Whoever has ears, let them hear… Whenever Jesus says that, you know he’s up to something. Whoever has ears, let them hear?
Night time routines, when the two oldest boys are two and a half years apart. According to the elder – it’s not fair that their bed time should be the same: according to younger, it is fair that bedtime should be the same. What’s more, younger of the two cannot sleep unless older of the two is there with him. So … a few years ago, elder brother learns that – if he goes to bed at the same time as younger brother, once aforementioned younger brother is asleep, then elder brother can come back downstairs.
So – if you visit the house as an outsider, and you hear me send older brother to bed at the same time as younger, you might think it unfair. Because in my voice you will hear, “Go to bed, go directly to bed, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred pounds.” But, if you know the context, you – like he – will hear something entirely different. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!
When Jesus uses that phrase, there is a reason he cannot speak straightforwardly. There is a similar phrase used in the book of Revelation – Let the reader understand. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear. These are apocalyptic devices, designed to smuggle various layers of meaning beneath the radar. But beneath whose radar? Not so much the little brother who might rumble the plan and come back downstairs – but Big Brother –the powers that be, and in the context of the Gospels, the great oppressors :the Romans.
Parables like this, were the technology Jesus had developed for a purpose. The Romans were constantly hacking into the telephone conversations of Jewish people, ready to pounce on them if it even looked as though they were stepping out of line. By telling Jewish apocalyptic stories, parables – Jesus had scrambled the message, so that only those with ears could hear.
Although, what Jesus was saying was not profoundly anti-Roman. Not when you consider what was happening at the time. British troops are slowly withdrawing from Afghanistan. At the moment, the land of Afghanistan is full of people who are – in essence – a mixture of weeds and wheat. But how would you feel, I wonder, if your homeland was being occupied by foreign troops? Depending on who you are and where you live, it might be a good or a bad thing. But is it at least possible, that there are places in the last decade, where our well-meaning British troops are perceived as the enemy by the very people they were apparently sent to ‘protect’? Regardless of the intentions of individual British soldiers who go there because it’s their job – might it not be understandable that they would be seen as an alien, occupying force?
Well – whether or the British and Americans in particular have legitimate reasons for occupying the countries it has in the last decade, in the Roman empire there was no doubt. It was an empire that knew it was an empire – and had conquered and controlled its territories. And the consequences for the conquered peoples like the Jews, were not good. So, in Jesus’ day, it is the most natural thing in the world to regard the Romans you saw everywhere, as enemies.
Especially since you are living in the Promised Land – the land flowing with milk and honey which God has jolly well given to your people. And now … that land is not only occupied by the children of Abraham, the bumper crop of people who are Abraham’s descendents. Mixed in with that bumper crop, are all these foreigners … the weeds. And it is the most natural thing in the world to think – well, in order for this crop to be of any worth, we need to get rid of the weeds now! That is, to take up arms against the oppressive Romans and weed them out of the earth, out of the land, the Promised Land. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.
Jesus tackles this sentiment head on: Don’t get rid of the weeds now: if you do that, you will pull up the wheat as well. Don’t go attacking the Romans now, because the consequences will be disastrous for the Jewish people. Instead, Jesus instructs his hearers to be patient, to wait until harvest. Then he goes on to tell a couple of other parables, before coming back to explain this one.
But, as is usually the case, when Jesus explains the parables – he doesn’t seem to do a great job. Even after he has finished explaining them, their meaning is still not that clear – because he still cannot allow the Romans to find out what he’s actually saying. The one who sowed the seed is the son of man – Jesus. The field is the land / world. And so on – good seed equals people who will benefit from the kingdom, bad seed equals people who oppose the kingdom. But rather than sort them all out now – says Jesus, leave it until the harvest. When the harvest comes, angels will come and do all the sorting out about who is in and who is out.
The harvest then, is the end of the age! Traditionally, this has been taken to mean that at the end of time, when the day of judgement comes – every individual will be forced to stand before God their judge so we can see just how we have failed in every aspect of our life. But the day of judgement is not just a divinely instituted public enquiry into the private life of every individual who ever lived. The day of judgement might equally be translated, the day of justice – when injustice is removed and the world is put right.
And there is a long tradition amongst the Jewish prophets, of warning that the longed-for day of judgment will not be what everyone expects. The day when God puts the world to rights, will not – as many people believed – be the day that God comes to destroy the enemies of Israel. Time and time again, the prophets warn that this longed-for day of justice, is likely to begin with God’s own people. The time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God. It is a recurring theme of the Old Testament prophets, of the New Testament letters, of the apostle Paul and of Jesus himself.
That when we long and wait and hope that justice will mean God doing nasty things to our enemies, we become at least as worthy of judgment as they are! Jesus implied as much at the very outset of his ministry. When, in Nazareth he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and cuts of midway through the last sentence. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recover of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…” And Jesus deliberately did not finish the sentence… “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
In fact, when Jesus cut this bit out of the Bible reading, the crowd in the synagogue were so enraged they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff and stone him. It wasn’t only the Romans that Jesus had to worry about when he spoke of postponing judgment. When so many of your own people expect God to judge our enemies, any talk of not inflicting God’s judgment upon those enemies is heresy, and will get you into serious trouble. Another reason, why Jesus is speaking in parables.
And if this parable has a single point – it is surely this. That much as we may desire to weed out of the kingdom, or our land, or our church, of our lives – anyone who we deem an enemy of God, we ourselves are on thin ice. But then – surely, at a place like Bloomsbury, if Jesus were to bring this message here, he would be preaching to the converted. After all, we all know that judging our enemies is an activity that is best left in God’s hands rather than taking it into our own. We have ears, thank you very much, and we can hear perfectly well! Or can we?
Are we really as liberal, as open – as we like to think? We often tell ourselves, with some assurance, that we are liberal and open. But I cannot remember who it was that said, “There is nothing more conservative than a self-conscious liberal.”
At least in modern Britain, those who were trained and schooled in particular generations, can regard themselves as liberal because of the values they hold. If being liberal is a virtue, then it’s the kind of label that we earn from our actions and attitudes here and now today, rather than theologies we picked up in the 60s, education we adopted in the 70s and training we received in the 80s. And if we encounter people in the world or the church or under our noses who do not conform to our pattern of the liberal world – we will judge them! Christians with any degree of maturity have usually learned to disguise their judgment of others, even from themselves.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!
Perhaps one example of a liberal today is Charlie Gilmour – sentenced to 16 months in prison for protesting against tuition fees. Now, of course, swinging from the Cenotaph – a memorial to Britain’s War Dead, is bound to invite venom from those who venerate the sacrifices made by soldiers. And it’s right – it is a disrespectful thing to do. But 16 months in prison! When you think about this a little more… this is a millionaire, campaigning on behalf of others – Charlie Gilmour hasn’t got to worry about his own education. He is already a privileged member of the elite – and is already having a Cambridge education which seems to be serving him well.
If nothing else, it looks suspiciously like being campaigning and protesting like this is being unofficially outlawed. In this sense, although he obviously went a bit too far – this boy genuinely deserves to be regarded as a liberal in the very best sense – although I’m sure he’d never describe himself that way. Even to suggest that there might be something virtuous about his actions is likely to invite a torrent of raging abuse.
But look at it like this. When you take the rest of the Gospels to help interpret this parable – the reason that the wheat and the weeds are not separated now is that some of those nasty Romans will find themselves in the privileged place of being in the Kingdom. And some of those assured, self-conscious members of God’s chosen people will find themselves cast out with the weeds. The whole question of who is in, and who is out, is all mixed up in the Gospels. We cannot take it upon ourselves to separate the weeds from the wheat – much as we might like to think ourselves qualified to do so.
It might be that individuals like Charlie Gilmour are regarded as naughty and disrespectful and as such, immature, naïve and violent. But could it be that he epitomizes today something of what it means to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Or better translated, persecuted for the sake of justice?
Is he in the kingdom of God? Or out? Is his an act of righteousness or stupidity? Because the more confident we are of any kind of answer, the more likely that answer is going to boomerang on us.