Saturday, July 29

Sermon on the Parable of the Tares (or Weeds or Thistles)

This is a difficult sermon for me to write. My initial instinct was to talk about either how parables aren’t meant to have a pat explanation despite the pat explanation the Gospel gives us, or to use the sparing of the weeds to talk about God’s mercy. But honestly either of those approaches began to seem to me like ignoring the elephant in the living room which is the final judgement and what I believe to be the common but false interpretation of the furnace of fire.

The furnace of fire is not Hell, or certainly not the Hell that’s commonly understood. I don’t believe Christ ever actually talked about a place where souls would be tortured for all time. He did, however, talk about a fire that would destroy the soul permanently.

Part of the struggle for me in writing this sermon is that my denomination is Universalist in its theology. We proclaim that everyone is saved. And there are passages in Paul’s letters that can be interpreted that way. And while, if I just follow my heart, Universalism rings true. Yet I have had to come to the conclusion that if true, it must be a later revelation. The more I read the Gospels I’m left with the certainty that Jesus definitely said that not everyone is spared the fire.

And so in my sermon tonight, I’m not going to make the argument for my denomination’s theology, but rather speak the Gospel message of Jesus as I best understand it. I’m a bit conflicted about this, because in a one on one pastoral situation, I’d go with my heart’s sense of truth. In a sermon though, I feel the call to speak to what I believe Jesus’ actually said.

In order to understand what Jesus meant by the furnace of fire in his explanation of this parable, we need to read this in the context of what he said elsewhere. For example, Matthew 10:28 [F]ear the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Gehenna being the word that is commonly translated into Hell. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. It was thought to be cursed. Jewish Rabbinic literature as well as Islamic scripture name Gehenna as a destination of the wicked. Jesus, in Mark 9:48 describes Gehenna as a place where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

Now I want to point out the significance of Matthew 10:28, which, when I studied it, was the first passage to start me thinking along the lines of Annihilationism. Annihilationism a the name for those who interpret scripture as saying that after the final judgment some will be totally destroyed or that their consciousness will cease to exist, rather than being punished for ever. Both body and soul will be consumed by the fire, Jesus tells us.

And it only makes sense that Jesus would not contrast the promise of eternal life with hell, if hell was eternal life as well. In most cases where Jesus promises eternal life, he does not qualify it as eternal life in a good place as opposed to a bad place, but offers it in and of itself. For example in Matthew 19:29 Jesus promises that his followers shall inherit eternal life. 

Now in speaking of Annihilationism I’ve gotten two immediate objections from others. The first being the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. But unless you believe that Heaven is literally resting in the bosom of Abraham, I won’t entertain any argument that this is meant to be an accurate depiction of the afterlife. 

The other objection is the last judgement in Matthew 25. This is the only instance in the entire New Testament where Jesus uses the word eternal to describe punishment. The Annihilationist camp has an argument for this that I find convincing. It has to do with grammar. Without getting to deep into it, essentially in the case of eternal punishment, eternal is an adverb. In the case of eternal life, eternal is an adjective. So the argument is that in the case of punishment, the word eternal means permanent rather than everlasting.

To back up this argument, Annihilationists illustrate the use of eternal as meaning permanent in the letter to the Hebrews, which speaks of “Eternal Redemption” “Eternal Salvation” and “Eternal Inheritance.” None of these refer to something happening over and over again for all time. We aren’t redeemed over and over again, we don’t inherit over and over again, it was all done once and for all on the cross.

It is my sincere belief that Jesus offers eternal life in contrast with permanent death. Our options after the final judgment are to be with God or to face oblivion. Oblivion is certainly a better option than everlasting torment. And so while I believe Hell does not exist, and that has its comforts, it’s not quite universalism. And while universalism rings true for me, I don’t believe we get there from the words of Jesus alone.

So let’s now get to the words of Jesus from tonight’s Gospel. In the explanation of the parable, Jesus doesn’t explain the line: “In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”  The Greek word for weeds here is zizania a word which is thought to mean darnel, a ryegrass which looks a lot like wheat when it’s young growth. In other words, it’s difficult early on to tell which is wheat and which is weed. It seems to me that this aspect of the parable is in line with Jesus telling us that we aren’t to judge, rather that judgement is reserved for God (or God’s messengers in this story.) So ultimately, whether you agree with my argument tonight about the final fate of the wicked, it’s not up to us to decide who is deserving of which fate.