Leave The Weeding To Jesus
Much like exercise, marriage counseling, and dietary fiber, you know a parable is working when it makes you uncomfortable. So if your first thought upon hearing this one was… “uggh, this is awful,” well, so far so good.
The parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is a doozy. And I’m really curious to know what disturbs you as you listen to it or just leaves you scratching your head?
For instance, by a show of hands, how many of you are uncomfortable with the image of angels throwing “all evildoers… into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?”
Anyone? Yeah, me too. I mean some evil doers, sure, but all of them? Just kidding. I’ve never been a big fan of hell.
How about Jesus as a slave owning master? Yeah, not loving that.
Or the devil personified as a real active agent sowing evil in the world? Not crazy about that one either.
Anyone else troubled by the dualism implicit here; the idea that there are simply two types of people in the world: good people and bad people, “children of the kingdom and children of the evil one?” I think that’s awfully simplistic. So simplistic, that a lot of scholars think it was Matthew who came up with the explanation of the parable, not Jesus. (And I’m kind of with them on that one.)
But hey, I’m just getting started here, so let’s see, what else?
Ah, yes, I don’t about you, but I don’t understand why the Master would go from being so patient and compassionate to the evil doers during the growing season, to so over the top punitive at harvest time. It doesn’t make sense.
Why let evil flourish for so long and do so much damage amongst the good if you’re just going to annihilate it all in the end? What’s the point? It doesn’t feel like good management. And frankly, it’s not. From what I can see, there is nothing neat or clean or efficient about this operation at all.
For instance, isn’t it odd that the master is the one sowing the seeds if he has slaves?
And not for nothing, but the slaves - who never get explained by the way, so we don’t really know who they are - the slaves seem to know more about farming than their master does. They know that the weeds are a real threat to their whole operation, because you see anyone listening to Jesus tell this parable would have identified the weed he mentions as darnel.
Darnel is a mimic weed known as “false wheat,” or “wheat’s evil twin.” As it germinates and grows, darnel looks just like wheat to the uneducated eye right up until the ear appears.
But darnel seeds are poisonous to humans. Too much darnel mixed in with good wheat flour can lead to nausea, blindness, even death. Too much darnel growing in a wheat field would ruin not just the whole crop, but the whole field because it would be all but impossible to fully remove those little black seeds from the soil once they got loose. That’s why good farmers were quick to weed out darnel when they saw it so as not to risk losing the whole farm.
So once again, as we saw in the Parable of the Sower two weeks ago, it would appear that Jesus is a terrible farmer. However, he is a wonderful story teller, because even with the explanation tacked on, this parable still leaves us with more questions than answers. And that is as it should be.
Amy-Jill Levine explains that “the word parable comes from two Greek words:
para - as in parallel - meaning to put things side by side; and balo, which means to cast or to throw. (Kind of like the seeds you just heard about).
Thus a parable casts two images side by side. When we look at the connection between what happens in the story and what happens in our own lives, we begin to see new things” (“The Marvelous Mustard Seed” by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso).
And friends, when Jesus really gets going, we don’t always like what we see. Case in point: the thrust of this parable seems to be a call for patience, right? Jesus acknowledges that evil is real but counsels us to leave the ultimate judgment up to God. Any attempt to weed out evil in its entirety is going to do more harm than good. So let it be. Is that much clear to everyone? Good.
But isn’t it interesting to see where your mind goes upon hearing that? Maybe it’s just me, but I immediately find myself doing the exact thing I’ve just been told not to do. Perhaps proving that I’m not as wheaty as I’d like to think I am. Which is to say, I immediately begin to judge. You just heard me. I judge God for doing too much at the end of time and not enough in the meantime. I second guess Jesus, myself, and others.
I reject the idea that people are either all good or all bad, destined to either shine like the sun or go up in flames. I think for most of us it’s all a bit of a muddle really.
And yet the moment I hear this parable my mind starts to turn and I start to think there must be some exceptions, right? People who are clearly really good or really bad. People we need to protect come what may or weed out at all costs. I’m not going to name names… but I could…and I bet you could too.
There is something in me, indeed I think there is something in all of us that craves assurance, craves certainty, clarity, purity, justice, safety, and if that means we sometimes need to take matters into our own hands, well…
But then I think about what happens when we do…and that’s not so great either. I think of all the damage we’ve done to others, especially here in the church, whenever we’ve taken it upon ourselves to root out the “evil,” in our midst.
You can go big on this or you can go small. We could talk about witch trials and the Inquisition, the crusades and colonialism, killing the Indian to save the man or enslaving people for their own good. We could talk about lynchings, conversion therapy, war, torture… Christians have committed every horror conceivable in the name of rooting out evil.
Or we could focus in tight and talk about all the petty and not so petty ways Christians throughout the ages have excluded and cast out those they disagree with when it comes to issues of theology, liturgy, scriptural interpretation, politics, what color to paint the fellowship hall, or the right way to think or do… well, really anything at all.
God knows that people often - not always, but often - start out with good intentions. Often they just want to make things right, protect the integrity of what they hold dear, ensure that the church or the faith or the people they love remain safe and well and uncorrupted.
The trouble is, once you start down that road of eradicating all threat, clearing the field of weeds, ridding the community of bad seeds, it’s really hard to know when to stop.
The brilliant Karoline Lewis encourages us “to acknowledge these difficulties, to dwell in the discomfort, and resist any definitive test to secure answers …The parable of the wheat and the weeds,” she says, “is not told for the sake of action …but for the sake of honesty (https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/wheat-and-tares-and-other-truths-about-the-kingdom-of-heaven).
Not so we can make an honest assessment of others, but so that we can make an honest assessment of ourselves. Because the truth is we all have evil in us, and it behooves us all to stop and remember that. None of us is perfect and yet God allows us all to live and grow here anyway.
If God were to weed out all the evil from the get go, there would be no one left standing, because you know as well as I do that even the wheatiest wheat has some chaff to burn. Likewise, even the weediest weed holds some benefit for someone; even darnel.
Actually, get this: it turns out that darnel is quite nutritious and even has some medicinal value. In fact, modern botanists can confirm that darnel is harmful to us not in and of itself, but because it is so susceptible to a fungal infection called ergot that is the actual cause of the nausea, blindness, and death we want to avoid.
You still shouldn’t eat it because of that susceptibility, but it’s a good reminder that there’s more going on, even in “wheat’s evil twin,” than meets the eye. What if evil, even in the worst person imaginable, is more like an infection that can be cured rather than just the way they are? How would might that change the way we deal with people who do absolutely horrible things?
Friends, one of the beautiful things about this parable is that it doesn’t deny the very real presence of evil in the world. It simply reminds us that we are not the final arbiters of who is good and who is not, what can be redeemed and what must be destroyed. Only God knows. Only God can say for sure. And when we ignore that, when we play God, we do harm to all involved.
Now of course this doesn’t mean you can’t call out harmful behaviors. This doesn’t mean anything goes. The slaves rightly identified the potential for harm in their midst and they alerted the master.
But again, let’s pause and remember that there’s a difference between truth telling and name calling, a difference between judging an action and judging the whole person, a difference between calling someone out for their behavior and casting someone out, or worse, not for what they’ve done but because of who they are.
That’s not our place because ultimately this is not our field. It’s God’s. God allows the wheat and the weeds to grow up together for reasons we may never fully understand and we have to learn to live with that.
In the meantime, there is danger here and there is hope. There is the very real potential for harm and the very real potential for growth…and -I don’t know - maybe that is simply the way it needs to be.
Robert Farrar Capon points out that when …the master tells the servants to “let” things be, the Greek word Jesus uses here is the same word he uses in the Lord’s Prayer for “forgiveness” (https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2011/07/weeds-among-the-wheat-alyce-mckenzie-07-11-2011).
“…forgive us our debts, (let them be) as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, (let them be) your heavenly Father will also forgive you (let you be); but if you do not forgive others (if you do not let them be), neither will your Father forgive (you, let you be)” (Matthew 6:12-15).
Master, “do you want us to go and gather up (the weeds?)’ ‘No;’ he replied, ‘for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let (them be) let both of them grow together until the harvest…’
Friends, learning to forgive, learning to let things be, learning to leave the ultimate judgment up to God is paramount if we want to be forgiven.
But how would we ever learn to forgive unless other people gave us a reason to?
Even the wheatiest wheat has chaff to burn.
Even the weediest wheat holds a benefit for someone.
Let it be. It would seem that God is taking the long view for the sake of us all and God can see a lot farther than we can.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am beginning to wonder if we aren’t all a mixed field of wheat and weeds, good and bad. The more I think about it the more I wonder if this parable is less concerned with our tactics for dealing with the weeds and more concerned with the idea that we would dismiss anyone in God’s field as nothing more than a weed.
Do you all know that there is no objective standard for what constitutes a weed. A weed is simply a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to grow. Whenever something is labeled as a weed it says as much about the one labeling it as it does about the plant itself.
Which makes me wonder something else. Friends, I know some of you were born and raised in this field we call the UCC, but how many of you are transplants, if you will? How many of are here in the UCC because you were labeled as a weed in the church where you first grew up? How many of you were plucked up or cast out or made to feel unwelcome because of who you are or who you love or because you found yourself out of step with those people on your journey of faith? How many of you are here because you grew up in a way or a place that made other people uncomfortable? That’s why I’m here.
Look around you. It’s kind of amazing how one church’s weed can grow up to be another church’s pastor or deacon or teacher or beloved member, isn’t it? And yet here we are, still blooming. This may not be a perfect field, but it certainly is a beautiful one.
Which brings me to the last thought I’d like to share with you this morning. It’s a variation on another “Parable of the Weeds” that I found in Anastasia Kidd’s brilliant new book, “Fat Church:”
A woman looks at the weedy mess of her home garden, it’s unruliness. She knows the backbreaking work she must do in order to get her garden back to “good order.” She must go to her knees in the dirt, pulling up every offensive weed by the root lest it grow back in the same place again. She must sweat and toil and exert her control over the garden to make it finally beautiful.
But she doesn’t want to do this work. She wants to enjoy her day and, upon inspection, she realizes that the weeds aren’t actually as ugly as they’re made out to be. They’re pretty, in fact. Fairly miraculous, too, in the way they fight for their right to be there, their right to take up space in the garden even when unwanted.
So, she looks in the dictionary and finds that the definition of a weed is, “an unwelcome plant.”
Flinging her home’s back door open wide, she stands on her porch and yells out toward the garden, “You are all welcome here!”
Then, miraculously, she has no more weeds (p 161).
Perhaps if we can learn to love and forgive and be patient with one another the way God loves and forgives and is patient with all of us then when the harvest time comes, maybe - just maybe - God won’t have any more weeds to deal with either. Amen.