Proper 11 July 23, 2017
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; so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers . .”
We are again blessed with both Jesus’ parable to the crowd on the beach and with the explanation to the disciples. Jesus discourages hasty judgment and too quick action against evil. And St. Paul encouraged the church in Rome to “wait … with patience . . . while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Church leaders and leaders in all areas tend to get in trouble over misuse of power, and sex, and money. When wrong is done we need to act. But today’s gospel reminds to act with care. Today’s collect reminds us that we are too often unworthy and blind – or at least short-sighted. Church history has many examples of action taken without due care for all concerned.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation had many causes, but the precipitating event was a protest against misuse of spiritual power, a misuse related to money, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses begins, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther goes on to attack the whole penitential system of the late medieval western church.
That system was based on the two ideas of Purgatory and “the Treasury of Merit.” Purgatory comes from the truth that none of us is worthy by our own behavior to stand before the God to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” From that experiential appreciation of our natural unworthiness came the idea of an intermediate state between death and the fullness of the glory of heaven in which the souls of the departed were purified until they were ready for heaven. But the idea of purgatory is hard to reconcile with the New Testament, particularly with the radical teaching of St. Paul in Romans, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
The “treasury of merit” is the idea that the saints have done “acts of supererogation,” good works beyond their duty to God, and that these acts somehow add to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our redemption, and that the church can draw on these acts for the benefit of souls in purgatory.
We all draw on the merits of Christ Jesus for our salvation, but Paul’s teaching that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” denies that anyone but Christ Jesus can add to the “treasury of merit.”
That said, in the late 1400’s the popes centralized the authority to draw on the “Treasury of Merit” and issued documents of indulgences remitting the penalties of purgatory. In the early 1500’s financial contributions or payments in thanksgiving for these indulgences helped rebuild St. Peter’s church in Rome. Archbishop Albert in Germany promoted this project heavily, and Luther wrote in response to Albert’s efforts. From our perspective this was another misuse of spiritual power for money.
Other conflicts used the Reformation to stir up the people, but a result was 130 years of war that devastated much of central Europe and bitter division in the Christian church that we are only slowly beginning to heal.
That’s one historical example. There are lots of others. Today’s gospel reminds us to act with care. Today’s collect reminds us that we are too often unworthy and blind – or at least short-sighted. We need to be very careful when we act to be sure we act with due care for all concerned.
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.