The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s049g05 Lockleys Sunday 16 17/7/2005
"weeping and gnashing of teeth" Matthew 13.42
Sometimes I like to do a bit of a bible study when I prepare my sermons, and for this sermon I thought I'd look at the occurrences of this phrase, which we so readily think is about the tortures waiting for those who don't come to church.
The first very striking thing is that most often it is Matthew who remembers Jesus using this phrase. It occurs six times in Matthew, once in Luke and none in Mark or John. So it is a good thing to look at the phrase, so characteristic in Matthew's gospel, in Year A, when we are concentrating on his account.
The first occurrence sets the scene; it is Matthew 8.12 where Jesus says, following the curing of the centurions' servant: "I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." So immediately the reason for the weeping and gnashing of teeth is because someone else is included in the kingdom rather than those who think that they are entitled to be in the kingdom by themselves, by God's election.
The second and third occurrences concern our parable for today, so I will return to them later.
The fourth occurrence is the parable of the wedding feast and the person without the wedding garment. I suspect that the person without the wedding garment was already weeping and gnashing his teeth, because he didn't want to be present with all the other rabble who were there. They were the ones who were happy to be there, because they had never expected to be invited.
The fifth occurrence is in Matthew 24.51, the story of the servant who was put in charge of the masters' household, but during the masters' absence "begins to beat his fellow slaves." Again, the theme of those who think that they can do anything to others because of their divine status, is highlighted.
The sixth occurrence in Matthew is in chapter 25, in the parable of the timid servant who hid the masters' talent because he knew the master to be a hard person. Again the theme of those who know something of God's gifts, but refusing to use them, comes through. Actually it is a bit like the person without the wedding garment; no doubt he was weeping and gnashing his teeth when he was given the talent to use in the first place -- he knows it is to be used for others.
So the first conclusion is that those who will be cast into outer darkness are only sent to a place that matches their attitude to this present life. If people weep and gnash their teeth because God loves their enemies, those who don't think like them or live up to their expectations, then eternal life is weeping and gnashing of teeth for them.
The second conclusion is that those who choose to weep and gnash their teeth are those who do so because they thought that their divine status put them above others, and that they could do what they like to the "tax collectors and sinners".
Before we return to the parable of the weeds, it is instructive to look at the occurrence of the phrase in Luke (13.28), for there Jesus says: "Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' But he will say, 'I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!' There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out." So even knowing Jesus, if we use this divine status to put ourselves above others, will result in the same condemnation.
So to return to these weeds; we now are likely to have a better idea of just who these might be. Weeds, like cancers, are just ordinary plants that are particularly vigorous and push other things out of the way. So weeds are those who live competitive lives. The "law of the jungle" and the "survival of the fittest" are apt phrases to describe their existence. They measure their success by their vigor and by how many others they can displace. They are inevitably never satisfied, because there will always be more whom they must conquer. Hence they are forever weeping and gnashing their teeth.
I suppose there are personality types that match this description fairly well, but the harm they cause is relatively localized. Wise persons just avoid them.
But when this becomes a religious doctrine done in the name of god then the potential consequences are likely to be far more widespread. Pushing ordinary people around, telling them that they are "miserable sinners", that they need to repent and become like them; these are the persons and doctrines to avoid like the plague. These are the persons who would cast body and soul into hell already -- and there are as many who call themselves Christians as by any other name, who do this.
When we look at Matthew 23, when Jesus roundly criticizes the scribes and Pharisees of his day, we need to remember that the criticisms may equally apply to us if we "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others"; if we "love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect"; if we "lock people out of the kingdom of heaven .. when others are going in .. stop them"; if we "cross sea and land to make a single convert, and (then) make the new convert twice as much a child of hell"; if we "tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and .. neglect(ed) the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith".
Just this afternoon I thoroughly enjoyed the combined worship of the Dinka, Nuer and Arabic Sudanese congregations. An Australian clergy person, when he noted that the Dinka, Nuer and Arabic congregations were sitting in their various groups, took it upon himself to speak to one of the Dinka clergy, telling him that it was his job to get the groups to mix completely, to give up their tribal and linguistic associations. We are all one in Christ, he said. When it was explained to him that they were sitting in groups so that they could sing together, each in their mother tongue, the Australian minister got the Sudanese minister to look up Colossians 4.17: "See that you complete the task that you have received from the Lord." This sounded to me very much like a "heavy burden, hard to bear" being laid on someone else. I quietly suggested how difficult it would be to get Australian evangelical, catholic and charismatic Anglicans to worship together :-)!
In good gardens, it is not the weeds that predominate. Sometimes the church seems to want take over, push others around and get rid of these who don't comply. The very fact that the Church does not predominate means that the world, the ordinary people around us, have their place in the economy of God, equal to us. If we begin to weep and gnash our teeth at this truth, are we in fact of the enemy and not of God who did indeed "sow good seed"?
I often think of the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the lost sheep to bring it back to the fold. The numbers themselves suggests that Jesus leaves the ordinary people and tries to bring the religious back into the fold from which they had separated themselves. No wonder the religious people crucified him!
Between the parable of the weeds and its explanation is the parable of the mustard seed and the yeast. From small things do grow big things, without necessarily taking over and pushing out others. The branches of a tree simply provide a nest for the birds; the yeast magnifies the flour that it leavens.
The third (and final) occurrence of the phrase: "weeping and gnashing of teeth" is at the separation of the good from the bad fish, and good fish that are not used immediately soon go stale.
Look around us and see who is content and who is weeping and gnashing their teeth already. Look around us and choose. We do not have to pull out the weeds; the weeds -- those who have lived a life of pushing others around -- will remove themselves at the end of time, when they realize that the kingdom includes others.
Everything we do, we do in the name of Jesus, who welcomes us, and all people. If we exclude anyone at all in the name of god, we crucify Jesus anew, and weeping and gnashing of teeth will indeed be ours, now and for all eternity.
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