24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The parable in today’s gospel lesson points out how, in our human effort to root out injustice – which is an honorable and praiseworthy calling – good people and innocent people can often be hurt. So what should we do? Simply let the weeds grow alongside the wheat? That seems like a prescription for disaster. It comes across as weak and passive at best, inhumanly cold and callous and heartless at the worst. Yet there are times when it is a sign of strength and the fruit of wisdom not to use the power that we may have, not because we do not care, but because we recognize that in some situations the only one capable of bringing true justice is God. So we live in hope, hope of the day when real justice can be established.
From the outset, let’s recognize that the waiting involves pain. It is not pain for its own sake, though, but the sort of pain that gives birth, and the Spirit of God helps us through it, like a midwife helps a woman through delivery. As the letter to the Romans [8:22-27] says,
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
It is as if the Spirit, in the midst of the most painful injustices, says, “Breathe. Just breathe.”
Jesus warns against the rush to judgment, not because our judgment isn’t sometimes right. He warns us that there may be consequences we do not even suspect. I go back time and time again to thoughts of my seminary classmate and his family. He grew up in a small town in South Carolina, where his father worked at the local funeral parlor and had a second job at night at a convenience store. That’s where he was one night when two white men came in to rob the store and then decided to terrorize the dark-skinned man behind the register. His body was found with multiple bullet holes four days later. The thieves were caught, put on trial, and convicted of murder. There was no doubt of their guilt. The District Attorney then went to the victim’s family to ask permission to seek the death penalty. His mother, my friend’s grandmother, gathered them together and they all went to the prison to watch the killers through a one-way window. They talked it over for days after that, but the final decision was reached when the dead man’s mother and wife told the authorities to ask for life imprisonment. They agreed that the killers deserved execution, but said that they could never do to their families what had been done to them.
They had heard the words of Jesus, how
“in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them”? [Matthew 13:29]
Crimes are committed not just against individuals. Crime cuts to the heart of the safety and well-being of the community. One person might be mugged, but the sense of security is stolen from many others. In the same way, the effort to establish justice can inadvertently touch the lives of the innocent. You would hope that someone contemplating a crime of any sort would have a twinge of conscience before acting, some thought of what kind of shame they might be bringing on the people who are their family or their friends. There’s an old hymn that says,
“I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.”
Unfortunately, though, somewhere in the world there are people whose last name once upon a time was Capone who had to have it legally changed. Nobody named Manson will ever again name a baby boy “Charles”.
Yet we have hope. We have hope because we know someone who can sort things out better than we could. Jesus said,
“at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” [Matthew 13:30]
One more story about Death Row here. It’s about someone whose son I baptized a few years after his two older children had died in a house fire in 1985. Fifteen years after the fire, he was convicted of setting the fire that killed them. He spent twelve years on Death Row and then his sentence was commuted to life in prison, because some of the evidence used in the trial that related to the cause of the fire was shown to be scientifically questionable. To this day I am uncertain, as are many others who knew him, exactly what happened. The mother of the children who died maintained that, even at his worst (which was pretty bad) he would never have hurt his children – and this was a woman who had no love left for him. His second wife told police that he had confessed to setting the fire, but she did that in the course of another very nasty divorce. For my part, I know that whenever he heard “Danny Boy” he would break down and totally fall apart. (One of the dead children was named Danny.) Was it grief or was it guilt or was it both? I will never know. Honestly, I don’t want to know.
There is a need for judges and juries to make the best decisions they can. Pray for them. It is hard work, and serious work. Only, do not rush to judgment even on those who might be clearly guilty, because they may be experiencing a sentence we can never know, and even when we have to make decisions for the safety of society about when someone needs to be in prison, remember that the final judgment is not ours. So, too, never assume that someone walking free will not also be sorted out in the end.
A man who came from Nazareth was convicted of treason and inciting insurrection. He was sentenced to death, like many others had been sentenced, by the local governor and executed that same day. The governor’s name was Pilate. The other one’s name you can guess. Whatever happened to each of them?
We live in hope, because the wisest judge of all sorts these things out.
 Howard A. Walter, “I Would Be True” (first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1906).