Why do the wicked prosper?

Richard Hollingdale
Sunday 20th July, 2014

Why do the wicked prosper? For thousands of years people have asked that question. It is certainly one of the themes that run through the book of Wisdom, written probably just over 2000 years ago.

Put it into modern terms and it becomes the commonly-heard statement: “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.” THEY could be bankers, who even now give the impression of being pretty unrepentant about the disastrous effect they had on the world economy; or tax dodgers, wealthy individuals or, increasingly the target of public displeasure, large multinationals; or the small core of hardened criminals who make life a misery in particular areas, but whom the police can’t touch for lack of evidence; or people who cynically exploit the welfare system, though I think the jury is out on just how big a problem that actually is. Tragically today we must also add to that list people who commit unspeakable acts of violence against their fellow human beings.

Evil-doers getting away with things does seem very unfair and frustrating for the rest of us; it offends our deep-seated sense of justice and it can make us question the sort of God we believe in, who is apparently willing to tolerate this state of affairs. In its broadest sense, it makes us think about how good and evil co-exist.

The book of Wisdom gives an answer – of sorts. It was written at a time (1st century BC) when the Jews were being persecuted by the Romans. The author was a Jew living in Alexandria and subject to a persecution started there by Caesar Augustus. Yet again the Jews found themselves under attack by a foreign power and the writer is trying to encourage the community there that keeping faith is worthwhile despite temptations and hardships. His message, later in the book, is that wise people affirm from experience that evil does not pay in the long run. And to those with religious faith he says that God rewards the suffering of the just with immortality.

I guess that this question about the unfairness of life was significant in Jesus’s day too. He addresses it in today’s reading – another agricultural story, following on from the Parable of the Sower last week. It’s an agricultural story with a few twists though, which would no doubt have grabbed his audience’s attention and made them think. The wealthy householder sowing the seeds himself, not his slaves? An enemy creeping in by night and sowing weeds amongst the crop? Strange indeed!

Just as in last week’s reading, Jesus adds an explanation of the parable when requested by the disciples, though it must be said that there is a general view amongst biblical scholars that this explanation was added later by the early church and is not Jesus’s own. By linking weeds clearly with evil people and the crop with good people, the parable becomes more like a straightforward allegory – the interpretation is pretty clear. Yet as we consider it, more questions do arise.

The weeds always seem to flourish (as us gardeners will readily testify!) so why don’t we get rid of them sooner? Because we can’t always tell what is a weed and what isn’t. This parable is sometimes known as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, after the name given to the weed in the King James Version of the bible. The Greek word Matthew uses (ζιζάνια) is thought to mean darnel, a species of ryegrass which looks much like wheat in its early stages of growth, and is known as false wheat in some places. It’s identical to real wheat until the ears appear. I was interested to learn that Roman law prohibited sowing darnel among the wheat of an enemy, suggesting that the scenario Jesus presents is actually a realistic one.

It is also significant that, in this story, the weeds come into the crop by the deliberate action of an enemy rather than by blowing in from neighbouring land, as we might more normally expect. So does this suggest that evil is a controlled, active force, rather than merely something which happens rather more casually in the absence of good? It’s a very topical question, as last week the General Synod of the Church of England approved a new baptism service which makes no reference to the Devil, much to the disappointment of some in the church.

However the weeds get into the crop and however long they have been there, Jesus’s story also raises a final question for us to consider: Who are we to decide which plants can be killed? It’s not always clear cut what is weed and what isn’t, and we can’t kill the weeds without also damaging the wheat. And today we might also add: isn’t it right that the weeds might be allowed to grow? They might have a redeeming feature - they could turn out to be critical for certain butterflies, for example.

Jesus is reminding us that we should not judge. That is God’s job. In any case, life is much more complicated than the simple picture of good and evil people presented in the parable. The intertwining of the wheat and the weeds and the difficulty of separating them points to the fact that, as Jesus knew well, we are all a mixture of both types of plant. This was brought home very publicly in the recent trial of Rolf Harris, where so many of us were stunned that he had hidden such a dark side from view for so long.

All of us are made in God’s image, not only those we might consider to be good or just, however we might define those terms. That’s why we leave judgment and punishment to God. God will harvest the weeds when the time is right. When Jesus encounters a group of people about to punish a woman charged with adultery, he says that the person without sin may throw the first stone. It’s not always a comfortable position for us, but our presence in the world as Christians is not about a full-blown plan to get rid of evil at every turn. Our presence in the world is to be the good. To live the Gospel. To be light when darkness will surely try to snuff us out.

Maybe like me you find it troubling that we seem to be becoming quite an intolerant and censorious society. It started when Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood after the financial crisis, and now every time someone in public life makes a mistake there are cries for their honours to be taken away. Within a day or two of Rolf Harris’s conviction, the Australian Recording Industry Association had removed him from their hall of fame; a public mural of modern entertainers in Melbourne had his face painted out; a plaque with his name on at Colchester Zoo, from when he opened the elephant enclosure, has been removed. Perhaps it is a consequence of being a celebrity, but there seems to be no room for shades of light and dark – people must either be hero or villain. Yes, his behaviour was reprehensible, but does that discredit his entire existence?

A Christian response understands that good and evil constantly coexist within each of us and that all of us stand in need of God’s forgiveness. Thankfully, as our reading from Wisdom reminds us, God judges with mildness and governs us with great forbearance – which is probably more than we deserve.

So if we cannot destroy the weeds, we must instead nurture the crop. We must walk in the light and encourage and support each other in doing so. How blessed we are here to have a thriving community to help each other do that! Above all, we must be honest with ourselves, recognising and acknowledging that which is not good and honourable in us. Then, perhaps, there is hope that one day we might be counted among the righteous, shining as the sun – which, if it’s as bright as it has been this last week, will be something really quite wonderful!

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