Jesus put before the disciples another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And 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?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.” ’
Thousands of years ago, before there were professors teaching theology in universities, before there were pastors preaching from pulpits on Sunday mornings, before any sort of institution existed to organize religion into denominations, people expressed their thoughts about God by telling stories. They told stories as a way of understanding the world God made and why people do the things they do. They told stories as a way of understanding their place in the world, and how they should relate to God, nature, and one another. Thousands of years ago, people talked about God and learned about God by telling stories.
Nowadays, storytelling may be considered appropriate for our children, but when it comes to how us adults learn about God, we seem to have traded storytelling for academic theories and dry theological textbooks. We expect our preachers to tell us something about God on Sunday morning, because they are the ones who have spent hours studying biblical history and the theological musings of the church mothers and fathers. We expect that knowledge of God can only be reached after hours of private study and contemplation.
But what if we were to entertain the notion that storytelling isn’t just for children? What if we were to consider the idea that our modern day methods of storytelling, at their best, contain what writer Connie Neal calls “glimmers of the gospel?” What if we were to open our minds to the possibility that even in one of the most secular industries of our modern age— namely, that of cinema— there are opportunities to learn something profound about God?
That is the idea behind this summer’s sermon series—“The Gospel According to Cinema.” For the next five weeks, we’ll be exploring some of the most important themes of the Gospel— things like mercy, calling, sacrifice, forgiveness, and divine love—and how those themes show up in some of our favorite movies. The goal of all of this is to enrich your own movie-going experience, perhaps giving you the tools to discern deeper meaning and catch those glimmers of the gospel in all of the films you watch.
In today’s film, The Fellowship of the Ring, we watched a scene in which the main character, Frodo, expresses disgust and disdain towards one of the movie’s most fascinating villains— Gollum. Now anyone who has seen the films or read the books knows that Gollum is a complicated character. He is surely not all bad, but he is also quite surely morally corrupted and therefore not a character we ever fully trust. He leads the heroes of the story into traps. He tries to steal the precious ring from them. He looks for opportunities to escape and betray them. And so perhaps, as we watch the story unfold, we, like Frodo, feel we would be better off without him. But anyone who knows the story also knows how important Gollum is to the eventual outcome, and just how fortuitous the wise wizard’s words are to become—“the mercy of one may rule the fate of many.”
Those who know Tolkien may know that he was a devout Catholic, and so was probably familiar with many of Christ’s teachings, including the parable of the wheat and the weeds from Matthew 13, which we also heard read this morning. In the scene we just watched, there are echoes of this somewhat lessor known parable, in which Jesus describes a master’s field, which has been sown with good seeds. Only overnight, an enemy has come through and sowed weeds among the wheat, possibly ruining what would otherwise be a good and bountiful harvest. The servants of the master suggest that they pull up the weeds and get rid of them but the master declines, knowing that pulling up the weeds may very well pull up the wheat along with them. And so he insists that they be allowed to co-exist together—the good and the bad, the wheat and the weeds—until harvest, where they will ultimately be separated and judged according to the fruit that they bear. Perhaps you are already starting to make the connections. In our film this morning, Gollum is like the weed growing amidst the wheat, and Frodo is like the servants who believe that uprooting the weed and eliminating it’s threat is the best way forward. But Gandalf plays the role of the wise master, knowing that it is not their place to decide Gollum’s fate, “many that live deserve death, he says, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be too eager, then, to dole out death and judgment,” he says to Frodo.
And so if one is paying close enough attention, one finds glimmers of the gospel in this story. One finds interesting truths about the complexity of human nature, and the ambiguity of good and evil in the world. Each of these stories— both the parable version and the cinematic version—remind us that the world cannot be easily divided into good people and bad people--heroes and villains. Good and bad is mixed together like weeds among the wheat, and we can’t risk pulling up the weeds, for fear that we might pull up the wheat along with it. Furthermore, even those who seem to us to be too far off for redemption may have a role to play for the good of others before the end comes. And we can’t always know what that will be, so it’s best we don’t rush too quickly to judgment, or we may never realize the good that could emerge.
Now all of this alone would be a good lesson for us to learn— especially in a culture in which we so often rush to judgment desperately trying to divide our world into good and bad, black and white, wheat and weeds. We live in a world in which we want to label people and pre-determine their value and worth based on what we consider to be their virtues and their faults. And so if we could walk away with an understanding that people are more complicated than that, that life in the world is more complicated than that, then I believe we would be better for it. But there’s more to each of these stories. These aren’t just stories about the complexity of human nature. Indeed if we look just a little bit further, there’s also some profound insight about the nature and character of God as well.
There’s a famous old hymn that begins with the line, “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” It goes on to say that “the love of God is broader than the measure of our minds.” It is, in fact, the mercy of God that is at the heart of each of these stories. Each of these stories points towards a God who is merciful towards sinners, giving them every possible chance for redemption. God wants to give us every chance to turn things around. God doesn’t want to uproot the weeds before they have a chance to bear fruit. Elsewhere in scripture Jesus says that we are to forgive a person who wrongs us seventy times seven times— in other words, we are to be infinitely merciful, for that is what it means to seek after the heart of a merciful and forgiving God. Now certainly there are times when our human minds cannot comprehend such mercy—particularly in light of very heinous crimes or in emotionally charged situations. But the love and mercy of God is broader than the measure of our human minds. There is a mercy out there that is greater than anything we can comprehend. And so, sometimes, it’s best to rest in that mercy and trust in God’s wisdom, rather than the limits of our own human judgment. For indeed, as our wise wizard says, “even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
We all have places in our lives that could use a little more mercy and a little less judgment. We all have a “Gollum” in our lives—weeds growing amidst the wheat that we’d rather uproot than let grow. It may be another person. It may be a co-worker or a family member. It may be a specific group of people. It may be something within our selves— some inner demon that plagues us with self-doubt or anxiety. It may be a specific situation in your life where grace seems difficult or even impossible. What if we treated these people and situations with mercy rather than judgment? How might that change the way we look at them and respond to them? How might that change the eventual outcome?
This is the challenge of this morning’s stories-- to respond to life’s difficulties and to respond to difficult people and situations with mercy rather than judgment. To let the weeds grow with the wheat, believing that in the end, God will use us all for the sake of good. May all of us have the patience, the faith, and the strength to trust in that divine mercy— which is wider and deeper than the sea— rather than relying on the limits of our own. And may we be fortunate enough to see that mercy turn into redemption for others and maybe even for ourselves. Amen, and may it be so.