Despite our ongoing fascination with it, Jesus didn’t talk much about the institution of the church. In fact, the only reference to church in the Gospels comes in Matthew’s account. In chapter 15, Jesus tells Peter he will be the rock upon which he will build his church. In chapter 18, the word occurs several times as Jesus explains how to handle a fellow Christian, literally a brother, who sins against you. In the Greek, it appears only three times (16:18, and twice in 18:17) while in the NRSV, the word occurs five times. Still, it is worth noting that Matthew’s Gospel shows an affinity toward the church that would bloom out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is helpful as we read other portions of Matthew’s Gospel to recall that it was written with the Church in mind.
Which brings me to the Gospel lesson for Sunday. As parable season rolls on, Jesus channels his inner Joachim Jeremias by offering a doozy of an allegorical interpretation on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. It is tempting to read this parable and think of the individual: how each of us has within our own hearts some good wheat mixed in with some uncontrolled weeds, but that isn’t what Jesus has in mind as he tells this parable. Instead, as Jesus explains the parable, he has a much wider perspective. He tells this story about a world in which there is good and there is evil. As his explanation comes to a close, Jesus says that after the weeds – stumbling-blocks and doers of evil, are carried off to the unquenchable fire, what will be left is a pristine field of wheat that will “shine like the sun.”
In his allegory, Jesus explains that this wheat that will be left over are the righteous, literally those who conform to the standard of God and are thereby in right relationship with the Father, which with Matthew’s heart for the Church in mind, led me into the Catechism of our Book of Common Prayer and the answer to the question on the top of page 855, “What is the mission of the Church?” “The mission of the Church is to restores all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” That is to say, with apologies for mixing allegories, the reason the Church exists is to work the soil so that the wheat in our hearts chokes out the weeds. The work of the Church is to help righteousness flourish in our hearts so that when the harvest times comes, there is a whole lot more wheat left shining like the sun than there is weeds burning in the furnace.
To be sure, the Church hasn’t always done a great job of this. Often, weeds have been actively ignored, which in my flower beds means they grow wildly. Sometimes, they are pulled up with haste, allowing their seeds to scatter and the roots to remain in tact, which only makes for more weeds a few weeks down the road. Rarely, are the root causes of weeds addressed and the proper fertilization and watering for wheat utilized in order to facilitate abundant harvests. All this to say, when I read this as a timely parable for the Church and a call to intentional discipleship training for an abundant harvest, I am quick to realize that we have a lot of work to do to facilitate healthy growth in restoring all people to unity, i.e. right relationship, with God.