July 17, 2011

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Psalm 139

I think I understand why Jesus’ disciples would have needed him to explain the parable of the weeds among the wheat. Like them, I don’t think I would have gotten the point just from hearing it once and thinking about it a little. In fact, I read the parable over and over this week. I reflected on it for hours. I read what others had to say about it online and in several published books. I even had a couple of conversations with other Christians about what Jesus’ parable might mean for us today.

But when I stopped reading and thinking and talking… when it was time for me to start writing, to decide what I would say to you today, I felt stuck. There seemed to be so many possible interpretations of the parable that I didn’t know where to begin. So I decided to begin with the explanation of the parable that is provided in the Gospel. Maybe that was Jesus’ own explanation to his disciples on that day when they were confused:

They were back in the house, and the crowds were left outside. And the disciples said to Jesus, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” And he answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil-doers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Although the explanation might sound pretty scary to most of us, Jesus’ first disciples might have heard these words as words of comfort and encouragement. After all, they were on a mission with Jesus to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. And they might well have been feeling a little frustrated and discouraged by all the set-backs.

Not only did they have to accept the fact that people’s responses to their message were not always positive, there were times when they felt like they were competing with strong negative forces. The Pharisees and religious leaders that opposed Jesus’ ministry could be compared to the evil one sowing weeds among the wheat, and they had pretty much had enough of those trouble-makers.

Talitha Arnold explains that bearded darnel is a devil of a weed. It defies Emerson’s claim that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” Known in biblical terms as “tares,” bearded darnel has no virtues. Its roots surround the roots of good plants, sucking up precious nutrients and scarce water, making it impossible to root it out without damaging the good crop. Above ground, darnel looks identical to wheat, until it bears seed. Those seeds can cause everything from hallucinations to death.

No wonder Jesus uses this noxious “cheat weed” to illustrate evil incarnate. Bearded darnel, also known as false wheat, is the botanical equivalent of the “ravenous wolves… in sheep’s clothing” of which Jesus has already warned. And though the disciples may not be able to deal with the weedy Pharisees themselves, the parable encourages them to hang on and be patient. God will sort things out in the end, and the weeds will be thrown into the fire.

But I wonder what those same disciples might have thought of the parable if they heard it again a few months or years later. I’m thinking of the time in Jesus’ ministry after things started to go drastically wrong. Just imagine if Judas had been reminded of the parable, just after he leaned over to greet Jesus with that kiss of betrayal. Or consider the possibility of Peter hearing the parable again while he was standing in the courtyard outside the house of the high priest, with his words of denial still hanging in the air.

When they first heard it, Jesus’ followers were probably pretty confident that they were the good seed growing into wheat, and someone else was the bad seed growing up into weeds and causing them problems. But maybe things weren’t so clear anymore. Perhaps there was some doubt – just enough to help them understand the parable in a new way.

Maybe then they started to wonder about the reason that the slaves are told to leave the weeds and the wheat alone. The slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where then did these weeds come from?” That may well be a question that the disciples grappled with in their own lives. They had been called and equipped to grow a kingdom of wheat, but somehow along the way – when they were looking the other way? When they were sleeping? – something happened and they got off track. They got scared. They got selfish. They got confused.

Maybe the weeds didn’t refer to the Pharisees at all. Maybe the weeds were the disciples themselves. Or maybe the point was that it was too soon to tell. The point of the parable could be that we still have time to figure out how to be wheat instead of weeds. There’s still time for us to change and grow and to become the children of the Son of Man who feed and bless the world. It’s a word of grace for us, when like those first disciples, we’re not so sure where we belong in the story.

However the earliest followers of Jesus understood his story, they thought it important enough that they passed it on. They warned their children about the weeds among the wheat, and they shared Jesus’ words of wisdom with the new Christians that joined their communities of faith. It was a difficult time for Jesus’ followers. They waited anxiously for him to return and usher in the kingdom of heaven, but the people and the culture around them made being Christian increasingly difficult.

Once again, it would have been easy for those early Christians to identify themselves as the wheat and to name all their enemies as the weeds sown by the evil one. In the context of their persecution and sufferings, those Christians might have related to the words of Psalm 139. (These are some of the verses that the lectionary skips over because they are so harsh.)

The psalmist laments to God, “How I wish that you would kill all cruel and heartless people and protect me from them! They are always rebelling and speaking evil of you. You know I hate anyone who hates you, Lord, and refuses to obey. They are my enemies too, and I truly hate them.”

You can see why the lectionary chooses to skip over those verses, eh? It’s hard to reconcile that kind of hatred coming from a person of faith, but there it is. And if the early Christians were human, then they could probably relate. It takes a really special kind of person to absorb the ridicule, rejection, and hatred of others, and to keep on responding with patience, understanding, and even forgiveness. It takes a really special person to do that.

Now, Jesus’ parable could have said, “Love the weeds. Accept the weeds as they are, and forgive them from your heart.” But instead, Jesus (in the voice of the householder) just says, “Leave the weeds alone.” Don’t put all your energy into digging out weeds. Let them grow, and let the reapers sort things out at harvest time. Let God sort things out at the end of the age. Be patient, and let the weeds and the wheat grow together for now.

But let’s consider the field for a moment. The explanation in the Gospel suggests that the field is the world. And we can certainly acknowledge that good and bad seed is planted and continues to grow in the world today.

We hear a lot about the bad seed on the news – dictators grabbing power and oppressing their people, madmen kidnapping women, and raping and murdering them, and selfish people or companies ravaging the earth for its resources, committing fraud, or taking advantage of the poor and the vulnerable.

As Christians, we are not supposed to simply accept the reality of these evil forces in our world. We are certainly called to work against them, seeking justice, and speaking out for the vulnerable and the voiceless. But when we are feeling overwhelmed or powerless or discouraged, the parable reminds us that God WILL sort it out in the end. God WILL rid the world of evil and malice and hatred one day. And the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

But I noticed as I was reading, that many commentators suggest that the field might not refer to the whole world. It could just as easily refer just to the Christian community, to the church. And if that is the case, then this parable may be a response to the question of who is in and who is out.

What do we do about “less committed,” “less faithful,” perhaps even “trouble-making” members of the church? Don’t tell me that you haven’t noticed that SOME people aren’t as interested in bible study as others. SOME people only seem to show up when they need something, and they don’t help out with any of the church’s missions. SOME people hardly open their mouths except to voice a complaint or a criticism. And SOME people don’t give very generously when the offering plate comes around, let alone when there is a need and no tax receipt being offered.

There are weeds among the wheat, even in the Christian community, and like the faithful slaves of the householder, we (at times) are anxious to pull them out. They are making our lives difficult and stealing our joy!

God forbid that we have sinners in our midst! Never mind all those stories of Jesus eating with sinners, or his words about not judging one another. But as Fred Craddock says, there’s a lot of tension between the compulsion to purge imperfection and the “obligation to accept, forgive, and restore… the task of judging between good and evil belongs not to us, but to Christ.”

Is it possible that the mystery of the parable has something to do with God’s timing, and our inability to judge or, for that matter, our unwillingness to trust in God’s own judgment? God’s judgment, of course, is always better for someone else than it is for us. Still, there is evil and wrongdoing, and surely we’re supposed to do something.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that “what the householder seems to know is that the best and only real solution to evil is to bear good fruit. Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to mind our own business, so to speak – our business being the reconciliation of the world through the practice of unshielded love. If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest.”

And if, perchance, the field in the parable is actually within each of our individual lives… then perhaps by minding our own business, by focusing on our own calling to do our best and grow love in the world… then perhaps the wheat will grow within us, and among us, and between us. And there will be a wonderful harvest!