Isaiah 44:6-8, Matthew 13.24-30,36-43 – In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Several years ago, I heard a great story about a small child learning the lord’s prayer from an African Bishop. It went like this – the mother of a small child approached her Vicar to discuss an issue she had with little Jonny. Little Jonny had been learning the Lord’s prayer. By in large he was now saying it and praying it pretty well. But the mother was concerned and shared her dilemma as to whether God would understand that little Jonny was adamant (and would not change his understanding of one of the phrases) as only a three year old can, where he was saying – lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from eagles. Frankly I can understand little Jonny’s preference for eagles over evil. I have enjoyed eagle spotting on Mull and the Outer Hebrides in the past (see above!). Also eagles are much more tangible and easy to understand for all of us than evil is!
Evil is such a harsh word – very dominating and dark. And I wonder how many times we have reflected on what that phrase – Deliver us from evil actually means when we say it day by day and week by week. One of the hardest things when explaining the Baptism Service to the parents and godparents is also the question and response – Do you renounce evil? – I renounce evil. And I for one, usually hedge my bets a bit with an explanation akin to us wanting good and wholesome things for their child which is a bit of a cop out!
Both renouncing evil and being delivered from evil, suggest evil is around us day by day. Something we need to choose to turn away from and something we may need rescuing from or guiding away from. Our gospel reading also used evil in a day to day sense – counting the weeds as the children of the evil one and pointing out the ramifications of choosing the dark side rather than the light
Evil is pretty difficult to define – Evil is a broad term used to indicate a negative moral or ethical judgment, often used to describe intentional acts that are cruel, unjust, or selfish. Evil is usually contrasted with good, which describes intentional acts that are kind, just, or unselfish. Talking about evil and discerning good from evil as I am going to attempt this morning/evening – is actually pretty hazardous and here are a few of the reasons why:
- Firstly: discerning good from evil isn’t always easy. Even for those of us who have been making this sort of judgement for years. In some cases it is very straightforward. However in others one person’s good may be another person’s evil. We are also probably better at discerning good from not so good – as saying something is evil is pretty hard
- A second hazardous point about discerning good from evil is that we have to make these judgements for ourselves and be capable of making these judgements for ourselves. Societies do not work well where one person is the arbitor of this power and others are unable to make free choices for themselves, or when leaders say one thing and do another. Likewise society doesn’t work well where there is no consensus on meeting the common good for all and everyone is out for themselves and dishonest to get their own way. We are reaping the downsides of both of these in our society today.
- Whilst I am talking about society – there is another common theme about our young people – I want to explore. This is that we are not doing a particularly good job of teaching our young people the differences between right and wrong, between good and evil. This is very difficult because positive influences and values – making good judgements is clearly written into our current education system. What is happening is that this teaching is being over-ridden by the negative life experiences children have in their lives. If their experience of life does not match up with the values they are taught, it is not surprising that youngsters struggle to make judgements of this sort.
- Another troublesome area in this murky ground of good from evil is in how to express ourselves. Stating that something or someone is evil (in our judgement) is not a good starting point for discussion. This is one of the reasons the Anglican Communion (and the Church of England in particular) is in such difficulty over all the gender and sexuality stuff. Whatever the rights and wrongs are of the debate – I am not going there! Condemnation is not a good starting point – however well-intentioned it is. That leaves the condemned feeling they will not be listened to even if they tried to express themselves. We are proud of our system of justice for this very reason, where we are viewed as innocent until we are proved guilty. Rather than being viewed as guilty before we are proved innocent.
- The final complication I want to touch on in good/evil debate. I am sorry if I am making this whole question of good and evil more difficult this morning/evening. Is the reality that we are called to love our neighbour (and not to condemn them!). Obviously, the Christian life involves some self-discipline using judgements for ourselves about ourselves and about our own choices and life experiences is fair enough. This is the basis of seeking God’s forgiveness for the things we do wrong. It’s a healthy and wholesome thing to do and it should be between us and God. Sometimes a third party – trusted friend, soul friend can be helpful in getting us back on track. However we need to be very wary, and very, very discerning over the temptations of using our powers of judgement on others. Frankly judging others is not going to get us very far in introducing our God of love and in loving people into the kingdom. Someone shouting on the street corner – that we are all sinners or someone naming our sins to us is pretty uncomfortable. Pointing out the depths of wickedness is not going to encourage people into our church. We have I hope earnestly got beyond burning heretics at the stake. Throwing the first of many stones. Sometimes when we do this, we are just as guilty or even more guilty of whatever it is that has got us stirred up!
Jesus didn’t behave like this with people, he started by building up relationships with people – the marginalised and the lowest of the low. Those who would have been branded as evil in his day. He respected them and cherished them as individuals – he didn’t condone their previous actions or collude with them. He welcomed them, accepted them and loved them and we should model our general behaviour on his example. And remember we want people to experience the love of God through our words, actions and attitudes, and not our fallibilities and human limitations
Being loving is definitely the choice for most circumstances, but there are just a few occasions when we may need to go further in helping others in their discernment of good and evil. And this is in the tricky area of those with whom we have close relationship. When we are faced with the dilemma of such a person, making choices we know deep within are not good for them. We too need to follow Jesus’ path by not condoning or colluding, but loving them despite themselves and praying for them. And being there I suspect to help pick up the pieces. Just as they would help us when we are the ones making the dubious choices. My view is that this should be the exceptional case and not the rule. Based on the truth that we are not always right about everything, and this kind of action should be based on prayer for that person and there be a sense of God’s presence in our heart for them. Love needs to be the basis of our actions and not our own purposes and desires.
This has been something of a marathon contemplation on discerning good from evil ranging from the difficulties we have with this word evil through to the need for all to be able to make judgements in society. From making discernments for ourselves as part of our spiritual discipline through to the challenge of our close relationships. Overarching all of this is Jesus example of love and acceptance – the model we should be following. I end with a short silence to ponder and then a prayer
Let us pray Silence Loving God, may we look more keenly, listen more quietly, speak more gently. May we love with integrity both ourselves and those around us and may we love from your heart for all people and all creation. Amen Some material is copyright Church House Publishing 2000-2023, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible ©1989/1995