Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Wheat and the Tares: About the Church or the World?

Our regular pastor, Laurence Mitchell, is now recovering from open heart surgery (please pray for him), so a retired pastor, Pastor Fiene, preached in his place (and will be doing so for through August). Today's Gospel pericope was the parable of the wheat and the tares. This is familiar to us all, how we need to tolerate people in the church and be careful in applying discipline, lest good people be thrown out - - NOT! As we were reading together (in Faith Lutheran Church, the Gospel reading is read together by the congregation), the Lord's interpretation struck me: "the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the weeds are the children of the wicked one." The world - - not the church. Huh?

Sure enough Pastor Fiene's sermon focused solely on standing firm for the word, being Christian wheat in a field full of weeds, and our need to be open in our witness, as our duty to our Lord. Nothing about hypocrites in the church at all. (Unfortunately the sermon isn't taped or on line, but that's the gist.) So it seems that the parable isn't implicitly asking the question, "why should we allow bad people to remain in the church?" but rather the question, "why does not God wrap up the whole show right now and gather in His harvest?" Put that way, it suddenly reminded me of a common theme in second century literature, that Christians are the soul of the world, for whose sake the world exists. The Epistle to Diognetus (section 6) writes:

To put it shortly, what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world . . . The soul has been shut up in the body, but itself sustains the body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, but themselves sustain the world.

In the Shepherd of Hermas (visions II.4), the author has a vision of an old lady, which is interpreted for him by an angel in a dream as follows:

"Who is she, then?" I said. "The Church," he said. I said to him, "Why then is she old?" "Because," he said, "she was created the first of all things. [Here the church is seen as going back to Adam and the godly line descended from Seth.] For this reason is she old; and for her sake was the world established."

The world was also sustained by the prayers of the Christians. As the editor of the Epistle to Diognetus notes, the apologist Aristides (section 16) wrote:

I have no doubt but that the world stands through the intercession of Christians.

Tertullian in his Apology magnifies the importance of Christian church prayers given for the emperors of Rome, by saying,

There is another need. a far greater one [than merely hoping to preserve peace and quiet for themselves], for our praying for the Emperors, and for the whole estate of the empire and the interests of Rome. We know that the great force which threatens the whole world, the end of the age itself with its menace of hideous suffering, is delayed by the respite which the Roman empire means for us [cf. 2 Thes. 11:6-8]. We do not wish to experience all that; and when we pray for its postponement are helping forward the continuance of Rome.

The original message of the parable is thus not "Go easy in church discipline and tolerate the existence of hypocrites within the church," but rather that the end of the world is averted for the sake of Christians, who as growing wheat might not be able endure the end of the world.

This pericope has sparked a number of posts: Chris Williams, the Pietist (on his own account and citing Martin Luther), and Michael Liccione at Pontifications.

Originally posted at Here We Stand