“Are You Still Listening?”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 44:6-8
Romans 8:26-27
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Have you ever suddenly realized, after reading the confession of sins from an order of service, that you hadn’t prayed or confessed at all? Looking at the backs of other worshipers, as most people do during a typical service, or looking only at the altar, as most pastors do at that time, we cannot see faces or look into eyes.

On occasion, when I have turned back toward the congregation to speak words of grace and forgiveness, I have seen tears in some person’s eyes. I sensed that a burden had been brought to the right place, and I silently prayed that through the absolution it would be permanently left behind.

Most of the time, however, the great majority of the faces in a congregation appear just as they do any other time — there are no clear signs of remorse, often no emotion whatsoever. Now, how am I to know who genuinely repented, and who did not? Who spoke from the heart, and who just read the words? Who has done neither, and simply stood there waiting for the chance to sit down again? The answer is that I cannot tell. No, the answer is that it is not my job to even attempt to tell. It is my job to pronounce absolution to them all!

In last week’s Edit-O-Earl, I suggested that the four types of soil in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower are not as representative of four types of people as they are of four ways each of us listens, or fails to listen, to the Word. Our attention ranges from zero to a total attentiveness and openness that allows the Spirit to touch us from the tips of our minds to the outer limits of our souls.

Here again, unless someone is absent or asleep, how am I to judge during a sermon if people are genuinely listening or daydreaming? I remember one time when, just as I was reaching the punch line of an amusing anecdote, my eyes settled on a man who was fast asleep. When the rest of the congregation laughed, he quickly sat up and chuckled as well. I was the most amused person in the building, but I couldn’t tell the rest why that was true — well, at least, I didn’t tell them. Getting back to my question, how am I to tell when people are listening and wanting to listen, or just killing time until they can get home and do what they really want to do? Once again, it is not my job to judge. It is my job to preach the Word. It is the congregation’s job to hear it and put it into practice.

I confess that sometimes I want to make judgments of this kind. Not long ago a man said to me, “I think I only made it to church three times all last year.” When I asked the reason for this, he quickly replied, “Well, I work every other Sunday now…” I wanted to say, “Three out of 26 is still not very good!” I barely kept those words in. He was not a member of my church, and it was not my place to judge. You see — there it is again! Even if he was a member of my church, it is not my place to judge.

No sooner had Jesus finished His explanation of last week’s parable, than He began another for this week’s Gospel lesson. This one has been called The Parable of the Tares or The Parable of the Tares and Wheat. Either way, it is probably a misnomer, because the weeds were more likely darnel than tares. Darnel is an annual grass that mysteriously shows up in grain fields. In their early stages, the shoots are very similar to young wheat plants. I have read that mature darnel seeds are black, easily distinguished from wheat, and that they are poisonous. In Jesus’ day, darnel was allowed to grow in wheat fields until it was mature. Then workers, often women and children, would pull it up and throw it away before the harvesters came through.

According to Jesus’ story, a landowner sowed good seed in his fields, but under cover of darkness (when most evil deeds are done) an enemy came and sowed weeds in the midst of the wheat. Workers asked the owner, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field?” He replied, “An enemy did this.” The servants asked if they should go and pull up the weeds, but the owner said not to because they would pull up wheat along with the weeds: “Let both grow together until the harvest.” At the harvest, the weeds would be removed first and then the wheat would be gathered. According to Matthew, Jesus told two more stories, comparing the kingdom to a mustard seed and to yeast, then He stopped teaching the crowds and entered a house. There, the disciples asked about the “parable of the weeds in the field.”

Jesus said that the sower is the Son of Man, the enemy is the evil one, the wheat plants are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the evil one. At the end of the age, angels will “weed out everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” These will be chucked into the fiery furnace, accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth, whereas the “righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Then Jesus added that little one liner again: “He who has ears, let him hear.”

If you remember the little lesson in literary forms from last week, this explanation makes the story an allegory. Is it also a parable? Is one single idea driven home? I think I can give that idea to you in three words: Don’t judge others. What you think is a weed may turn out to be the best producing wheat plant in the field, and what you think is good wheat may turn out to be filled with dark and dirty things. Don’t judge God either, imagining that the evil in the world is His fault: “Sir, didn’t you plant good seed?” (What’s wrong with you?)

I mentioned last week that illustrations, parables, allegories, similes and metaphors simply say that one thing is “sort of like” another. For instance, you are not dirt and you are not a plant. If you find yourself to be like the little plant on the road, on shallow soil, or being choked by the thorny uglies, it is time to pick up your bud and move it! In this story, people are not born as weeds or wheat. Little babies are born looking all soft and innocent, but already under the spell of sin. Left alone, they will grow up godless. Our mission is to bring the Gospel to them and them to God.

God loves us too much to leave us alone. He came to us in Jesus, and He keeps coming to us. He did not let hatred, evil and death prevent His grace from us then, and He will not let them keep Him away now. Instead of passing judgment on others, we need to look at them “cross-eyed.” We need to see them as people just like ourselves — godless and weedy to the root, but people for whom Christ died on the cross anyway.

Through the power of the Spirit in the Word and Sacrament, God can change even the thorniest ugly into a blossom of faith that is a beautiful blessing to everyone near. In God’s field we have two responsibilities: to grow in grace by using our own ears to hear His Word, and to share His Word, grace and love with others. Note that neither of these includes passing judgment on anyone else.

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