How often do you think about the end of the world?
I was raised in a church that didn’t talk about it much, in a place where people talked about it a lot—I read some of the Left Behind novels in a friend’s church library—and as I grew up, I internalized not-talking-about-the-end-of-the-world as something constitutive of my Christian identity, certainly the wiser, righter way to be Christian, over against the foolishness of my more evangelical neighbors. The occasional bit of end-of-the-worldy stuff that snuck into my consciousness through the lectionary or my own sporadic reading was pretty easily dismissed. You know, “people thought differently back then,” and figuring that that stuff wasn’t that common, anyway. I knew better than to be distracted by that.
So you can imagine my consternation when I came, in my young adulthood, to read more of the New Testament, gospels and epistles and all, only to find that the whole thing is shot through with the expectation of the end of the world, that Jesus speaks of it, expects it, preaches parables about it as often as he preaches parables about here and now. That the writers of the very early church too write about here and now with care and attention, and yet with their eyes fixed on what is to come. The Bible’s field of vision is very wide, and it was to me a challenge and a summons.
The King James Bible calls this parable “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.” A tare is a stalk of a species of ryegrass I’ve never heard of called darnel, a formerly very common weed the trick of which is that it is very difficult to distinguish from wheat until it’s borne fruit; its grains are of a different color than grains of wheat. It is not etymologically related, as far as I can tell, to the tare I am otherwise familiar with, which is the button on my kitchen scale that allows me to zero out again after I’ve placed a bowl on its little platform, the button that takes into account the deadweight of the bowl and measures instead only what the bowl holds, the flour, the sugar, the oil, the fruit.
The words aren’t related, as I say, but the trick of them is the same: There is what you want, what you want to harvest, what you want to measure, what is part of the plan; and there is something that is a problem, an obstacle, something that must be accounted for and sifted out.
I asked how often you thought about the end of the world, but another question I could ask is, How often do you consider whether you will see the fruits of your labor?
Or I might have asked, How often are you faced with the truth that there is something that is vital, and is also beyond your power to do?
Or I might have asked, How often do you wonder where all of this is going?
This parable comes with its interpretation: It is about the children of God and the children of the devil, all mixed up together with no way to separate them out until God sends angels to the harvest. It is about the impossibility of ever truly protecting ourselves, our families, our communities, from people who work harm, until the divine sorting. And, it is about the harm done to ourselves, our families, our communities, if we try to take that sorting into our own hands. How often we sort wrongly; how little we consider what we uproot and destroy along with the problem we seek to eradicate. How much is beyond our capacities.
For some, “so much is beyond our capacities” and “this cannot be done until God does it” and even “there is an end of the world and a what comes after it with which we are to be concerned” have meant, “so take no time or effort for the way that you are living now.” Which is of course a bad reading of the texts and a misunderstanding, or a deliberate perversion, of what the scriptures mean, and I mention it to make clear that I do not mean it, and that I do not believe it has any place in the church, though it grows here and persists, a tare, if you will.
In this parable, the workers do not cease to tend the field. The problem of the parable is not that they were wrong to tend it; the problem is that the care they give, the effort, the expertise, the nourishment, will be taken up by both the good grain they are cultivating and the interloping weeds alike. Yet they are to continue to tend it, because the harm done to the good grain by weed eradication is worse than leaving the weeds to benefit from the care and effort being lavished on the field. And they are asked to continue to do this, to pour out their care and effort on the wheat and the weeds alike, not because the waste is good, or because the weeds are wheat, but because their good effort will be taken up by God, who oversees the final sorting; because angels will reap and gather well; because the grain yield will be worth what the workers have done, waste and all.
When I say the Bible has a wide, wide field of vision, I mean that where we have often assumed a radical break between now and then, a zero-sum economy of attention in which we may only care about, or work towards, now or then, scripture instead shows us a single braided cord stretched unbreaking between our hearts and the heart of God, connecting us, our work, our tears, our souls, to what is to come. We can turn our eyes to heaven for comfort and prize that then over the toil or suffering of now not because now does not matter but because now is connected to, part of, taken up by, completed by, then.
The weeds are people, those who harm, of course, in the field of the world; but yet in every field in which we work there will be weeds: obstacles to accomplishment, opposition we cannot overcome, indifference to justice, countervailing views, selfish hangers-on, the duplicitous and the simply mistaken. Don’t we know sometimes, looking at the fields of our lives, the hopelessness of the farmer who realizes that for each of his good stalks there is a weed close beside it? Don’t we know sometimes the uncertain grief of giving our lives to an idea, a family, a movement, with full knowledge of what is wrong and the certainty that we will not live to know what fruit it bore? It is to this hopelessness, this grief, that the parable speaks: Our lives are spent in fields that angels will reap. No labor is lost or wasted.
Jesus tells his followers that in the end all causes of sin and all evildoers will be removed, zeroed out like tare weight. And the laborers will be taken up with all the good that they labored to do into God’s barn, into the kingdom of peace and rest, where they will shine like the sun. That is, I think, where the light that they spent their lives endeavoring to kindle will be fully visible, without shadow. The meaning of what we are doing now, amidst everything, against whatever odds, this meaning is fully drawn out, fully realized, fully known, in the presence of God.
I think often, now, about the end of the world. As often as I look around me and see those who are doing the work in this one.