Learning on the Way about Evil

July 19, 2020
Reverend David Tsai Shinn

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Two towering figures of the American civil rights movement died Friday. This was a significant loss for a nation in the historic moment of protests and outcry for racial equity and equality. Both Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian and Honorable John Robert Lewis were epitome of “good trouble.” That was Lewis’ favorite saying and approach to challenge systemic racism. They labored with love, sweat, tear, and blood alongside with Dr. King for racial justice in the 1960s. We give our heartfelt thanks for their sacrifices and tireless efforts to fight the evil of racism, Jim Crow law, white supremacy, and inequality. If there were ever a Sunday to study this parable before us, wouldn’t you agree that it is this Sunday?

Scripture Analysis

Today we have the parable of the weeds among the wheat. In front of a large crowd standing on the shore of a beach, Jesus teaches several parables while standing in a boat. Chapter 13 gives us not only the parables, but also the rare explanations of the two parables.

Thomas Long, the preaching professor at Candler School of Theology in Emory University, advises readers of the parable to peel back the layers of the parable one at a time. So, let’s begin with our first layer.

Jesus tells the large crowd hanging on His every word that we live in a world where opposing forces of good and evil are working to sow seeds for wheat in the day, and weeds in the night. Christ sows good seeds and they become the children of God. The devil, however, sows weeds and they become children of the evil one. Upon seeing the weeds growing among the wheat, the enslaved people in the household reported to the head of the household of this terrible agricultural misdeed. This person then instructed the enslaved people to wait for the harvest time. This signifies the final judgement when the children of God will be gathered into the barn and the children of the evil ones will be thrown into a furnace with weeping and gnashing of the teeth.

Now, let’s peel back another layer. Notice the ubiquitous use of the word, “slave,” and “master.” It is all too common when we read the scripture and not recognize the destructive context, and the danger of misinterpretation of these words in justifying slavery in our nation’s history, consciousness, and faith formation. Since we are on the subject of evil and recognizing the impacts of enslavement and systemic racism, we are encouraged and convicted to read the bible with greater awareness and analysis.

We have lot of talk about, so let’s keep peeling. Since we are peeling onions, raise your hand if you cry when you are peeling onions. Well, tears will come when we are honest in our deconstruction and defeat of evil.

The next layer we see is the word enemy and the act of judgement. We see in the parable that the one who sows the weeds is called an enemy. Later in the explanation, this enemy is defined as the devil. Matthew uses the word enemy three times and the same for devil. The first time is in 5:43-44 where Jesus tells us, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Shall we pause a moment here?

If the enemies, including children of evil one, are destined for the “furnace of fire,” why should we love them? More poignantly, who among us can be the arbiter of who is the children of God and children of the evil one? No one, only God can. Furthermore, our faith tells us that God love all without distinction, how then are we to love?

With these questions and more, we peel another layer. If God sows good seeds and the evil one sows bad seeds, does it mean that God permits evil? Is God responsible for evil? If you are not crying right now, maybe you might start.

Pressing onward on the journey with these theological inquiries, let’s discuss what is evil and turn to few conversational partners to help us.

What is evil?

Daniel Migliore of Princeton Theological Seminary describes theology as faith seeking understanding and says, “one aspect of this task is the quest for wholeness and coherence in our thinking about God, ourselves, and the world in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.”[1] As we seek to understand evil in light of God’s providence, it behooves us to recognize that our quest, and our understanding of this profound query is not exhaustive, and we may only see dimly now and in our lifetime as Paul’s profession in 1 Corinthians 13:12.

In our profession and expression of faith in a God who is not an absentee landlord but remains faithful, upholding, blessing, and guiding the creation to its appointed goal, we trust our God in God’s unceasing care and love for all in creation, large and microscopic. Then evil, as Barth calls it, “a radical disruption of God’s love” runs counter to God’s providential plan for God’s creation.[2] Then we must ask: if God is both omnipotent and good, why is there so much evil in the world?

Theologians defines evil in two forms. First, natural evil is the suffering and evil that human beings experience at the hand of the nature, diseases, accidents, earthquakes, fires, and floods.[3] In our case today, Covid-19 is an example of natural evil just as AIDS in the 80s, or SARS in the 2000s. The second evil is moral evil and it is suffering and evil that sinful human beings inflict on each other, and on the world they inhabit by the conscious choice and free will of the human beings.[4] In this case, our accounting of such evil is too shamefully numerous and too heartbreakingly depraved. We can recount the atrocity of the holocaust in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s gulag, the killing field in Khmer Rouge, the massacre of Nanjing, just to name a few. Here in our country, the massacre and forced removal of Native Americans, the enslavement and systemic racism against African Americans, the discrimination against our LGBTQ siblings, and isms of too many sorts.

Yet as unrelenting and cruel as evil can be, we do not abandon our faith for we have trust in God and in fellow human being to overcome evil.[5] On that fate day of March 7, 1965, a 25 years old John Lewis stood in the wake of searing racism and evil for nonviolence and peace at Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Even with nonviolent intent to march for voting right, he suffered fractured skull from hate filled bludgeoning of Alabama state patrol and local police. He later would reflect, “I gave a little blood that day.”[6]

We must wonder, where did Lewis find such courage and strength to stand against evil and get back up after being beaten down. In an interview with PBS for Religion and Ethic Weekly, Lewis reminded the listeners the “deep seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of sense of faith.”[7] They would ask “what would Jesus do,” and the motivating message is “love in action: don’t’ hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepare to forgive.” For the central message of the scripture to Lewis was “reconciliation” found in the core teaching of Jesus and their involvement in the civil right struggle was “an extension of our faith.”

Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo and the one of the most influential theologians of the western theology recounts the power of God at work that “God’s providence is at work both in the lives of individuals and in history even though it is largely hidden.”[8] In his book, “City of God,” Augustine leads his readers to see God’s work in the disintegration of the Roman empire’s tyranny, injustice, social breakdown, war, and corruption. God worked through that tyrannical era and surely God can work through our time.

John Calvin, a major reformer during the Reformation, affirms God’s providence and governance in all events even more emphatically. He writes, “All events are governed by God’s secret plan. Nothing happen except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by God.”[9] Calvin declares that God governs the course of nature and history down to the smallest details and God “direct everything by (God’s) incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to (God’s) own end.”[10] Our lives are not too small for God to care.

For both Augustine and Calvin, divine providence is less a speculative doctrine than a practice truth. They recognize the presence of evil and the cause of natural sorts which is beyond human control, and the moral sorts of our own sinfulness. “We can be confident that God reigns and that evil is firmly under God’s control.”[11] God is actively working against the evil and effects of evil from human sinfulness. Fatalism is not the response. Instead, faithfulness and activism are our collective rallying cry. We are invited to trust in our loving God and for all things look to Jesus’ way, truth and life in living with compassion, patience in adversity, gratitude in difficulty, and strength in perplexity.

In a same PBS interview, Lewis said, “Sometimes when I look back and think about it, how did we do what we did? How did we succeed? We didn’t have a website. We didn’t have a cellular telephone, but I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us.”

Evil in its most depraved form is still no match for the power of our living God.

When was a time when the evil of this world and the evil of human sinfulness became too great to bear? How did you face such adversity? What did you learn about God, yourself, and others around you?

Speaking with seniors in our church who are living alone or isolated for the past several months, many shared their laments of missing church friends and families. While they feel powerless in their situation, many also shared their unwavering trust in God, “God will lead us through this” one says. “The good Lord has taken me through some valleys, and this little dip will not overwhelm me” another member says. Finally, another member says, “one day we will be together again.”

The natural evil of Covid-19 has broken open the moral evil and sinfulness of our national consciousness, history, and continual destructive structure. We are called to keep pressing on against discrimination and hatred on the bases of gender, sexuality, race, and religion. We can because Jesus lead us all the way.

Meghan, who is leading us all the way?

Alanna, who is leading us all the way?

Amanda, who is leading us all the way?

You who are watching or listening, who is leading us all the way?

Our Minister of Worship and Music, Dr. Amanda Weber is leading our music program in hosting an educational series called, “Hearing Soul: A Guided Overview of African American Choral Traditions.” Dr. Yolanda Williams defines hearing souls as:

“Hearing is the first step toward understanding.”

“The thing that has been missing all along is hearing the soul of another…We need to learn how to hear each other’s soul.”

Evil in is most unimaginable form is daunting. Yet we don’t face such evil of natural or moral forms alone. We face it by hearing each other’s souls and find community and strength to overcome even and especially the greatest evil.

Friends and sibling in Christ, let’s peel back the layers of evil in our lives and in the world. Let’s stand on the shoulders of giants such as Rev. Vivian and Honorable Lewis and so many others. Let us shed tears, sweats, even blood, as we overcome evil of racism, disease, and sinfulness. Let us get into some “good troubles.” Amen!

[1] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdman Publishing, 1991), 99.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3: 148.

[3] Migliore, 101.

[4] Magliore, 102,

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/18/us/john-lewis-ct-vivian-dead/index.html

[7] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2004/01/16/january-16-2004-john-lewis-extended-interview/2897/

[8] Augustine, City of God, 13.4.

[9] John Calvin, Institute of Christian Religion, 1:16.2, 3.

[10] John Calvin, Institute of Christian Religion, 1:16.4.

[11] Migliore, 105.

    Latest Sermons

    © Westminster Presbyterian Church | 2020