If you’ve been watching the news in the greater Philadelphia area these past few weeks you’ll certainly have heard of the disappearance and murder of four young men in their teens and early twenties. The victims were all white and from the Philly suburbs of Bucks County (Vastly less has been said on the TV news about the routine slayings of African American and Hispanic youth in the city, but—hey!—that’s our media for you.). I was asked earlier this week to preside at the funeral of one of the victims, a nineteen-year-old named Dean. A few days later, Dean’s family told the funeral home they’d prefer to find their own clergy for Dean’s memorial service, so I was let off the hook. This was a relief to me as the funeral was scheduled a little too close time-wise to a wedding I was already committed to performing.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t cower from painful and tragic situations. In two decades of urban ministry I’ve been called on to preach at the graveside of murder victims, tragic accidents, suicides, those who have died untimely young, and—recently—a veritable host of drug overdoses. I take a certain professional pride in ministering in situations which are so soul-shatteringly painful because I want to make sure that those who grieve are given the opportunity to grieve and not made to sit mutely through prayers blandly read from a book or made to listen to an altar call disguised as a tribute to their deceased loved-one. I feel that healing only comes through honesty.
Even though I won’t have to preach at Dean’s memorial, I’ve been thinking a lot about this young man in the last few days. The gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost 7 Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) speaks to me of the dichotomy of this young life which was ended by violence. It’s Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds. You know it. It’s the story of the man who plants good seed in his field, but an enemy comes along and sows weeds among his good crops. The man warns his hired hands not to try to pull up the weeds, because they might uproot the wheat along with them and the crop will be ruined. The farm-workers are counselled to let the bad grow with the good and wait until the harvest to sort it all out.
Not everything I learned about young Dean was good. He wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout. He’d been in trouble with the law. He was also lured to his death on the pretext that he’d be buying a certain quantity of marijuana. The kid had to know that this was illegal. Still, everyone who spoke to the press about Dean remembers him as a nice young guy. He had a job at a local ice cream shop. His co-workers liked him. They found him to be funny and warm and treated him like a family member. Everyone remembers his smile. He loved his family, and his interest and ambitions seemed to be mostly wholesome.
So was he a good kid who made some mistakes, or a dope-smoking little punk who should’ve known better, given the advantages he had, than to get involved with the wrong kind of people? Both descriptions are probably true. Dean was like the field sown with wheat and weeds, both wonderfully loving and selfless, yet still prone to temptation and folly. The same contradictions have been applied to Dean’s twenty-year-old killer. According to a Washington Post article, neighbors remember that boy, Cosmo Dinardo, as “a good kid who went out of his way to help others—such as volunteering to shovel them out during snowstorms and refusing payment.” Was Dinardo a “good kid” with serious mental problems or a sociopath? Both?
All of us, I think, are a combination of weeds and wheat. Which means, of course, that we should be very careful about how we judge people. Punish wrongdoing, yes. But who are any of us to say who is “evil” and who is “good?” In choosing to be wrathfully judgmental, we are fertilizing our own weeds. And if the weeds get enough of our emotional “Miracle Grow,” they’ll choke the goodness out of us—no matter how righteous we think we are.
I certainly have to keep an eye on this myself. The same week as the quadruple murder I’ve referenced was reported, a local Philadelphia funeral director, a guy named Harry, was attacked in the garage of his funeral establishment. Some guy came in off the street while Harry was working alone on a project using a circular saw. The attacker struck Harry with the saw, cut his face to ribbons, broke four of his ribs, and left him with a serious head injury. He stole Harry’s wallet, cash, credit cards, and cell phone, and left the funeral director unconscious and bleeding. I know Harry. He’s a real nice guy, a Viet Nam veteran, and has conscientiously cared for families in my congregation. I want the s.o.b. who hurt him caught and punished.
What I don’t want is to think of the afore-mentioned s.o.b. as a human being. I don’t want to have to consider that he might be a junkie so crazed by his addictions that he’s not in control of his own actions. I don’t want to think that he might be suffering, or that he has a family that loves him, or that he was once his mother’s pride and joy. I don’t want to see the wheat in him. He’s just a weed to me.
This kind of absolutism seems to be rampant today in our public discourse. No wonder our congress can’t get anything done—all they seem to be able to do is vilify the opposition. But no one is wholly bad or good. We are, as Martin Luther said, at once justified and sinner. I certainly pray that violence will be restrained, that guilt should be punished, and that laws should be obeyed even if the threat of force must be used. But I pray that I may not hate the guilty. I pray that I can learn to be merciful in my assumptions, because I am certainly in need of mercy myself. I pray that I can leave God’s work up to God.
Dear Jesus my Lord, you who were the victim of violence, please watch over the families that have been wounded by violent acts. Be present with the mourners of victims, and with the families of those who suffer because their loved ones have done violence. Let your Holy Spirit move into the hearts of those who have committed crimes and bring them to repentance. Remove hate, vengeance, arrogance, and all that separates us from your love from our hearts. Help us to see a shared humanity as you see it. For this and for all you see we need, we ask in your holy name. Amen.