworthy but we know they are not.   Instead, they are allowing the field to grow just as their master wishes, cultivating a diversity that will lead to more and better wheat.   What they are doing may seem strange, as if they don’t really care perhaps, but they are working to their master’s timetable, not to their own ideas of what makes for a pure and neat looking field.  They are willing to accept his plan, to rest content in their knowledge the field will flourish.

Indeed, the power of the parable comes, in part, from its recognition that we crave certainty, that we need to know that what is right and true will endure and that what is wrong and hateful will be destroyed.  The parable does not deny these impulses, nor suggest that they are wrong in themselves.  Jesus offers us certainty, but it is the certainty of God’s good judgement in God’s good time, judgement that we cannot pre-empt or hasten or even try to imitate.  By trusting in that certainty we can learn to let go of our own definitions and boundaries, all the ways we judge others or try to insist on our own group purity, at the expense of those beyond.  For the purity that God wants from us now is not the kind that polices rules and beliefs, but the openness of heart that enables us to be generous and attentive to everyone, whether we see them as right or wrong, in or out.  Yet this is not relativism or acceptance of everything, it’s not an attitude of ‘anything goes’, and it is not an acquiescence in injustice or blindness to suffering.  It is the difficult and demanding task of nurturing all the field, of working for each other and valuing each other, but leaving the judgement to God.  

            Back in Acontius’s time, a generation or so after Martin Luther, churches were busy making confessions of faith, statements of theology that people had to sign up to – not least so the official ministers could clamp down on any unorthodox writers and throw them out.  Today we don’t exile or excommunicate so much, at least not around here, but the impulse to draw boundaries and shun the unfamiliar is still here.  We’ve felt that all the more acutely in these past months as we have been challenged to confront the legacy of our own past exclusions, of racism, sexism, and all the prejudices that have stunted our growth in this, God’s field.  Prejudices which have all too often been defended by the church, in misguided efforts to do the work of judging and excluding  - the work which Acontius saw as one of the chief strategies of Satan and against which he invoked this parable so powerfully. 

It's tempting in every community to want certainty and purity, tempting to want a church that is clean and tidy and that conforms.  But we find in Jesus’s words a radical challenge to this age-old human pattern.  For this parable, like so many, is a story of resistance and subversion, for us no less than Acontius; each parable is a story offering new vistas and new ways of living.  They hold out to us the promise of open, inclusive, generous love which God gives us and asks us to show to each other in return.  And they remind us that it is through this love that we find our own delight and fulfilment, the courage to be open to others, and to work together for the flourishing of all creation.