SERMON: The Wheat and the Tares, by Reinhold Niebuhr

SERMON: The Wheat and the Tares Reinhold Niebuhr

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

Thou turnest man to destruction;
and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
and as a watch in the night.

Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep:
in the morning they are like grass which growth up.
In the morning it flourisheth, and growth up;
in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

For we are consumed by thine anger,
and by thy wrath are we troubled.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee,
our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

For all our days are passed away in thy wrath:
we spend our years as a tale that is told.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be four-score years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
—Psalm 90:1-10


Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.  But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.  So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?  He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?  But he said, Nay, lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
—Matthew 13:24-30

I want to begin my sermon with the well-known ninetieth Psalm, and end it with the parable of the wheat and the tares, which is the New Testament lesson of the morning.  The ninetieth Psalm begins with the words, “Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.”  Then it goes on to describe the human situation in typically biblical terms. “Thou carriest them [that is, us] away as with a flood;. . . In the morning they are like grass which growth up.  In the morning it flourisheth;. . . in the evening it is cut down and withereth.”  The brevity of human life!  “Thou carriest them away as with a flood.”  We are like corks that bob up and down in the river of time.  The brevity of human life may fill us with melancholy because it seems to reduce life to such insignificance.  We bring our years to an end like a tale that is told, says the Psalmist.

The second point in the analysis of the human situation is implicit rather than explicit.  Man is indeed like a cork that is drawn down the river of time, carried away as with a flood.  But he could not be altogether that, because he knows about it; he speculates about it as the Psalmist does, and he can anticipate his death either with hope or with melancholy.  Also he can create.  He is not only a creature, but he is a creator because he is not quite in the river of time; although he might forget how much of a creature he is when he begins to create.  Therefore we come to the third point.

This drama of human history is indeed partly our construct, but it stands under a sovereignty much greater than ours.  “A thousand years are in thy sight but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”  The drama of our individual life and the whole drama of human history stands under a mysterious and eternal sovereignty.  It is a mysterious sovereignty which the prophets are always warning that we must not spell out too much.  “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.”  But it is not complete mystery because — and this is the distinction between the biblical view and the philosophical view — in spite of the mystery, there are also glints of meaning in it.  This God is the mysterious creator of the world, but he is also a just and merciful God.

The New Testament adds to this story by suggesting there is a clue to the mystery.  This is the light that shineth in darkness, the drama of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Here we have a sense that the mystery of God’s creativity and the mystery of his severe judgment and the mystery of his mercy are related, and the clue to the mystery lies in the combination of his justice and his mercy.  How are they related; this is our question, and how are these all brought together and revealed?  The light that shineth in darkness enables us to live our life, not merely in the sense of its brevity, but with a sense of a purpose for it, and also with the sense of a purpose, and judgment and ultimate fulfillment beyond any judgments or fulfillments that we can envisage.

There are various alternatives — modern and ancient — to what the biblical faith tells us about our human story.  One of the great alternatives Aldous Huxley has defined as the “perennial philosophy,” which many modern intellectuals, when they become religious, think is a plausible alternative to biblical faith.

According to this alternative view of life, attention is fastened on the second part of the human situation; man is in the river of time but is transcendent over it.  This transcendence of his is indeterminate.  He can rise higher and higher, and he can look at the whole thing and ask whether it has any meaning.  Let him, therefore, rise higher and higher until he, in a sense, meets God.  This is the strategy of detachment, according to which we all have our private airplanes, spiritually speaking, and these spiritual airplanes have indeterminate altitude records.  There is no limit to how high you can go.  You start, and raise yourself up from the human scene to the point where at first it seems creative, because you see, and are apologetic for, all your vanities and pretensions.  You rise a little higher, and then you become apologetic for anything that you have done responsibly and creatively.  And then you also begin to look at your fellowmen, and you see mothers caring for their children, scholars engaged in their enterprises, businessmen in the marketplace, politicians fighting for their causes, and you say, “What is the good of all this?  This is all in the river of time.  This is all so brief, and also it may corrupt.”

Playing God to the universe, in other words, can be very exhilarating but very irresponsible.  It is a strategy of weakness rather than of strength; if you happen to be very weak, you can look at the world from the highest altitude you can think of.  If you get high enough in an airplane, you know that the farm of the good farmer and of the bad farmer look equally like garden plots.  All distinctions disappear.  All moral responsibilities disappear.  Indeterminate extension of our freedom over time is certainly no answer to the problem of life.

Probably not many Christians are tempted to this alternative, yet it is a perennial temptation through the ages; if you would have a religious census of the world you would find that more people than the Christians or the Jews have some vision of this alternative to biblical religion.

Which brings us now again to the strategy of life as we have it in the faith of the Bible.  We look at the brevity of our life.  We admit that we are creatures.  We know that we are unique creatures, that God has made us in his image, that we have a freedom to do something that nature does not know, that we can project goals beyond the limitations, ambitions, desires, and lusts of nature.  We are the creatures who, gloriously, tragically, and pathetically, make history.  As we make it, we have to make distinctions between good and evil.  We know that selfishness is dangerous.  We must be unselfish.  The more we rise above our immediate situation and see the situation of the other person, the more creative we are.  Therefore, our life story is concerned with making rigorous distinctions between right and wrong, between good and evil.  Part of the Christian faith corresponds to this interpretation.  Certainly a part of the Old Testament is not quite sure whether man is in relationship to God, or whether the primary job for the righteous is to war against the unrighteous.  We have to admit that it makes a very big difference when we defend freedom against tyranny, and truth against the lies of the world.  How else could we build history except by these rigorous distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong?

But now we come to the New Testament lesson, the puzzling lesson of the parable of the wheat and the tares.  The man sowed a field of wheat and the enemy sowed tares among the wheat.  And the servants, following the impulse of each one of us, asked if they should root out the tares so that the wheat could grow.  This is a parable taken from agriculture to illustrate a point of morals, and it violates every principle of agriculture or of morals.  After all, every farmer and every gardener makes ceaseless war against the tares.  How else could the flowers and the wheat grow?  And we have to make ceaseless war against evil within ourselves and in our fellowmen, or how could there be any kind of decency in the world?  Against all moral impulse, we have this eschatological parable.

“Nay,” said the householder.  “Lest while ye gather up the tares, you root up also the wheat.”  The suggestion is that a great deal of evil may come from the selfishness of men, but perhaps more evil may come from the premature judgments of men about themselves and each other.  “Let both grow together until the harvest.”  These wonderful words of Scripture suggest that while we have to judge, there is a judgment beyond our judgment, and there are fulfillments beyond our fulfillments.

Consider how much more evil and good, creativity and selfishness, are mixed up in actual life than our moralists, whether they be Christian or secular, realize.  How little we achieve charity because we do not recognize this fact.

Let us consider the matter of creativity and the desire for approval.  What could be more evil than the avaricious desire for the approval of our fellowmen?  But how closely related it is to the impulse of creativity.  The diary of Virginia Woolf notes that when she put out a new novel, she had an almost morbid interest in the reviews.  She was an established artist.  Was her anxiety justified?  Could not she just take for granted that people would praise her or would accept her work?  Yet she had a morbid concern, as anyone who has written a book understands.  You may think that you are creative, but you suspect you may have slipped.  You have to be approved in order to establish your creativity; the wheat and the tares are very mixed up.  “Let both grow together until the harvest.”  When we think of ourselves, we ought to remember that there is an ultimate judgment against excessive self-concern.  But when we deal with our fellowman, we must do so in charity.

How curiously are love and self-love mixed up in life, much more complexly than any scheme of morals recognizes.  The simple words of the parable are more profound than the wisdom of all our moralists.  There is a self-love which is the engine of creativity.  It may not be justified ultimately for that reason, but when we look at history, we have to say that it is an engine of creativity.

There is a debate whether Cervantes wrote the great classic, Don Quixote, in order to pay his debts, or in order to get even with his critics.  But now it does not make any difference what the motive was.  Don Quixote is no less a great work of art.

In the field of politics we see very clearly the curious mixture of egotism and desire for public welfare.  Winston Churchill, for example, was a very ambitious young man.  His ambition gave him the chance to accomplish much.  What he achieved was not only great statesmanship but had a quality of magnanimity that reminds us of the wisdom of the wheat and the tares.  Churchill knew the mixture of good and evil in the dramas of history.  We doubt whether he ever read or really heeded the parable of the wheat and the tares, yet in his magnanimity there was some of its wisdom.  He showed the combination of creativity and self-love which we find particularly in politics, but is it not everywhere?  There is a puzzling aspect to judgments about self-love or ambition.  At what particular point do we think egotism so excessive that it becomes obviously corrupting?  It is always rather corrupting, but when does it become obviously corrupting?  We know certain people to be monstrous egoists, but can we put our finger on the spot where this mixture of love and self-love, which we all have, turns into monstrous egotism?  We do have to make our judgments, but we cannot be exact in our moral measurement.

There are forms of self-love which are quite dangerous, but are enclosed in a great sea of vitality which robs them of some of their power.  Let us compare America with Spain.  In Spain, the somewhat medieval social and political order is according to the tradition of natural law and of the Catholic church.  To us, it is stale and static.  In this country, and in spite of all our weaknesses, our pride and pretensions, certainly there is life.  Our national life is based upon the vitality of various interests balanced by various other interests.  This is the heart of the free enterprise doctrine.  These self-interests are not nearly as harmless as our conservative friends imagine them to be.  Here we do have to violate the parable, and provisionally make judgments and say, “This form of self-interest must be checked.”  Or, “This form of self-interest must be balanced by other interest.”  Otherwise we will not have justice if the powerful man simply goes after his interest at the expense of the weak.

We make such provisional judgments, but all these provisional judgments stand ultimately under the truth of the parable of the wheat and the tares.  “Let both grow together until the harvest.”  If we had more modesty about this, perhaps there would not have been such a debate between pure individualism and pure collectivism.  On the one hand, this policy may be necessary.  On the other hand, it may be dangerous.  We had better try to find out how necessary and how dangerous it is, but not absolutely, or we will make the kind of judgment that will pull up the wheat with the tares.

What is Communism but a vast example of pulling up the tares, and not knowing the wheat that is among these tares of so-called self-interest or capitalistic injustice.  Is it not surprising that we should have two great evils in our time, Nazism and Communism?  Nazism represented such an obvious expression of collective egotism that we do not have to wait for the ultimate judgment.  We all know that Nazism was evil!  But Communism is a form of evil that comes from human beings forgetting that they are creatures, imagining themselves omniscient and righteous — absolutely righteous — and trying to rebuild the whole world in terms of their ideals, not knowing that their own sins are involved in it.  The Communist knows nothing about the parable of the wheat and the tares, or about the ultimate judgment that stands over human existence, and above all nothing about the ambiguity of all human motives.

There is also that kind of selfishness which we might regard as an inadvertent and rather harmless corruption of the love impulse.  Is it really inadvertent?  Is it actually harmless?  We do not know exactly.  The sinfulness of parents in their love for their children gives us an example.

The love of parents for their children is one of the symbols of the kingdom of God.  But we parents are not quite perfect.  There are two crises which children face: one is in their youth when they find out that their parents are not as powerful as they thought; and the second is in their adolescence when they find out that the parents are not as good as they thought they were.  No doubt every parent is better than an adolescent rebel imagines in the period of rebellion.  The parent who claims to be absolutely loving and then insinuates into that love the old lust for power, which every human being has, obviously is vexatious.  But it also must be recognized that there is some good in this evil.

Thus human history is a mixture of wheat and tares.  We must make provisional distinctions, but we must know that there are no final distinctions.  “Let both grow together until the harvest.”  Man is a creature and a creator.  He would not be a creator if he could not overlook the human scene and be able to establish goals beyond those of nature and to discriminate between good and evil.  He must do these things.  But he must also remember that no matter how high this creativity may rise, he is himself involved in the flow of time, and he becomes evil at the precise point where he pretend not to be, when he pretends that his wisdom is not finite but infinite, and his virtue is not ambiguous but unambiguous.

From the standpoint of the biblical faith we do not have to despair because life is so brief, but we must not pretend to more because we are so great.  Because we are both small and great, we have discerned a mystery and a meaning beyond our smallness and our greatness, and a justice and a love which completes our incompletions, which corrects our judgments, and which brings the whole story to a fulfillment beyond our power to fulfill any story.

We thank you, our God, for your judgments which are sterner than the judgments of man.  Help us to remember them when mortal men speak well of us.  We thank you for your mercy which is kinder than the goodness of men.  Help us to discern this when we are overcome by the confusion of life, and despair about our own sin.  Grant us, O Lord, always to worship you in all our doings in the greatness of your creativity and the wonder of your judgment and your mercy.

Amen.

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