20 July 2014

There is little to joke about when
it comes to the gnashing of teeth

Gnasher and Gnipper in the Beano always seemed to be ready to gnash their teeth

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

Sunday 20 July 2014,

The Firth Sunday after Trinity

11 a.m., The Parish Eucharist.


Genesis 28: 10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 23-24; Romans 8: 12-25; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In my imagination, when I was a child not only were the summers long and sunny, but weekend entertainment was simpler and less complicated. The highlights of the weekend seemed to be Dr Who and Dixon of Dock Green, and the weekly editions of the Eagle and the Beano.

I may have been just a little too old (16) for the first appearance of Gnasher (1968), the pet dog of Dennis the Menace in the Beano.

The G tagged onto the beginning of the name of both Gnasher and his son Gnipper is pronounced silently, just like the silent P at the beginning of Psmith, the Rupert Psmith in so many PG Wodehouse novels.

Most of the Beano speech bubbles for both Gnasher and Gnipper consist of normal English words beginning with the letter “N”' with a silent “G” added to the beginning, as in “Gnight, Gnight.”

I was a little too old for the introduction of Gnasher, but nonetheless my friends in my late teens and early 20s loved Gnasher and Gniper, joked about those silent “Gs” and even recalled how as children we had joked about “weeping and G-nashing of teeth.”

There is very little to joke about in this morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43). The idea of people being thrown into the furnace of fire is not a very appealing image for children, and so to joke about it is a childhood method of coping.

But throughout history, humanity has stooped to burn what we dislike and what we want to expunge, and we have done it constantly.

We have been burning books as Christians since Saint Athanasius ordered the burning of texts in Alexandria in the year 367.

In the Middle Ages, and sometimes even later, we burned heretics at the stake. When that stopped, we burned anything deemed to be an occasions of sin.

They were burned publicly as an accompanying theme for the outdoor sermons of San Bernardino da Siena in the early 15th century. These included mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards … even musical instruments, and, of course, books, song sheets, artworks, paintings and sculpture.

In his sermons, the book-burning friar regularly called for Jews and gays to be either isolated from society or eliminated from the human community.

Later in Florence, the supporters of Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects, including cosmetics, art, and books in 1497.

And, more recently, the Nazis staged regular book burnings, especially burning books by Jewish writers, including Thomas Mann, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein.

Extremists of all religious and political persuasions want to burn the symbols and totems of their opponents, whether it is Pastor Terry Jones burning the Quran and effigies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in Florida or jihadists burning the Twin Towers in New York.

‘Gather the wheat into my barn’ (Matthew 13: 30) … a barn on a farm at Cross in Hand Lane, outside Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The limits of our extremists seem to be defined by their inflammatory words.

But who is being burned in this morning’s Gospel reading?

Who is doing the burning?

And who will be weeping and gnashing their teeth?

Contrary to the shoddy reading of this passage, Christians are not asked to burn anyone or anything at all. And, if we have enemies, we are called not to burn them but to love them.

In this Gospel reading, Christ speaks by the lake first to the crowd, telling them the parable of the wheat and the weeds (verse 24-30). The word that we have traditionally translated as tares or weeds (verses 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 36, 38, 40) is the Greek word ζιζάνια (zizánia), a type of wild rice grass, although Saint Matthew is probably referring to a type of darnel or noxious weed. It looks like wheat until the plants mature and the ears open, and the seeds are a strong soporific poison.

Christ then withdraws into a house, and has a private conversation with the Disciples (verses 36-43), in which he explains he is the sower (verse 37), the good seed is not the Word, but the Children of the Kingdom (verse 38), the weeds are the “Children of the Evil One” (verse 38), and the field is the world (verse 38).

The harvest is not gathered by the disciples or the children of the kingdom, but by angels sent by the Son of Man (verses 39, 41).

It is an apocalyptic image, describing poetically and dramatically a future cataclysm, and not an image to describe what should be happening today.

It is imagery that draws on the apocalyptic images in the Book of Daniel, where the three young men who are faithful to God are tried in the fires of the furnace, yet come out alive, stronger and firmer in their faith (see Daniel 3: 1-10).

The slaves or δοῦλοι (douloi), the people who want to separate the darnel from the wheat (verse 27-28), are the disciples: Saint Paul introduces himself in his letters with phrases like Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ (Paul, a doulos or slave, or servant of Jesus Christ), (see Romans 1: 1, Philippians 1: 1, Titus 1: 1), and the same word is used by James (see James 1: 1), Peter (see II Peter 1: 1) and Jude (see Jude 1), to introduce themselves in their letters.

In the Book of Revelation, this word is used to describe the Disciples and the Church (see Revelation 1: 1; 22: 3).

In other words, the Apostolic writers see themselves as slaves in the field, working at Christ’s command in the world.

This is one of eight parables about the last judgment that are found only in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, and six of the seven New Testament uses of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων) occur in this Gospel (Matthew 8: 12; 13: 42; 13: 50; 22: 13; 24: 51; and 25: 30; see also Luke 13: 28).

When it comes to explaining the parable to the disciples in the second part of our reading (verses 36-43), the references to the slaves in the first part (verses 27-28) are no longer there. It is not that the slaves have disappeared – Christ is speaking directly to those who would want to uproot the tares but who would find themselves uprooting the wheat too.

The weeding of the field is God’s job, not ours. The reapers, not the slaves, will gather in both the weeds and the wheat, the weeds first and then the wheat (verse 30).

Farmers are baling the hay and taking in the harvest in many places already. In a few weeks’ time, many farmers will be seen burning off the stubble on their fields to prepare the soil for autumn sowing and the planting of new crops. In this sense, the farmer understands burning as purification and preparation – it is not as harsh as city dwellers think.

It is not for us to decide who is in and who is out in Christ’s field, in the kingdom of God. That is Christ’s task alone.

Christ gently cautions the Disciples against rash decisions about who is in and who is out.

Gently, he lets them see that the tares are not damaging the growth of the wheat, they just grow alongside it and amidst it.

But so often we decide to assume God’s role. We do it constantly in society, and we do it constantly in the Church, deciding who should be in and who should be out.

The harvest comes at the end of time, not now, and I should not hasten it even if the reapers seem to tarry.

The weeds we identify and want to uproot may turn out to be wheat, what we presume to be wheat because it looks like us may turn out to be weeds.

We assume the role of the reapers every time we decide we would be better off without someone in our society or in the Church because we disagree with them about issues like sexuality, women bishops and priests, and other issues that we mistake for core values.

The core values, as Christ himself explains, again and again, are loving God and loving others.

It is not without good reason that the Patristic writers warn that schism is worse than heresy (see Saint John Chrysostom, Patrologia Græca, vol. lxii, col. 87, On Ephesians, Homily 11, §5). We do not need to demythologise this morning’s reading. Christ leaves that to the future. This morning we are called to grow and not to worry about the tares. That growth must always emphasise love first.

When governments and security forces have said they are rooting out violent jihadists from society, the average, gentle, ordinary Muslim has suffered grossly. When some members of the Church have sought to “out” or “throw out” people because of their sexuality they have caused immense personal tragedy for individuals and their families and friends – weeping and gnashing of teeth indeed.

How painful it is that recent wars waged in the name of democracy and freedom have eventually violated the basic concepts of human rights and dignity. In claiming it is targeting “terrorists” in Gaza in recent days, the Israeli military have murdered innocent children playing on a beach, innocent women and children in their homes, in hospitals and in schools.

When I want a Church or society that looks like me, I eventually end up living on a desert island or as a member of a sect of one – and there I might just find out too how unhappy I am with myself!

But if I allow myself to grow in faith and trust and love with others, I may, I just may, to my surprise, find that they too are wheat rather than weeds, and they may discover the same about me.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 20 July 2014.

Wheat growing in a field in Donabate in Fingal, north Co Dublin, this weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

Holy and blessed God,
as you give us the body and blood of your Son,
guide us with your Holy Spirit,
that we may honour you not only with our lips
but also with our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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