The Toilet Seat – July 23, 2017
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Adam Roberts believes that the salvation of the world might be found on a toilet seat. Roberts is an English microbiologist and the founder of an initiative called “Swab and Send.” “Swab and Send” seeks to address the growing problem of antibiotic resistance by asking members of the public to gather samples of bacteria in the dirtiest and most germ-ridden places they can find, from toilet seats to subway station handrails to rotten food in the refrigerator. Roberts believes that the weapons to combat harmful bacteria are most likely to show up in the same disgusting, gross locations where such bacteria are already flourishing potently. Though there have been extensive efforts over the years to construct antibiotics in laboratories, these efforts have not produced sufficient results for a changing health landscape. To provide the medical tools necessary to defeat resistant bacteria, scientists like Roberts now hope to rely on bacteria colonies that naturally arise in the world around us.1
Roberts is hardly the only person to see promise in the contaminants that many of us go out of our way to avoid. Scientists have been warning for years that our efforts at cleanliness and disease prevention can at times be overzealous. Jack Gilbert, a professor of microbiology at the University of Chicago, recently wrote a book called Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for your Child’s Developing Immune System. He argues that exposure to most germs is actually beneficial for young children because it trains their immune systems to respond effectively to possible threats. A child who is shielded from germs too fervently in the early years of infancy, he claims, might not be ready to face challenges from more serious germs in adulthood.2
Don’t dig up the weeds, Jesus tells us, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Jesus illuminates the same truth currently being wrestled with by microbiologists—the truth that the fate of oppositional forces are often intertwined, and in seeking to destroy one’s enemy one might inadvertently kill one’s friend. The weeds and the wheat either grow together or are uprooted together, while natural antibiotics appear alongside bacteria, and immune systems become strong when dirt abounds. If we thoroughly sanitized every grimy corner and surface in the universe, where would antibiotics develop? If we prevented our children from coming into contact with anything dirty, how would our children protect themselves from later exposure to illness? If we destroyed the weeds, would the wheat even survive?
Jesus is no fan of the weeds—they are “the children of the evil one,” he explains, “sowed” by “the enemy…the devil;” he proudly proclaims that they will be “collected and burned up with fire…at the end of the age”—but Jesus nonetheless warns against pulling out weeds without considering the potential costs of doing so. In a similar fashion, no reasonable person rejoices in the capacity that bacteria and other germs have to make us sick, but science shows us that indiscriminate and overpowering attacks on germs can be counterproductive and even dangerous. We leave the weeds in place because we don’t want to lose the wheat; we make peace with some contaminants because we know the problems that can result from those that are really serious trouble.
It can be appealing, however, to follow a more drastic, totalitarian path. Why would you not do everything in your power to stamp out all that threatens or opposes you? Cutting down weeds and spraying household chemicals everywhere can seem like sensible options when you are concerned about the wellbeing of your wheat and want to do whatever is necessary to avoid the spread of sickness.
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, though, Jesus reminds us that we are not always as adept at predicting the consequences of our actions as we think we are. When we remove the weeds that plague our fields, the downfall of our precious crop of wheat may be the outcome that is furthest from our minds. After all, that is precisely the outcome we wish through our actions to prevent. Yet the destruction of the wheat is nonetheless the outcome that occurs. In tirelessly trying to avoid the result we fear most, we can unwittingly bring it about.
Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds in order to show us that only God knows what can happen when we set a course of events in action and that only God can ultimately determine what truly lies within the depths of someone’s heart. This is why judgment doesn’t happen until the end of the parable and why even then it is carried out solely by the Son of Man and the angels. Judgment, the parable reveals, doesn’t happen on our timetable and isn’t fundamentally our job.
Our task, meanwhile, is to reserve our judgment—not to lay aside all our efforts to pursue what is right, but to maintain some deliberate hesitation about our abilities to accurately make the ethical distinctions we can easily become so confident about. Our task is to expand our imaginations and consider the possibility that unexpected things can happen—that dirt can save us, that even a toilet seat has promise.
1 Maryn McKenna, “Hunting for Antibiotics in the World’s Dirtiest Places,” The Atlantic, July/August 2017 issue, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/could-the-answer-to-our-most-urgent-health-crisis-be-found-on-a-toilet-seat/528687/
2 Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “’Dirt Is Good’: Why Kids Need Exposure To Germs,” http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/07/16/537075018/dirt-is-good-why-kids-need-exposure-to-germs