My dog Ozzie is nearly eight years old, and has lived his entire life in the Rectory next door, where there is a section of flooring, in a corridor between the dining room and the kitchen, that’s covered in a dark brown 1950s linoleum. Ozzie has never once in his life crossed that section of the floor without pausing warily at its threshold, looking dubiously down at it as though crocodiles might lurk beneath its surface, and then scurrying across the three feet or so of flooring to safety on the other side.
I am quite certain that nothing bad has ever happened to Ozzie on that small section of dark brown linoleum floor; no disaster ever befell him there; he was never attacked by anything; the floor never collapsed beneath him; nothing ever fell on him from above in that spot; nor am I aware of anything that could have caused him fright there. But he approaches that three-foot width of floor with unfailing trepidation, as though it might open up beneath him, and he’d be swallowed up into the bowels of Hell, or at least crocodiles.
Dogs not only have great intuition, they also have a heightened awareness, especially because of their excellent senses of smell and hearing. Maybe Ozzie knows something that I don’t know. The fact that for the nearly eight years of his life Ozzie has never suffered molestation, disaster, or fury of any kind in that location, this has not prevented him from treating that small expanse of linoleum as though just beneath it roils a cauldron of danger. And this attitude of his seems silly to me, and somehow beyond explanation. Unless, as I say, Ozzie knows something that I don’t.
It strikes me that hearing Jesus’ parable today could be to many of us somewhat akin to witnessing Ozzie’s strange caution at the verge of the little section of brown linoleum floor: it is a warning of danger that we are not at all sure really exists. To find this passage of the Gospel compelling you have to believe that there are forces of evil at work in the world, on the one hand, and that God, in his own good time, will send his angelic army to defeat those forces of evil. It is to believe that evil will be punished and that righteousness will be rewarded, and that it matters which side you are on. I am not absolutely certain that many people today in America find this way of seeing things all that convincing.
For one thing, Jesus is expressing a highly dualistic view of things, in which the wheat and the weeds can be easily distinguished, the one separated from the other. But we are prone to see things more on a spectrum. And we know that weedy people have their wheat-ish moments, and that the wheat-ies are not always as healthy as they seem to be.
But more pointedly, isn’t it hard for many people today to swallow this business about the “children of the evil one,” and the “devil,” and the angelic reapers of righteousness? Who, these days, believes in the hellish “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”?
On the other hand, who of us is really expecting to “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”? Doesn’t it seem presumptuous, knowing, as we do, that most of are somewhere on the spectrum between the wheat and the weeds, and not so many of us are near enough one of the ends of that spectrum, to feel confident in what lies ahead, should a day of judgment ever come?
But what if Jesus knows something we don’t know?
And what if the point of the story isn’t the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, but the shining like the sun in the kingdom of our Father?
More than once I have flippantly said that if dogs don’t go to heaven I am not interested. Inasmuch as there exist in the world dogs who can detect cancer with their noses, dogs who can find truffles in the earth, dogs who can give warning to oncoming epileptic seizure or diabetic shock, and dogs who can find their way home from miles and miles away, I assume that dogs go to heaven. And I am willing to allow for the possibility that Ozzie is alert to realities that I cannot detect; although I still tread confidently over the patch of dark brown linoleum between the dining room and the kitchen. And if I am willing to concede this greater intuition, and possibly even knowledge to Ozzie, why would I be reluctant to allow for the same possibility in Jesus? Why is it so hard to believe that the Son of God knows more than I know, more than we know?
Every dog owner has had the experience of being awakened in the night by the barking of the dog in alarm for some unidentifiable reason. “Shhhhshhh,” we say, “It’s nothing.” Because to us it is nothing – nothing close enough to bother us or disrupt our sleep. But the truth of the matter is that it wasn’t nothing: it was something the dog heard but we can’t. Have we started to treat Jesus and his Gospel the same way? “Shhhshhh.” we say to Jesus, “it’s nothing,” when we hear the Gospel nag us or bark at us about the possibility that we could be led down the wrong path by the powers of evil. After all, don’t we know better than that? It’s not as if money, or power, or sex, or addiction, or fame, or selfishness, or any number of other things could lead us down the wrong path, after all, is it? We’re all on a spectrum; how can there be evil ones or devils to lead us astray; let alone hosts of angels to reap a harvest of the righteous? Leave all that to the “Left Behind-ers.” And we’ll get on with things here on the spectrum. Because we can hardly imagine that Jesus knows something that we don’t know.
We find it so easy to “shush” the Gospel that we never even consider the possibility that the thing Jesus knows that we don’t is that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” And we find it hard to believe that we might be among the righteous, since, after all, we are only somewhere on the spectrum between weeds and wheat.
I suspect that Ozzie is untroubled by these uncertainties. He is aware of the powers of darkness and evil in ways that I cannot even comprehend. And I allow for the possibility that he is prepared by God to be among those who shine like the sun, wagging his tail all the while. Which is to say, that we could learn something from a dog, who like all dogs, is admittedly somewhere on the spectrum between “Good Boy!” and “Bad Dog!” We could learn that no matter where on the spectrum of righteousness we may be, God is calling us to move a little further toward the Son. God is calling us to be aware that there are powers of evil in this world that can and will do us harm, and that we should beware those powers, resist them, avoid them, fight against them, and by all means do not fall into their traps, for traps have been set!
And, more poignantly, God is calling us to cultivate our place along the spectrum of the righteous like a good crop of wheat, which takes work. Move, when you can, further along the spectrum of righteousness by living more for others than for yourself; by learning to give generously in all kinds of ways; by bringing joy and blessing into places that are beset by darkness and curses; by raising your voice to the glory of God rather than to your own praise and self-congratulation. In other words, by being a little bit more like a Labrador. For God means for you and for me to be counted among the wheat, among the righteous; which is to say that God means for you and for me to shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father. Which I know is hard to believe, but it has the great benefit of being true! Let anyone with ears listen!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
23 July 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia