Today is know as the "Day of the Innocents." December 28, commemorates the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem after Jesus was born. This disastrous event occurred when King Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys two years old and under in a murderous attempt to get rid of any potential rival King. This tragedy is also part of the story of Christmas. We allow eating, Christmas festivities and shopping frenzies to push it out of view. For all its brutality, Christmas is also about the coming of the Saviour to confront the forces of evil.
Matthew's Gospel juxtaposes noble and evil men in stark contrast; stars and swords; majestic kingly visitations and twisted kingly envy; Mary rejoicing, Rachel weeping; the children who die, and the Child who gets away. How do we reconcile the birth of our Saviour with the deaths of those boys?
There is no other historical account of Herod's murders. But that is not surprising. Murder was not unknon to this psychotic King. Herod suffered from what the historian Josephus called "distemper which greatly increased upon him after a severe manner. His bowels were also ulcerated and he had difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath." In his paranoia he murdered his wife (whom he dearly loved), along with his two promising sons. At this decrepit stage of life he was in no mood to hear word of one "born king of the Jews." And as Bethlehem was a "little town" having only between 300 and 1,000 population, it is unlikely the deaths of a dozen or so children would make the history, considering Herod's other atrocities.
When the Wise Men arrived some time after the birth they found the child, his family in a "house". 2:10 To make sure Herod ordered all boys under two killed. What does one say to the mothers of those boys? The deaths of children never make sense. What do children have to do with earthly thrones and messianic expectations?
Matthew calls on the ghost of Rachel. The prophet Jeremiah did the same when the Jews were deported to Babylon, to express the grief of these mothers: "A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah, and weeping unrestrained. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for her children are dead." A mother weeping for her lost children is as bad as it gets in this life. Ramah was where the Jews gathered before they were carried off to Babylon. There, Rachel's weeping gives voice to God's own lament over the loss of his children. Rachel, wife of Jacob the son of Abraham, herself died in sorrow as she gave birth to her second son. She died one mile out of Bethlehem where her tomb is revered to this day. Rachel's anguish serves also as a metaphor for mothers everywhere who face tragic circumstances related to their children. Jewish mothers come her her tomb today to pray for their lost children.
Mothers comb drug-infested streets in Sydney searching for wayward children. Mothers in Africa risk all to redeem their kidnapped and enslaved sons. Mothers everywhere have their lives shattered by unexpected tragedy. My younger brother Robbie was born on Christmas day but died when he was fourteen. Every Christmas Day thereafter for thirty years, my mother went to the cemetery.
Christmas knows tears as well as laughter, sorrow as well as joy. Why was the baby Jesus saved when the other boys in Bethlehem died? This is part of the mystery of the presence of evil. Why later was Christ crucified on a Cross while Caiaphas and Pilate ate lunch? Human life knows injustice, wickedness and the seeming triumph of evil. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does evil seem to prosper at a time of joy and godliness? When we sing about Bethlehem, we overlook the phrase that says that "hopes and fears of all the years and met in thee tonight." Fear was there with hope. Death with life. One Christmas Carol grapples with this:
"I heard the bells on Christmas day
Henry W. Longfellow.
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
of peace on earth, good-will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
of peace on earth, good-will to men,
And In despair I bowed my head;
"There Is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God Is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Do you feel perplexed with the presence of evil in the world? Do you become discouraged when so many people live un-Christian lives? Do you wonder why so many educated people commit evil crimes? Do you wonder how all of this is going to end?
Jesus was sure, that the end of the man's time on earth as we know it, would come when the Kingdom of God would be established. Then those who had lived as God had wanted them would receive His blessing, and those who had rejected Him would be cast out.
God would compensate the faithful and reward people according to their desserts. They would now reign with God. The relationship between God and His people established in Creation but broken by mankind's sin, has been re-established by the Son and is the Consummation of all things.
That would come at the end of time, but in the mean-time, how should we live? What should be our attitude to good and evil?
When people first heard Jesus speaking of this they wanted this heavenly community established then and there. They wanted the benefits given to them. They wanted rewards for the faithful and the rooting out of those sinners who did not deserve to be with them.
Everybody at that time was aware of many movements designed to separate some people from others. The Pharisees believed themselves to be "The Separate Ones" - the holy, called-out people separate from ordinary sinner. They did pray, "I thank you God that I keep the commandments and that I am not like that sinner." The Essenes who lived in "The Community of the New Covenant" at Qumran and who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls believed themselves to be holy and elite. John the Baptist called people to be separate and be baptised for the remission of their sins, saying that God would sift people as wheat from chaff on the threshing-floor.
Many people in history have started movements to separate themselves from the rest of society, and build a sinless community of holiness. The Exclusive Brethren is a Christian example. The Congregationalists were first called "The Separatists". Many monastic orders, communes of believers, sects, and followers of one person who claims to have special insights aim to build holy groups free from the taint of other sinners or from the orthodox churches.
But Jesus went the opposite way in his life style. Instead of condemning, rejecting, and separating Himself from public sinners, he identified with them. He shared his friendships with them. He loved them into a new life style.
This made the separatists angry, and constantly they said in disgust and hatrted: "He is a friend of sinners and publicans..if he only knew who this woman is, a sinner, and what she has done..He has gone in to be the guest of a tax collector." But Jesus was their friend, He knew who they were and what they had done, He desired to be a guest in their home. They were discovering what we know: "Jesus what a friend of sinners"
The first people at His manger were ordinary shepherds. Those He taught were fishermen and farmers. Those He healed were lepers and cripples. Those with whom He laughed and talked and ate were the common people of the village. This worried religious people and his disciples. They looked for a new and stainless humanity dedicated to God. They once told a man to stop using the name of Jesus while trying to heal a mentally disturbed person because he didn't belong to their band. On another occasion they wanted Jesus to send away a pleading woman because she was not of their race. They grumbled when Jesus befriended Zacchaeus the tax-collector. They did not know that Jesus came to heal the sick not the healthy.
Jesus went the opposite way in His teaching. He taught that God does not intend to separate saints from sinners on this earth. The saints should serve, witness and win the sinners, but not to be regarded as separate, better than, and removed from everyday life.
Sometimes Christians give the impression that they are the perfect ones. They do not drink, smoke, swear, lie, or murder and this makes public sinners uncomfortable.
They snear at us as "do-gooders" and "spoil-sports". But Jesus teaches that we must not separate ourselves from ordinary sinners. The Old Testament order quoted by Paul "Come you apart and be separate from them" had to do with Christians working in pagan temples in partnership with evil, not separating from either Christians or ordinary citizens.
At other times, Christians tried to get rid of those people who did not live to Christian standards. Judgements were passed, heretics were burned at the stake and witches drowned. They were separating themselves from those in their midst who did not keep the standards. Jesus rejected this as well.
So Jesus illustrated His teaching and His lifestyle in the parable about the tares and the wheat. Farmers knew of the cursed weed darnel that grew in young wheat crops. It looked like wheat, was botanically related to and could not be distinguished from wheat until the time of harvest. To try to pull the weed out when it was growing would be to root up the wheat as well. Darnel was a noxious weed with poisonous seed. When the reaping was done, the harvesters separated by hand the darnel and bundled it for burning.
William Barclay says that it was common for an enemy to secretly sow darnel and other weeds in an enemy's field. Roman Law laid down a penalty for doing so. He quotes one Eastern story: "Finding one day a mass of Kusseb weed in seed he filled his mantle with the heads, went home and extracted the seeds. He said "I went to Abu Jassin's kitchen garden. It was freshly ploughed;I scattered the Kusseb seeds.
The new year had scarcely come before the garden was thick with Kusseb. From that day to this - it is now some ten years - he could not plough a single furrow in it for the mass of Kusseb, and his olive trees withered away." ("And Jesus Said" p39)
Sowing wild seed in the only soil a farmer owned was slow death for his family. Jesus used this event as a warning against trying to separate God's people from ordinary people. MATT. 13:24-30.
1. THIS PARABLE IS AN EXPLANATION TO CHRISTIANS.
It explains the origin of evil in the world. No farmer has a weed free wheat crop. No garden that grows flowers only. Weeds also grow. The owner is not to blame. The owner said: "It was some enemy who did this". He recognised the origin of evil. Helmut Thielicke says that everywhere the Saviour goes sowing seeds of goodness, His Dark Double follows scattering seeds of negation and destruction.
Many parents have conceived children in love, prayed over them in the cradle, surrounded them with tender care only to see one child of the family, nurtured in the same environment as the others, develop traits of dark character which bring shame upon the family. Parents blame themselves: "Where have I gone wrong?".
We also blame poor parents, inadequate housing, sub-standard education, believing environment and heriditary are the sole cause for human wickedness. We forget the Dark One who sows seeds of evil which grow among the good seeds.
The same is true of the church. There are hypocrites in the church. Maybe not many, but Satan does sow his seeds in the church as elsewhere. The church is not perfect. Weeds do grow among the wheat. But God can distinguish. The same is true of society. Tares do grow among wheat. Some police are corrupt. Some politicians are bribed. Some businessmen are exploiters. Some unionists are thieves. The same is true of ourselves. We may have a harvest of pure thoughts and godly actions but there are some impure thoughts and some ungodly actions as well. Weeds grow among the wheat in ourselves. There is some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best of us.
The weeds are sown secretly. The Evil One is subtle, avoiding confrontation, instead secretly sows seeds of evil in the darkness. Matthew writes bluntly: "The weeds are the people who belong to the Evil One, and the enemy who sowed the weeds is the Devil". Nothing in educational psychology or environmental sociology explains the presence of evil better.
To blame the owner, to say: "Why does God allow such bad things to happen in this world? or to accusingly say to God after some tragedy: "You sowed good seed in your field; where did the weeds come from?" is to fail to see the origin of evil. To fail to acknowledge the origin of evil is to commit yourself to a life-time of self-blame and of fruitless effort in erradicating evil. There are dark powers abroad in this world, and any politician or social worker who thinks they can erradicate evil by simple measures of social policy is naieve, knowing neither history nor the heart of man. This parables explains the origins of evil.
2. THIS PARABLE IS A WARNING TO CHRISTIANS.
It warns Christians who would separate themselves from those they judge to be sinful. It is so easy to look at others and draw away from them. But Jesus said: "Do not judge others so that God will not judge you". (Matt 7:1) We are too quick to judge people. God is prepared to wait until they have run their course, then at harvest time to judge them and separate them out for destruction.
This parable warns Christians who would slash wildly at every appearance of evil, and so uproot much good at the same time: eager servants who want to rip out the weeds, run a new inquisition, start a new heresy hunt, bring to trial false deceivers. "Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds? He answered, "No, because as you gathered the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, tie them in bundles and burn them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn." Here is a word of caution.
For evil exists in the heart of man. It cannot be overcome by the human exertion. Zealousness does not erradicate public evil. Our very detirmination to stamp our public evil can perpetuate it. Occasionally some crusading clergyman gets elected to parliament on the moral basis of being able to root out the weeds, but in trying he stamps on the good seed, brings his cause into disrepute, and makes all the more difficult the erradication of evil.
Jesus says: "Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until the harvest." God tells us to be patient. He is the judge and He will destroy. Some of us do not have the faith to wait for Gopd. We want to slash at the weeds now, ignorant of the damage we also do. Like the disciples we call down fire from heaven upon our opponents and take up the sword to defend Christ. But Jesus warns us to be patient. Faith requires patience and trust in God's methods. This parable explains the response to evil.
3. THIS PARABLE IS AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO CHRISTIANS.
It encourages Christians who struggle to live a life of purity in an impure world. Hang in there! The end is in sight! Good and evil co-exist in this world, but God's harvest has already begun. He is bringing in the sheaves. The weeding out has begun. The separation by God has begun. Hang in there! The end is in sight!
Nothing is more sure than the fact of the harvest. But in God's time and in His method. He understands the nature of evil, and He will root it out and destroy it without hurting those who may still be saved. Prof. J.A.Froude of Oxford says as a professor of history: "In the long run it is well with the good and ill with the evil." Paul put it: "Whatsoever a man sows, that shall be also reap". Meantime, pray patiently. Patience is faith stretched long!
Recently the Presbytery of Sydney gained 24 votes including those from the Gay and Lesian group and their supporters to unjustly and improperly prevent me from continuing in ministry at Wesley Mission. This was in spite of the unaminious decisions by our members, Parish Council, Elders and the Presbytery Pastoral Relations Committee.
The leadership of the Church including the President and the Moderator have joined with more than three thousand people opposing that decision. It will be re-assessed in some court or other during the coming months. Among the hundreds of letters, cards, faxes and E-mails I have recived, so many people pointed out to me that injustice often triumphs temporarily. But with God in control, truth will prevail for those who trust Him. Many such verses were quoted to us, including Isa 54:17 "No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me," declares the LORD."
God waits. Even His own Son was taken by evil men and nailed to a cross while they laughed. Some disciples wanted to take a sword and slash at those who would bind the Christ. They wanted then and there to root out the weeds. But God had a bigger purpose in mind. He let the weeds triumph. They grew and prospered. It could be argued--in a twisted way--that it might have been more "just" if Joseph and Mary's son had perished with the rest of the boys. The aching question would not have remained: Why did God save the baby Jesus and not the other boys in Bethlehem? The gospel logic asserts that in saving the One, God did save them all. Jesus had to get away in order to face the day when the angels would not intervene and when Joseph would not whisk him to Egypt; when Mary, not Rachel, wept and could not be comforted. Jesus "got away" so that he could later on "atone for" the blood of those children and their mothers' tears.
His Son was crushed into the ground and buried. But from the ground new life appeared of a better variety. Still the weeds grow among the wheat. But God is bringing in the harvest! The weeds are destroyed. God stands watch, Lord of the harvest. This parable explains the destruction of evil. Have confidence. Our times are in His hand. God rules.
James R. Lowell.
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight;
And the choice goes by for ever
'Twixt that darkness and that light.
2. Then to side with truth Is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And 'tis prosperous to be just:
Then It Is the brave man chooses,
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.
3. By the light of burning martyrs
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Tolling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth:
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.
4. Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.
James R. Lowell.
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