11A July 24, 2017 Searcy Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
This is the second of three Sundays that Matthew tells stories about Jesus, seeds, and planting. Last week he talked about planting seeds. This week he talks about pulling weeds. Next week we will hear about mustard seeds! Matthew also has a liking for parables about judgment. He is the only gospel writer who waxes eloquently about end times,/ the only one describing this furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only Matthew talks about the wise and foolish virgins, the division of sheep and goats, as well as today’s gospel about the weeds and the wheat. Matthew seems to like things black or white, good or bad, faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed.
In today’s gospel Matthew lets the early Christians know that they are insiders to whom Jesus gives interpretation while outsiders will not hear his special message, a little bit Gnostic isn’t it;/ insiders who at the last day will be vindicated and outsiders who will go up in smoke. Now this may have been comforting at that time, but not now. Matthew is definite about two kinds of people in his world, the wheat and the weeds,/ but for most of us today it is not so clear. The majority of us have both wheat and weeds within us as well as something of a hybrid where the two have grown together so long it is hard to separate them. So, this gathering and burning of weeds makes me a little nervous. Are we wheat, weed, blessed, or cursed?
Barbara Brown Taylor1 writes that parables rarely answer questions directly. We want to read them like a Morse code, but they behave more like dreams or poetry with images that speak more to our hearts than our heads. Parables are mysterious,/ teaching us something different every time we hear them,/ speaking across great distances of time./ According to Matthew Jesus speaks to the insiders, /his disciples, /and gives them the key; he is the sower, the field is the world, the weeds belong to the devil, the wheat belong to the kingdom of God. So why does Jesus not just say all this in the first place?/ Some scholars say he needed to avoid arrest, and others say those who recorded his words made a few additions so we hearing his words later on would not misinterpret the meaning.
What a minute! We just missed something. Did you notice how this passage starts, “Jesus put before the crowds another parable: ’the kingdom of heaven may be compared to’… The kingdom of heaven allows both wheat and weeds in it! According to Jesus not even the kingdom of heaven is pure. It may have started out that way, but some time during the night while everyone is sleeping, an enemy sneaks in and sows weeds among the wheat, Lolium tremulentum, to be exact, better known as darnel, a nasty wheat look-alike with poisonous seeds/ and roots like nylon cords that wrap around the wheat3. These weeds bare such a close resemblance to wheat that we cannot recognize them until the ears of wheat appear. The problem to taking a hoe to the evil weeds of the world is that good and evil look so much alike. Only later when they bear fruit is it clear.//
However weeds get there, most of us have them, not only in our yards, but in ourselves, in our lives: thorny people who are not part of the plan, who are not welcome, sucking up sunlight and water that were meant for good plants, not weeds. Some are just irritating like poison ivy but some are as deadly as nightshade. The question is, what to do about them?
“Should we go and gather them?”, the slaves ask their master. That is the common-sense solution. Pull them up, cast them out, cleanse the field. We have seen a lot of that today and in our past century, McCarthyism, ISSIS, KKK, in Germany, Syria, Turkey, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Israel, along our border with Mexico. Wherever people are busy trying to purify the field by hostile means, they are doing what the slaves wanted to do, only they are doing it without permission from the boss, who says, “No!”
“No,” he says, “for in gathering the weeds you uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Collect the weeds first and bind them into bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into the barn.” /This is a stunning statement, which seems to advocate passivity in the face of evil. It also suggests that we can do more harm when we think we are doing good/ than when we do nothing at all./
The boss gives at least three reasons as to why he says no to those who want to neaten up the field. First, we are not skilled enough to separate the good from the bad. We exterminate something that looks for all the world like a weed, but when we bend over to pick up the limp stalk, grains of wheat fall out. We are reminded of one of the first crusades where knights from western Europe ravaged through an Arab town on their way to the Holy Land, killing everyone in sight. When they turned the bodies over, they found crosses around most of their victims’ necks. It never occurred to them that Christians came in brown as well as white. Another difficulty with separating the good from the bad is that our lives are intertwined. That is one of the ways darn/el survives by wrapping its roots around the roots of the wheat so that we cannot yank up one without yanking up the other.
A second reason to let the weeds grow is that they may turn out to be useful in the end. In first-century Palestine, lumber and coal are scarce. The most used material for heating and cooking is dried weeds or manure. By letting the weeds and the wheat grow together, farmers have almost everything they need to make bread, the wheat for flour and the weeds for fire. The other thing they need is a little patience, a little tolerance of a temporary mess, until everything is used at the harvest.
For those of us living in the time before the harvest, this patience can be hard, but the weeds may still be useful in ways that surpass our understanding. Sometimes the weeds wake up the wheat and remind them who they are. I am thinking of people all over the world who have spoken out for health care, immigrants, global warming in the last six months./ I remember one physician I worked with who was really weedy, unkind to patents and other physicians. I repeated the Jesus prayer over and over as I talked to her to avoid saying something awful. She bullied me into developing an ultrasound test for children with sickle cell disease to determine if they are at risk for stroke. I remember the day in her unkind manner she said, “if you don’t do it, I will bring in someone else to do it or do it myself!” This test turns out to be my lifelong research and probably my greatest contribution to pediatrics. //I was hit by a drunk driver in my junior year of medical school and sustained injuries that still plague me today. I later returned to another medical school class, and that is where I met my husband. We never would have known each other if I had not been in that car accident that night./ Sometimes weedy situations turn into wheat. God always teaches us and turns awful stuff into good if we have patience to wait for the harvest.
As the field gets really messy, the challenge is should the wheat spend time attacking the weeds/ or concentrating their energy on becoming better wheat! This becomes the third reason the Boss says no to yanking the weeds. The wheat run the risk of turning into weeds themselves when they attack the weeds. It is one of the trickiest things weeds do, to get wheat so riled up and defensive that they start acting like weeds themselves, full of prickles, full of poison, good people who turn into bad trying to put the bad out of business. /
God allows a mixed field, and God asks us to be patient, to tolerate a mixed field, both in the church and in the world. This radical call to acceptance is not a call to passivity, but a call to strenuous activity to work on ourselves, to become the person God created us to be./
If any of you have tried to love your enemies lately you know it is not easy being wheat, especially with so many weeds competing for the soil of our soul, but the Boss seems to say to let him be in charge of the weeds. Our job and our best solution to combating evil is to stay true to our own roots and bear good fruit. Learning how to love, not destroying weeds is our life’s project.4 This is why so many of Jesus’ parables are about hiddenness, love, and waiting.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Live with the Weeds,” The Seeds of Heaven, pp. 11-17.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, “Why the Boss Said No,”, Bread of Angels, pp. 146-150.
3Rev. Todd Weir, “Wheat and Tares”, sermon 2005.
4Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 41; and Homily “The Weeds and the Wheat,” July 20, 2014.