Galatians 3.19-22

The apostle Paul, having rebuked the insistence of some (Jewish believers) that the Gentile believers needed to be circumcised (males) and to follow dietary laws and their liturgical calendar, now takes on another question.

If the law can’t save, what is its purpose?

Galatians 3:19 (ESV) 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.

Garlicky Wheat: How Long, O Lord!

The Reverend Elijah B. White

MP 11-A: Psalm 74, Wisdom & Mt; 544, 137, 576 

Today’s Sunday School Picnic reminds me how often our thoughts about the Bible are influenced by our Sunday-School-level thinking.  As a child I used to wonder about Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, the good seed and the bad; it didn’t make sense: why wouldn’t farmhands know one plant from another?  And who’d go around planting weeds anyway?

Well, we can learn a lot about farming from real farmers. When I was Rector in Casanova and Catlett forty years ago farmers had a problem with garlicky wheat. Soil in that part of Fauquier held an endemic pest that looked like wheat, but when they took their crop to market in Fredericksburg the buyers knew it, marked their wheat as “Number Two Garlic,” and subtracted a certain amount from regular market price.  I checked with Lisa Rogers at the mill the other day:  we don’t seem to have that particular problem up here in Loudoun, but we still have to deal with something like it here called ‘rye grass.’  It’s not true rye, not Secale cereale which is the good rye, but Lolium temulentum, which looks like rye, grows like rye, is often mixed in with rye, but it’s bad stuff.

So this is not a fanciful story Jesus tells.  In fact in those days it made great sense to his hearers because sabotaging your neighbor was so common by sowing bad seed in with his good seed at planting time.  Scholars have found specific laws, Roman, Hebrew, Persian, with specific punishments for anyone who sowed bad seed and mixed it in with the wheat.  Because they did grow up together; they entwined; they looked so alike at the beginning – it’s still done, I understand, in remote parts of India.

And Jesus’ hearers knew about field hands − they were rough and ready types, liable to just go in and pull out all the weeds they could and (as the master says in verse 29) they’d destroy a lot of good wheat along with the tares. The field hands wanted to judge before the time, but the master said no: wait until the harvest; then we’ll sort it out − which is probably a useful and humbling reminder to us today.

Jesus makes three important points here.  He teaches us that even in this fallen world there is a Godly power always sowing the good seed, sowing the Will and the Word of God (that’s next Sunday’s lesson), sowing the good news of His Kingdom, a sower of good seed − and also a hostile power, an evil power which actively works to corrupt, infect, destroy the good and godly growth − in this world the wheat and the tares, the good and the bad, are growing together intertwined. You and I know this for a fact, we can see it all around us − as G. K. Chesterton pointed out, “Original Sin is the one theological doctrine that can be empirically demonstrated. 

In this parable, Jesus makes it clear that so often it’s difficult for us to distinguish between those who are of the Kingdom and those who are not.  A good person can seem very bad at certain times. A vicious person can seem attractive and good.  The operative method of a con man − the word “con” is short for a “confidence” man − is to gain our con-fidence by being charming, presentable, nice, winning our trust − which makes him exceptionally dangerous. It’s easy for us to be misled, in either direction, because we tend to classify people or ideas by what seems to us to be good or bad appearances:  they look good; they sound good.

Jesus teaches us the only One with the full knowledge to judge another’s whole character is God.  You and I have to judge by actions.  We have to judge by what we can see in another.  It’s OK to serve on juries – it’s OK to be a judge – we have to – but our judgments have to be of actions, not of moral worth; there’s a vast difference between saying, “You were guilty of robbing that 7-11,” and “you are worthless scum who’s going to Hell.”  The first judgment we must make; the second is not ours to make.  Leave that to God.  As Hamlet’s father’s ghost says, “Leave that to Heaven.” 

Jesus is very clear on a fact many “modern” thinkers deny:  there is Evil in this world, Evil loose in this world and working, working always, hostile to the Good that is of God.  The Bible is not ‘philosophy’ (the Greek roots of which mean ‘love of this world’s wisdom’) – the Bible is not ‘theology’ (which means ‘man’s words about God’)  − the Bible is not human speculation, but direct Revelation of God to Man concerning the basic facts of this world and the next − one fact being that there is Evil in this world, as Jesus’ parable makes clear, verse 28:  “An enemy hath done this,” an enemy as implacable as the burning eye of Sauron in that believing Christian Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy − we field-hand humans cannot negotiate with that Evil, cannot placate it with compromises nor overcome it with our own best efforts. Only God can defeat Evil, and rescue us in the process.

There will be a sorting-out at harvest time.  There will be those set on the right hand and those set on the left – and there will be appropriate rewards. So if sinners seem to flourish around us like the green bay tree, don’t lose any sleep over it.  Do your best.  Read and believe your Bible.  Pray your prayers.  Do right and shame the Devil.  Keep straight.  Don’t envy the “successful” sinners.  God will sort them out, as Jesus makes clear.

What do we do?  Remembering the Judgment to come, we must judge our own moral worth very carefully.  There will be a judgment.  Our personal responsibility is to be able to answer the question that Quakers and Great-Awakening converts used to ask one another in the 1700’s, which is, “How is it with your soul?”  Not “Hi!”  Not “How are you?” but “How is it with your soul?”  That’s the question we should always be ready to answer – and to be ready to answer it rightly we have to have given it careful and critical thought, 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.

The Paralyzed Man

The Reverend Elijah B. White

February 2, 2000

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus signs His own death warrant. You know the story: 

Jesus’ “preaching the word to them” attracts such a crowd to a house that (Mark chapter 2, verse 2) “there was no longer room for them, even about the door.”  Four friends bring a paralyzed man on a litter, hoping for a healing, but they can’t even get near the place – so, persistent and resourceful, they climb up to the house’s flat roof, pull out a section of brushwood and clay packed between the roof beams, and lower their friend’s litter down through the hole to lie at Jesus’ feet:  you remember drawings of that dramatic scene from Sunday School.

Verse 5, “and when Jesus saw their faith” (the possessive pronoun “their” doubtless includes the sick man), their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  These words raise two related points: [1], the Hebrews’ connection of sickness to sin and [2], who has authority to forgive sin?

One major school of Jewish thought held that God causes everything that happens or doesn’t happen, good and bad, so therefore all misfortune or sickness or death must be God’s doing, punishment for sin.  This bad theology produces such thinking as that of Eliphaz the Temanite, who asks suffering Job (Job chapter 4, verse 7) “Who that was innocent ever perished?”  What a question!  What implications, confusing the physical frailties of our mortal bodies with the moral judgments of God – I’d love to ask Eliphaz, “Who has ever not perished?”

Now, there are psychosomatic illnesses including paralysis, so it could well be that Jesus diagnosed this man’s problem as such and went straight to the point. There are hints: it’s unusual that in this healing Jesus makes my physical contact, and I think this is the only healing during which He says, “your sins are forgiven.”

In any case, when Jesus uttered these words He signed His death warrant. You see, the top religious authorities quite properly kept a sharp eye out for false or heretical religious opinions. The Sanhedrin, their supreme council in Jerusalem, was especially on the lookout for “false messiahs” because so many zealots had recently used such claims to incite armed political revolution. Perhaps the authorities sent scouts to check out this “Jesus,” since Nazareth and Galilee were long-time hotbeds of revolt.

So, “some of the scribes” [scholars learned in the Law and Scriptures] “were sitting there” [doubtless in the front row seats of honor to which their position entitled them] “questioning in their hearts, “’This is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’”

Now be very clear about this − this is no grounds for anti-semitism. These Jewish scribes are legit, their question is on target, and their point is 100% accurate: only God, “God alone,” can forgive sins. You and I know that “Lige White” can’t forgive sins, that all any priest can do [wave he his arm ne’er so cunningly] is serve as a duly authorized agent reassuring and conveying that forgiveness which only God can give. We know this as Christians, and we learned it from the Jews who knew and taught it first. The problem here is not the scribes’ theology about God, but their failure to recognize the authority of God incarnate in Jesus who was and is the Jewish Messiah − as our Lenten class studied last year. The Hebrews’ long-longed-for Deliverer was at last standing in front of them, three feet away in that jam-packed little house in Capernaum, close enough to reach out and touch − but they failed to recognize Him, to know and acknowledge Jesus for who and what He is.

Therefore, because of the limitations of their perception, the scribes had to report to the Sanhedrin that this man Jesus was publicly claiming authority to do what God alone can do − which is “blasphemy,” they use the correct legal term, for which the Mosaic legal penalty is death − this Jesus was not only blaspheming God, but also making them look ridiculous by then healing the paralytic − leaving them in baffled rage, which would not stay “baffled” long:  rage will find a way, the proper authorities would find a way to stop this Jesus, soon.

So what can you and I learn from this?  That God in Christ can heal our bodies, which of course can be only a short-term help, and can heal our hearts and souls, which can be forever.  We can learn that this world, represented by the scribes and Sanhedrin and later by the Roman executioners, this world is no friend to God.

We can learn from the people involved here: which will we make our role models? 1) The scribes, prideful in their learning and sense of being “better” than most others, questioning in their hearts, failing to recognize the Son of God when He stood right in front of them  –2) The crowd, who pressed )nearer to hear Jesus’ every word, who without intellectual cavils marveled at His power  — 3) The stretcher-bearers, themselves hale and hearty, who with faith and hope labored with effort and imagination to help their friend by bringing him to Jesus — or 4), the sufferer himself, paralyzed by guilt or fear or illness or some combination thereof.  We’ll never know how much of his willingness in this daring rooftop enterprise sprang from faith, how much from desperation that will try anything to be able to move again − we can’t tell what he thought, but we do know what he did:  he believed what Jesus said; he accepted Jesus’ authority to forgive, a necessary precondition to accepting His forgiveness and, he did what Jesus told him to do: when Jesus said, “Rise, take up your pallet, and go home,” he did just that – he did not linger to celebrate his healing or dance for joy with his friends: no, verse 12, “he rose, immediately took up his pallet, and went out.”

You and I can learn from all the different people involved here, learn to marvel at God’s wondrous works, learn to help others come to Christ, learn to accept and obey and rejoice in His healing power, learn to confidently sing and pray, “Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us…. thus provided, pardoned, guided, nothing can our peace destroy!” 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.