Wheat and Weeds
This week is enjoyed spending a little time helping out at the Matthew 25 Farm in Tully. The weather this spring and summer has helped to create a plentiful harvest, and the peas are ready to be picked faster than they can manage with their volunteers, so they were enlisting extra, emergency help this week. When I got there, one of the farmers spent a bit of time showing me the difference between peas that were not yet ready to be picked, peas that were a bit past their prime, and peas that were just right, Goldilocks-style. He also showed me that some younger, more eager volunteers weren’t gentle enough with the peas when they were picking them, and would accidentally uproot the whole plant in the process. As tall and winding as the plants are, their roots aren’t very deep or anchored into the ground. So they’re pretty fragile when you go to snap a pod off. Of course, once a plant is uprooted, that’s it for harvesting from that particular plant. He also pointed out that they don’t really spend much time weeding the field. There were rows of pea plants that were easy enough to see. But there were lots and lots of weeds. He said the plants were healthy enough – yielding more than they could keep up with already – and the weeds didn’t seem to be a problem. I guess if you have limited volunteer hours, you better focus on getting the food harvested that will go to feed hungry people. I also suspect, given the fragile nature of the plants and the eagerness of volunteers, weeding might just end up doing more harm than good.
I had all of this on my mind this week as I prepared my sermon. This summer, we’ll be journeying through the gospel of Matthew, and today we come to what is known as the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, or the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Jesus has been teaching the crowds in a series of parables, first sitting outside the house where he is staying by the lake, and then eventually, because the crowds are so great, teaching from a boat to give him a little space while the crowds listen from the beach.
Now parables are a particular kind of teaching that Jesus uses. Parable is from a Greek word – a verb actually – that means literally to bring something alongside another thing. To set something beside another thing. To bring something parallel with something else. To compare one thing with another. You’ll notice that Jesus, in his parables, is always telling a story that he sets alongside something in particular: “The kingdom of heaven is like” or “The kingdom of God is like.” Whenever Jesus tells us a parable, he’s bringing his story, his illustration, and setting it alongside what he knows about what God’s kingdom, God’s realm, is like. So, he’s trying to get us to learn about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, by telling us these vivid stories that are maybe easier for us to understand than if we just went straight for trying to understand God’s kingdom.
So, this time, what does Jesus say the kingdom is like? Well, it’s like a this: Someone sows good seed – wheat – in his field. But while everyone is asleep, an enemy comes and sows weeds with the wheat. When the plants start growing, and the weeds are discovered with the grain, the slaves of the sower seem shocked, and go to the sower saying, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed here? Why then are their weeds? Where did they come from?” The master replies that an enemy sowed the weeds. So the slaves offer to pull the weeds up. “No,” the master replies, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” Both wheat and weeds have to grow together until harvest time, when the wheat will be harvested at least, gathered into the barn, and the weeds will be bundled and burned.
Jesus’ parables would cause a mixed reaction in the crowds. On the one hand, the parables would use imagery that was familiar to them. They knew about planting crops and working the land. But on the other hand, some things would stick out to the crowds and cause them to ask questions. This is just what Jesus wants. The crowd knows how to find the point of the parable by noticing the details that Jesus presents as commonplace, but they know are quite unusual actually.
You might wonder how you can figure out the things in the parable that would make the crowds’ ears perk up, worried that our twenty-first century ears won’t understand what sounded strange to first century ears. But if you think carefully, any of us with basic gardening knowledge might have some questions about this parable. Jesus says the sower sows good seed. Who would sow anything else? And why would the slaves think the master sowed weed? Or why would an enemy need to sow weed? We all know that weeds do just fine planting themselves. I was telling someone (Mary?) yesterday about a bag of potting soil that’s sitting in my backyard. I had it open to pot some plants, and left it outside. Now, there’s a big plant – a weed, really, pretty though it is – growing right in the open bag of potting soil. Weeds will grow anywhere, without our effort in planting them.
So what does this parable tell us? What is Jesus trying to get us to know? First, in any parable, I think it is important to figure out where we are in the story, and where we are not. In this story, as in most of Jesus’ parables – we’re not the master! We’re the slaves! We’re not the sower of the seeds. And that means, as the master tells the slaves, that it is not our responsibility in this world to decide which are wheat and which are weeds. I repeat – it is not our responsibility to decide which are wheat and which are weeds. That responsibility belongs to the sower. And the sower is not us. I’ve found that we’re all pretty sure that we know how to tell wheat and weeds apart. But even if we’re right, our attempts to weed seem to end up like the over eager harvesters whose work I witnessed at the Matthew 25 Farm. In our attempt to pull out weeds, we uproot healthy plants, and find delicate blossoms that could have become good plants to harvest withering without root. It is not our responsibility to decide which are wheat and which are weeds. God has that covered, and God has not asked for our help with this task, as eager to help as we are. We need to do some soul searching, and ask ourselves when and where in our quest to point out the weeds of the world to God, our actions and attitudes have actually resulted in hurting, uprooting, destroying good plants.
Second, we need to wonder about the parable telling us an enemy has sown the weeds in the field. It seems strange to us, to me at least, to picture some villain sneaking into a garden under cover of night to plant weeds in the field. It’s absurd. There’s enough weed without anyone planting anything intentionally. Who would do that? So, if it sounds so silly to us – planting weeds on purpose – we need to ask ourselves – when have our actions in the world been like planting weeds? What have we done, or failed to do, that has resulted in planting in someone else’s life some extra weeds for them to deal with? Where have you sown division, or bitterness, or envy, or mistrust, or judging attitudes, or unkindness, or even hatred, in the life of another beloved child of God? If sowing weeds sounds so silly, so useless, we all have to remind ourselves to stop doing it!
Finally, we need to wonder about what it says when you can’t tell wheat from weeds anyway. Sometimes good plants and weeds look so similar that you can’t tell one from another. And they grow so closely together, as Jesus’ parable indicates, that it is hard to tell which is which, where one begins and the other ends. What does it say if we can’t tell wheat from weed? If we’re sure we’re wheat, but there’s nothing about our lives, our treatment of one another, our relationship with God, our actions in the world that says we’ve been planted by God as good seed? We don’t only want to be careful not to do harm by taking on God’s role and pulling up what we think are weeds – we need to realize that sometimes others might see the way we’re living our lives and feel like they know that we’re weeds!
I can tell you for sure that everything God created God called good. Go back and read Genesis 1. “And God saw that it was good” is the theme of creation. We are good seed. So let’s live like it! And live like we see that goodness at the core of everyone we meet. It’s there. So let’s claim the goodness with which God created each one of us by living out the love God has poured into us. The kingdom of heaven is like this: God sows good seed with love everywhere, all around. And despite the weeds, God’s good seed can’t be stopped. The wheat can thrive in abundance, undeterred, until the Lord of the harvest gathers us in again. Thanks be to God. Amen.