Bad Apples

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

“One bad apple spoils the barrel.”

I grew up on an apple orchard that had been planted by my great-grandfather. I worked there sometimes as a boy and I also worked in another orchard a few miles away that belonged to my grandfather.

So I had personal experience of the truth of this maxim. If you have apples in a crate together and a small patch of decay appears in one of them, that decay can rapidly spread to the surrounding fruit. One bad apple does ruin the bushel.

Yet I also learned that it’s very hard to separate the healthy apples from the rotten ones. In the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel, a farmer’s enemy decides to sow weeds in a field the farmer has planted with wheat. When the farmer’s servants see the weeds coming up, they ask him what they should do.

The farmer replies that they will have to wait until the wheat and the weeds are fully-grown. Then they should harvest both at the same time, and store the wheat, and burn up the weeds.

Jesus here isn’t giving a lesson in agricultural technique! This is a parable about judgment. The wheat represents good people –“children of the kingdom” — while the weeds represent children of the devil.

The point of the parable, then, is that since evil flourishes all around us, we can’t expect to find a flawless environment. Parents who think they have found the perfect school for their children are always disappointed.

Even if the school is filled with kind and patient teachers, and the student body is supportive and well-behaved, there will always be ill-tempered or incompetent staff in the classroom. There will always be bullies on the playground.

According to the parable, this is how the world is. The weeds are always there, inextricably mixed with the wheat. Only at the final judgment will God separate good people from bad; only then will the good receive their reward and the evil, their punishment.

Now, for many skeptics, God’s promise of justice in the future isn’t enough. They find the imperfections of individual Christians so troubling that they reject Christianity altogether. Most of us will know people, for example, who were raised as Roman Catholics and who have since left the church because they were offended by that Church’s clergy abuse scandals.

These scandals illustrate the dilemma all Christians face in dealing with the bad apples of life. On the one hand, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are committed to the highest ideals of behavior.

On the other hand, we know that God forgives those who are penitent. He forgives them even when they have committed the worst sins. After all, mercy was the reason Catholic Church officials used to justify giving abusing priests a second chance. At that time, the officials were thinking that if God can forgive, the church should do likewise.

Fortunately, under Pope Francis, the Roman church seems to be facing reality. Bishops realize that while child molesting priests can be forgiven by God, they can’t be allowed to be anywhere near children—and they must face the full extent of legal punishment.

Much less serious, but much more common, are human weeds, those people who occasionally appear in harvests of human beings—the people whom we term “difficult.”

Whatever your occupation, it’s a good bet that at some time in your life, you were on a committee with one of these folks: someone who felt obliged to comment on every topic—or who objected to every new idea—or who insulted other members of the committee.

Or you worked in an office with a person who was always getting angry. You had to tiptoe around that person, and you could never seem to please him.

While such people aren’t completely evil, their company can be destructive of community and their presence can be toxic.

Even more unfortunately, those people may be impossible to avoid. You often can’t choose the people you work with, nor can you choose your neighbors – or, indeed, most of the people you associate with.

Now this particular Gospel text about wheat and weeds offers little practical advice about what we should do with difficult people. While Jesus assured his disciples that everything would be fine “at the end of the age”, the age hasn’t ended yet! After 2,000 years, Christians are still waiting for the final judgment. It seems likely that in our own lifetimes, we will be kept waiting.

However, other books in the New Testament offer practical guidance for our daily encounters with difficult people.

For example, in the early days of the Christian faith, people who were flagrantly breaking church rules had to meet with two or three members of the congregation, who would tell the guilty parties that their behavior had to change. If the problem folks didn’t shape up, they could be asked to leave the community. This was, I suppose, the forerunner of excommunication.

The lesson here for us in our secular lives is that Christians shouldn’t worry about confrontation. Jesus certainly didn’t. He spoke sharply when he needed to, and he never suffered fools gladly.

So suppose you are at a cocktail party and you hear someone making an anti-Semitic remark. Such prejudice is increasing; the turmoil in the Middle East seems to be encouraging anti-Israel sentiments that are becoming anti-Jewish.

As today’s parable says, God holds us accountable. Thus while we might understand someone’s prejudice there will be times when we have to challenge a bad apple’s rotten remarks.

For that matter, the fact that we are all prejudiced reminds us that each of us can be toxic. We can be negative, and self-centered—perpetually sorry for ourselves.

This is the second week in a row that the Gospel reading has featured a parable from Jesus that is based on farming. It’s interesting that with all the changes from 1st century rural Palestine to 21st century America, the basic facts of agriculture remain the same.

Even though today’s wheat farmers have giant machines to help them with their labors, they still have to plant seeds in the ground and wait for them to come up — as farmers did in the time of Jesus. For apple farmers, modern fertilizers and sprays and refrigerated storage can’t keep fruit from decaying.

Weeds still spring up. Bad apples still rot. So Christ’s message for us still applies: confront the toxic in others and in ourselves. And deal with it.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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