“In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Matthew 13: 24-30
I love the parables of Jesus because the small stories he told are so inviting to interpretation. As one writer has said, “Parables behave more like dreams or poems, delivering their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads.” By using familiar situations and references, Jesus could get his message across without saying it directly. As a result, parables have the uncanny power to speak across the great distance of time and place and understanding. And though we are far from the simple agrarian society Jesus lived in, we still know about weeds.
When I first came to Kenilworth Union five years ago, I was charmed by the name of one of our ministries, “Weekly Weeders.” This group of members helps to keep our grounds looking as beautiful as they do. Their work begins in the spring. A “Weekly Weeder” shows up with gloves and some small implements to prepare the garden to the side of the sanctuary. Soon daffodils and other spring plants emerge from the soil, adding a welcome show of color to the once dormant space. Then in the summer season, the perennials blossom… pretty splashes of purple from the Russian sage and cat mint plants, golden day lilies, white and purple daisies, bright yellow yarro and heliopsis flowers. The garden has a gentle, natural appearance and appeal. But the fact is, it is not entirely natural. Because a “Weekly Weeder” shows up regularly to keep out unwanted weeds. These are people who know which plants belong and which do not. I am not one of those. I am what you could call: horticulturally challenged.
But then here comes this parable called Weeds Among the Wheat. And as it unfolds you realize that while it reads as though it is about weeds and wheat, it really is not about horticulture.
Jesus says, “Let me tell you a little something about the Kingdom. A man sows good seed in his field (which we later learn is wheat). But when everybody is asleep, an enemy comes and sows weeds in the field. Meaning the wheat and the weeds will become all mixed together as they grow. So the servants or field hands, the folks who sweat everyday tending the field ask the owner, “Did you not sow good seeds in this field?” The owner says, “Yes.” leading the field hands to say, “Well then how do you explain these weeds?” To which the answer given is, “An enemy has done this.”
Now we shouldn’t get sidetracked here. Jesus does not tell this story to get us to focus on the enemy. Jesus doesn’t name the enemy. Matthew doesn’t name the enemy. None of us knows who the enemy is – or who the enemies are. We don’t know if the enemy is some shadowy, mysterious figure; or if the enemy is the neighbor next door or some foreigner from a far away place. The only thing we know is that the weeds cannot be traced back to the owner of the field.
“Do you want us to go out in field and take care of the weeds?” the field hands ask the owner. Should they? I would have answered: “Yes, by all means. Get rid of them. But be careful about it. If it doesn’t belong, pull it up, cut it down, hit it with a shot of Round Up. Whatever it takes. We can’t have those weeds messing things up…choking things out…threatening to take over the good plants.”
That’s what we do with weeds, isn’t it? It is the most natural response in the world. Only it is not always easy to tell which are weeds and which are not. In this little story Jesus told, the weeds in the wheat field are darnel – tares if your Bible is the King James Version – or the genus lolium if you really know your weeds. Darnel’s chief characteristic is that it is almost indistinguishable from wheat. Given this possibility for confusion, once you start weeding things out, how do you know where to stop? Which must have been on the owner’s mind when he told his field workers, “Leave the weeds alone. Let ‘em grow. As problems go, that’s one less for you to worry about. Just let things be. Because once you start, you could end up doing more harm than good. So don’t start. Put away the weed whacker and leave the Round Up on the shelf.”
Now we should remember that this story has to do with the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Kingdom is about God and how God works…not necessarily about us and how we work. So the story takes on added dimension as it becomes clear that Jesus is using the example of horticulture in order to make a point . God is the owner-figure and we stand in the place of the field hands. The wheat and the weeds represent the mixture of people who live in God’s garden.
Fred Craddock writes: “This [parable] is about God’s business, don’t you see? God says: ‘In the harvest, I will take care of things. I am the only one who knows weeds from wheat. So leave well enough alone.’” (Cherry Log Sermons, p.29)
Leave well enough alone? Well while darnel weed and wheat may appear similar, if not one in the same, we at least can tell the difference between good people and weedy people. Right?
Among other things, we human beings are judging machines. We are socialized from an early age to judge people according to our particular perspective. Everybody has their list of weeds in their field…Israelis have built a wall to keep the weeds out; Palestinians look around their field and see the West Bank settlements as weeds; Sunnis used to forcefully control those Shia weeds and now the Shia are busy ripping Sunni weeds out of their neighborhoods. Weeds can be people you resent, don’t like, and don’t want around. In poor African American neighborhoods Korean and Arab merchants who run the store down the street are sometimes considered weeds. On other lists, the weeds are people you don’t agree with. For some liberals it is those conservatives who are the weeds – and visa versa of course. And so the designation of who are weeds shifts, depending on who you are, and where you stand, and what you believe. It’s so easy to turn a category of people into weeds, and attempts to keep them out, throw them out or exclude is often divisive and destructive.
There is speculation by some that this parable Jesus told is about the church -about the tendency for the church to decide who is in and who is out. We see it in the press reports today about the “controversy” in some denominations. But it is more than a controversy. Just ask our neighbors across the street. The Episcopal Church has been much in the news as they’ve struggled over the place of gay persons in the leadership of the church. Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans have also debated this issue for the last decade. The core issue is about how one reads the Bible and whether God’s Spirit ever says anything new to the church. It is a complicated religious, theological and emotional issue, with people of good faith on either side. Still, it is very divisive.
Two years ago on Christmas Eve morning, Rick Warren was on “Meet the Press.” Rick Warren is the evangelical minister who founded the huge Saddleback Church in California and wrote the highly popular book, The Purpose Driven Life. A friend who watched the program was so impressed with the conversations, he told me about it and I downloaded the transcript. In speaking about the state of the church, Pastor Warren said, “The church is supposed to be the body of Christ, and for the last fifty years the hands and feet have been amputated. All we’ve been is a big mouth. And most of the time, we’re known for what we are against. And frankly I’m tired of that…It’s time for the church to be known for love, not legalism.”
There were lots of people in Jesus’ time who were judged by the religious establishment and by that society to be weeds in God’s garden. Going against the grain (so to speak), Jesus chose neither to reject nor condemn. He went into the homes of despised tax collectors, even called one as a disciple, Matthew. He associated with women with iffy reputations. He touched lepers. He shared a drink of water with a Samaritan. Jesus didn’t differentiate between wheat and weeds. No, that’s not quite right. He accepted those who were considered weeds and he befriended them. Jesus lived a life of grace with an attitude of compassion and understanding.
In a short story she called, Revelation, Flannery O’Connor wrote about a woman named Ruby Turpin. Mrs. Turpin lives in a small southern town in the 50’s, a world she has very neatly divided into types and levels and classes of people. She is white and middle class herself. At the opening of the story, Mrs. Turpin is in a doctor’s waiting room. As she sits and waits, she passes the time by mentally dividing the people in the room into her classifications: blacks – some, not all – are at the bottom of her scheme, then barely a level above come the white trash, then the homeowners, then the land-and-homeowners like herself, and at the top, above herself are the fine people with lots of money.
Her system of classifying people is grossly offensive, of course. But the honest reader of the story comes to recognize that each of us has some kind of classifying system like Ruby Turpin. Ours may be more subtle and politically correct, but there is a shadow of Mrs. Turpin in the way we classify some people.
Mrs. Turpin engages in conversation with some of the people in the waiting room, boasting about her clean pig-parlor, and thanking God for her sweet disposition while she deplores the ungrateful. “If it’s one thing I am,” she says, “it’s grateful…Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you.”
At this point, a teenaged girl named Mary Grace decides that she has had all she can take of Mrs. Turpin’s self-righteousness and she throws a book at her. After this, she returns to her home. Her revelation comes on the last page of the story.
Mrs. Turpin is fuming that somebody from a class of people a rung below her on the ladder has insulted her. She talks to herself indignantly while feeding her pigs. “It’s not trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone everyday working.”
Her rage finally burns itself into a strange vision, a mystical revelation that appears on the evening horizon. O’Connor writes: “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [blacks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people, who like herself and (husband) Claude, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.” She could see in her vision “that even their virtues were being burned away.” (Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works, pp. 215-218)
The truth is, there is a bit of ragged weed intertwined with the golden wheat in all of us. We are a mixture of saintliness and sinfulness and sometimes it is hard to tell which. One person’s Queen Anne’s Lace is another person’s weed.
“Let them both grow until the harvest,” Jesus said. Which leads to a final thought about this parable as suggested in a sermon by Jon Walton. It has to do with the end of the parable in which the reapers gather the weeds and burn them at harvest time. Walton offers this modest proposal…“The fire of the parable is not the fire of hell or punishment or suffering as some interpreters might say. But that fire burning the weeds is a refiner’s fire, a fire that takes away and consumes what is imperfect for the sake of revealing what is good and perfect and beautiful. Could God’s love be that good, that powerful, that strong? Don’t we all count on the hope that it is?”
I know I do. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.