I’ve been in a pretty good mood lately. Maybe it’s these slow, lazier summer months. Maybe it’s that I had a few weeks off, that I had a vacation. I took a trip to New Jersey, and, some of you know this: being in New Jersey has a way of making you more appreciative of not being in New Jersey. So, it’s nice to be back in the Bay State. I spent some time with family – eleven days with family, which is about 264 hours, which is about 15,840 minutes, which is about equal to the punishment for certain petty misdemeanors. I was with my grandfather, and the man has eighty years’ worth of stories, mind you. He has traveled the world and wrestled wild animals, but the thing he wants most to tell you about, that he forgets he’s already told you about and then tells you about again, is his colonoscopies. Yes, I spent some time with family, and there’s nothing better than time with family, nothing better... but when, by the sweet grace of God, it’s over. So I’m in fine spirits, these days.
And I’m not alone! Mine is not the only sunnier disposition; it would seem that so is St. Matthew’s – which is no small thing! You see, now look, I don’t mean to speak of ill of anybody, but between you and me, he stands out from Mark and from Luke and from John as being something of the patron saint of sourpusses. His is the most pointed and severe of the four gospels, his grumps along, sketching out the story of Jesus in stark, brute shades of black and white. For Matthew, you can be good or you can be bad, but nobody can be in between. One’s either a wise maiden or a foolish one, a sheep or a goat, as we read last week, one’s either seed sprouting up from fertile soil or pigeon-feed to be pecked at. And if you’re unlucky enough to be counted among the latter, that is, if you’re the foolish maiden, the goat, the pigeon-feed, if any one of you is a scoundrel and not a saint, what might Matthew say lies in store for you? Well, to put it plainly, but in terms that make modern, polite people like us bristle: you go to hell. (Yikes!) But why put it plainly when the gospel-writer himself portrays the underworld in such creepy, unsparing detail? Hell is the English rendering of Matthew’s word, Gehenna, which was a real place, was actually the name of the Jerusalem city garbage dump. And Gehenna was a great pit piled high with rubbish and raw sewage and rotting carcasses. Gehenna was so toxic and foul that they would set fire to the whole of it, would keep the fire kindled constantly and always ablaze. That’s Gehenna, that’s hell in Matthew’s mind – a flaming heap of decomposing flesh and excrement; that’s where he imagined sinners of all stripes would sit forever writhing. Matthew, the big meanie, uniquely among the evangelists, does take a gruesome delight in bringing judgment and hell to life like this, in vivid, full Technicolor.
But, as I said, it’s summer. It’s margarita season. School’s out. People are leaving the office a little early on Fridays. People are taking trips. People are buying eight ears of corn for two bucks. It’s hard to be unhappy when everywhere you look there are strange, misbegotten tan lines to make you smile. And even Matthew, even Matthew is getting into the spirit. Even Matthew is loosening up a little. Even Matthew with his all-in, holiness-or-the-highway, take-no-prisoners piety, seems to be in a good mood. He gets to talking about, gets to telling a story about a wheat field. And this wheat field, as it happens, perhaps as one might expect, has its fair share of weeds. Of course, the smart money would be in getting a squirt bottle of Round-Up and going after them, would be in rooting them up and ridding the soil of them so that the wheat stalks can stand, un-choked, so that they can sway, gold and shimmering in the sun. Some farmhands suggest as much, suggest they might work the acreage over, might weed it, and clear the land to bring forth the fruits of a season’s labor. To be sure, in this they show wisdom and initiative – they’re no stupid slouches! Only, just as they’re getting their gloves on, the boss hollers out, Hang on there! Not so fast! Don’t bother with the weeds for now; we’ll let them live to see another day. And they say, Sir, are you sure? With all due respect, giving wild foliage the run of the farm is a surefire way to ruin the crop! We can’t twiddle our thumbs while crabgrass and dandelion and clover and kudzu overtake the garden! Still, though, they’re told, Why let a few little weeds put you into a panic? The grain will get along fine.
Now, I imagine Matthew in a hammock – maybe with a white smear of sunscreen on his nose, maybe sipping on some fresh-squeezed lemonade. He is in a good mood, is uncharacteristically cheery. (It’s a wonder what a vacation will do!) And Matthew finishes with his story, then says of it, perhaps he surprises himself with what he says of it: This farmer, he’s rather breezy and relaxed, right? He’s not wrapped up in hand wringing, not much of a worrywart. He doesn’t fret over these weeds, doesn’t fear for his wheat. Maybe he should stamp out unruliness and disarray, and do so sooner than later, maybe he’d do better to bid the undergrowth be gone. But he can’t see losing sleep over this, can’t see that the whole harvest would actually go to hell in a hand-basket. Things will sort themselves out alright, he thinks, but in the meantime, there are higher goods than crawling around on hands and knees keeping things kempt and pristine in the garden plot...
…And, well, you know this farmer, he’s a lot like God in all that, so Matthew – so Matthew! – says. God doesn’t obsess about good and evil. God can take the long view; God can let things be what they will be for a little while. God’s not up in arms and angry and anxious that some sin in you is going be the death of everything else that’s holy and right. God thinks that the good people out there, that the good parts in here, that the good is resilient, is fierce, is fiercer than the bad. God trusts that virtue will not wilt and wither in the face of vice. That’s not to say that there’s never a need to roll up your sleeves and dig in and get your hands dirty and do the hard work of repentance. Sure, break a sweat for the sake of a better life, but when you’re spent and worn and, for all your trying and trying, you still let yourself down – go at it gently. Yanking at every flaw in you is going to do more harm than good. Frenzied obedience and frenetic do-gooding are no one’s friend. Don’t take a spade and a shovel to your soul. The weakness, the waywardness, the uncultivated, creeping shoots which sprout within – let these grow up alongside whatever greatness and beauty are also within. Someday, this inner bramble will be trimmed back. Someday, the wheat will be culled from the weeds, and that will be God’s doing. But, in the meantime, there are worthier ways to spend a life than striving for moral purity and perfection. Yes, yes, be better, do better, say please and thank you, say your prayers. For now, though, how about something more airy and easygoing. How about patience, kindness toward, how about making peace with what is wild within? How about blessing yourself with grace and a breath? How about Matthew’s spirituality for a summer’s day?