Kingdom Stories: Wheat and Weeds
This month we’re starting a new focus in worship, as we look at some of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel of Matthew that focus on the Kingdom of God. When Jesus teaches in parables, they often begin with him saying, “The kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven is like.” The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It’s like a woman who lost a coin. It’s like a king who decided to settle accounts. It’s like a pearl of great value. It’s like a field where a someone sowed good wheat, but then someone else sowed weed in that same field. Jesus spends so much time describing what that kingdom is like because announcing the immediate presence of God’s kingdom is the very good news Jesus came to share. “The kingdom of God is at hand” is the short summary of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. Repent, change the direction of your life, because the realm of God is right in our midst, not far off and inaccessible.
If Jesus’ primary message is about the presence of the kingdom of God, and if he spends all this time teaching about this kingdom of God that operates in a way that surprises us, flips our expectations upside down, values the very opposite of what the world tells us is valuable, then our mission, as the church, is to keep announcing that good news too, and to be a place where people – individually and together – can start bringing their lives into line with this upside-down transformed set of values that Jesus offers as an alternative to the values of power, money, and position that the world claims as true. Jesus announces that God’s kingdom is here and God’s kingdom has a different set of values than we’ve been sold on all our lives. And our mission is to keep making the announcement, keep changing our lives so that our values are God’s values. What would it look like, then, if when we talked about “mission” in the church, we were talking about the work we do to invite others to come alongside us and reorder our lives so that what’s most important to God is also most important to us?
If we want to repent, to redirect our lives so that our values are the same as God’s values, we have to be sure we are clear about what those values are. And that’s what the parables of Jesus are all about. And often, what we find there is surprising. Take today’s lesson: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. This is a parable we have to try to listen to with fresh attention, listening for things that our 21st century ears might miss. With a simple reading of this text, we might say that this is the message for us: there are good people in the world, represented by the good seed. And then there are the not-so-good people - they are the weeds in the world. We are instructed not to put them in their places ourselves, but to wait for the harvest - the Judgment Day. Then we, the wheat, will be taken to heaven, and they, the weeds, will be thrown into the fire. That’s the surface reading, what we get if we only take away our first impressions.
But looking more carefully at the text, we can find several questions to ask, actually, and find several things that might surprise us. First, we hear that the owner has sown the wheat and the ‘enemy’ has sown the weeds. Why didn’t the owner have his slaves sow the seed, a normal duty they would usually perform? Why does an enemy need to plant weeds? Anyone with gardening experience knows that weeds grow quite easily without being intentionally planted. What other kind of seed would a gardener sow besides “good” seed? The adjective seems unnecessary, unless it bears some greater significance. And why shouldn’t the slaves tear up the weeds right away? Normally, gardens are weeded not just once, but several times during a season, with a variety of techniques. A few good plants might be pulled up accidentally, but in the end the seeds produce stronger and healthier plants after a good weeding. Not only that, but Jesus’ Jewish audience would know that a field with two kinds of plants intentionally sown in it, including a combination of wheat and weeds, would make the field ritually unclean. The householder, though, implies that the wheat and weeds are too similar, growing too closely together, too intertwined to be separated without mistaking wheat for weed and weed for wheat. Over the summer, a group of us studied the life and teachings of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Class participants had the option of reading through some of the sermons of John Wesley, a challenging assignment, since his sermons were lengthy and in language that sounds very formal and outdated to our 21st century ears. One of the sermons assigned was Wesley’s sermon called the Almost Christian. Wesley starts by describing the “almost Christian” as a person who adopts the basic human behavior of decency that most everyone subscribes to: Not stealing, not lying, helping those in need when possible. He says an almost Christian “does nothing which the gospel forbids” and has the outer form of godliness, the outer attitude of a Christian. The almost Christian does good, too, and not just easy acts of goodwill, but works hard so that by all means, some might be helped. The almost Christian attends church regularly, prays regularly, and has a real desire to serve God. This, Wesley says, is the almost Christian.
After hearing this description, Wesley rightly guesses that his audience will wonder: how can such a person be only an almost Christian rather than an altogether Christian? Well, Wesley also describes the altogether Christian. The altogether Christian first loves God. This love of God “engrosses the whole heart … rakes up all the affections … fills the entire capacity of the soul.” I love that description. Do you love God like that? Second, the altogether Christian loves the neighbor. And who is our neighbor? Every [one] in the world, Wesley says, even our enemies, even enemies of God, even enemies of one’s soul. And this love of our neighbors is to be the kind of love that Christ shows for us, the kind of love that the apostle Paul describes to the Corinthians, love that bears and endures all things. And the altogether Christian is grounded in faith in God. “Do good designs and good desires make a Christian?” asked Wesley. “By no means, unless they are brought to good effect.”
The almost Christian and the altogether Christian might appear to be quite similar at first glance. Almost like wheat and weeds in a field. Jesus’ parables frequently have surprises – we’re surprised by who is praised and who is chided in Jesus’ teachings. We’re so sure that we are wheat! But Jesus says sometimes wheat and weeds look so similar you can’t tell them apart. What does that say about our lives as Christ-follower? Jesus says his disciples will be known by their love, but clearly, Jesus knows that sometimes we get tangled up in this world and Christ-followers are more distinguishable for being judgmental and hurtful than loving. We’re so sure that we are wheat, and we’re so sure, like the slaves, that we should pull out the weeds. So maybe we think we’re the slaves too, ready to claim the title of servant to God as master. But another surprise: whichever role we think is “ours” in this story – whether we’re wheat, weed, or slaves to the householder, there is no role we can play where we are given the responsibility of distinguishing wheat from weed and tearing the weed up. Nowhere are we given the task of identifying and pulling weeds. Whoever we are, once sown, wheat and weeds must grow together until the harvest, or in uprooting the weeds, the wheat will be torn up too. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools.” We don’t get to separate ourselves from each other quite so easily.
What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like a place where even when weeds are sown where we intended to plant only wheat, where sometimes we’re more almost Christians than altogether Christians, where sometimes we’re intent on rooting out the bad only to find that we look an awful lot like a weed to pulled, even when all that happens, God wants to wait for the harvest, when what is gathered in will be and abundance beyond our imagining. Our mission, as Jesus-followers, is to make sure others know, just as we remind ourselves of this, that no one is getting weeded out. We’re in this field together, and thankfully, God and God’s kingdoms, God’s surprising-upside-down-values are right in our midst.
Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. We celebrate Jesus taking bread and wine and making them holy, consecrating them, into a gift of his body, his life poured out for us. Jesus takes bread and wine and makes them and us into the Body of Christ. As we celebrate this gift, this transformation of ordinary into holy, of one thing into something completely new, I believe that we follow a God who can transform weeds into wheat. If Jesus can change water into wine, if Jesus can transform bread and juice into a meal where we meet God’s grace in the flesh, so then can God transform our outer-shells of a life into the real deal that makes for a plentiful harvest. Thanks be to God. Amen.