If you have ever done any gardening, you know that the main enemies are weeds. Trying to rid your garden of weeds is a constant challenge. One gardener remarked, “When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant.” You may have heard that the only way to tell some weeds from flowers is to pull up everything, and whatever grows back is weeds.
There are many gardens throughout the Bible beginning with the garden of Eden. Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was mistaken for a gardener by Mary and Martha on Easter morning. There are so many different types of gardens, just as there are many types of people. If life is like a garden we would each have our own mental construct of how that garden is doing. We would be attentive to the design of the garden, monitoring the growth, and worrying about the weeds. Taking care of a garden is work. And each person chooses what attitude to take on maintenance. Have you heard of the woman who said:
“I don’t do windows because I love birds and don’t want one to fly into a clean window and be stunned. I don’t wax floors because a guest might slip. I don’t disturb cobwebs because I want every creature to have a home of their own. I don’t “spring clean” because I love all the seasons and don’t want the others to get jealous. I don’t put things away because my husband will never be able to find them again. I don’t do gourmet meals when I entertain because I don’t want my guests to stress out over what to make when they invite me over for dinner. I don’t iron because I choose to believe them when they say
“Permanent Press.” I don’t pull weeds in the garden because I don’t want to get in God’s way, God is an excellent designer!
If this woman’s attitude toward life became popular, the world would be overrun with “weeds.” That attitude welcomes weeds into life, doesn’t it? And then the weeds have taken over. It reminds me of kudzu. Kudzu was brought to this country in 1876 to decorate the Japanese pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Between 1935 and 1942, government nurseries produced 84 million kudzu seedlings, planting them wherever they would grow. And they did grow, especially in the south where I was raised. There is a well-known saying in Alabama that if you are going to plant kudzu, “Drop it and run!” It can grow a foot a day and has been known to topple farm machinery and choke an orchard. There is even a story of kudzu derailing a train car! So by 1943 kudzu had been demoted by the United States Department of Agriculture from exotic import status to being a weed.
When we neglect the gardens of our lives weeds can take over. We need to keep that vision of how things are supposed to be fresh in our minds so that when the weeds appear we can stop them before they spread. Discouragement can make us feel as if it is no use, as if those resilient weeds just can’t be stopped. Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point describes how this discouragement can cause a community’s crime level to increase. “The Broken Window” theory of crime by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling states that crimes are more likely to be committed in areas where it appears that the residents have lowered their standards and no longer care about their community. So if a broken window remains unrepaired, the community tends to feel that no one cares, and it begins to slide into greater lawlessness. New York City used this theory in the 1990s as they addressed the crime rate, and it worked. Smaller crimes like vandalism were punished. Eventually there was a dramatic drop in more serious crimes like assault and theft.
Sometimes weeds appear in life suddenly but we can explain how they got there. There was a 61-year-old grandmother who tried a job as a bus driver but she took a wrong turn. An all points bulletin went out for her on charges of kidnapping. Since the bus crossed from Massachusetts to Connecticut as she tried to find her way, the crossing of state lines involved the FBI. When she was located, she easily explained what had happened. But, there are other times in life when weeds appear and we cannot explain how they got there, or what they really are. Maybe they are completely confusing. They may even look like flowers, and we cannot tell whether they are good or bad.
This brings us to the parable Jesus told the disciples. In the parable the Greek word for weeds is a technical term that describes a particular type of weed that looks exactly like wheat. It is very difficult to tell the difference between this type of weed and the wheat. This parable could have addressed the development of the early church and the challenges the disciples faced as they began to judge who would be admitted into the true church.
The audience of Matthew’s gospel was a congregation that would most likely have been both Jewish and Gentile. These two groups were not acting as if they were on the same team since the Jewish portion believed that they were descendants of Abraham, and the Gentiles believed that they were freed from the laws that might inhibit their growth. Each wanted to know how to be the authentic part of the church. It is interesting that at one point Jesus said that one had to have righteousness that exceeded the scribes and the Pharisees. Since neither group could attain that standard, how could they tell who was wheat and who was a weed? There are times when life leaves us wondering and confused, and the vision of our garden does not add up. We are left perplexed. Do we try to pull out what we think might be weeds? But like the disciples, we may be unable to distinguish between the wheat and the weeds. We may be like the man who pulled into a full service gas station. As his windshield was being washed, he kept pointing to spots that the attendant missed. Finally he realized it was not his windshield that was smudged, it was his own glasses!
Jesus provides an answer when life seems blurred. It may seem simplistic but it is one that we need to hear. Jesus said that in times like that, turn it over to God. Let God separate the weeds and the wheat. Maybe the presence of this mysterious weed/wheat in the garden has marred our personal vision of what life looks like so much that we do not know what to do next. We need to remind ourselves that God has a vision of the garden. God’s vision of creation to separate the weeds and wheat in life is far beyond what we could ever comprehend. So we need to simply trust that God’s vision of the garden will clarify what needs to go and what needs to stay.
Kurt Vonnegut’s esoteric book Slaughterhouse Five describes a scene that might help us envision God’s insight. In the scene the character Patrick, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, in the beginning of the novel, sees a war going in reverse. The smoke and fire return to the bombs and the bombs fly upward back into the planes. The bullets leaving the guns return. Soldiers who have been blown apart come back together again. They return home to their families. The reversal continues through all life until it ends in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.
These two humans represent God’s unlimited potential for the world. It is a world without weeds. A garden that is perfect as God intended for it to be. The parable that Jesus told reminds us that God has not forgotten about the garden. God will remove war, destruction, evil, disease, hurt, heartbreak. God will remove the weeds that leave us perplexed. God will restore the garden again, and restore the garden of our lives. Remembering that fact comforts us in times of despair and hopelessness, for whatever vision we have, God’s is even more beautiful. Let us continue to work hard in our garden of life, removing the weeds and keeping an eye on anything that gets in the way of the life God intends. And when we cannot understand why wheat looks like weeds, or
weeds like wheat, let us trust that God can make sense of it, restoring life, and the world. Amen.