Planting Seeds: Wheat and Weeds
We’re back today in chapter 13 of the gospel of Matthew with another parable of Jesus as we continue our sermon series on planting seeds. Two weeks ago, we talked about the Parable of the Sower, and today we’re reading the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, or the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. It’s still part of the same series of teaching from Jesus. He’d been first sitting outside the house where he’d been staying, by the lake, and eventually, because the crowds were getting so large, he started teaching from a boat put out just a bit from shore, to give him space and a better platform perhaps while the crowds listened from the beach. So while we hear and are studying these parables one by one, Jesus’s audience heard them all, tried to absorb them all in quick succession.
Parables are a specific type of teaching tool of Jesus. The word parable literally means to bring one thing alongside something else. A parable brings one thing parallel with another so they can be compared. The idea is that by bringing a more familiar thing alongside a perhaps less familiar thing, you’ll learn something about the less familiar thing by your understanding of the more familiar thing. Jesus’ parables, as I mentioned, are almost always about the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign, God’s way of things on earth and in eternity. Jesus wants us to know what things are like in the way that God operates. What is God’s reign, fully realized, come to fruition, like? Jesus explains using parables, bringing something that might seem beyond our understanding - God’s rule and reign and hoped-for way of things - alongside something his audience did understand very well: stories about agriculture, farming, everyday items and situations they had experience with. Of course, for us, for today’s hearers of Jesus’ parables, we don’t always know much about either thing Jesus is talking about! We’re trying to learn about the Kingdom of God, but we also have to learn about farming or agriculture or whatever other first-century practices Jesus mentions in his parable that don’t always translate directly into how we do things today thousands of years later. Perhaps we need a parable that uses Facebook or TikTok in comparison to the reign of God. But in the absence of that(!), we work together to understand.
Jesus’ parables about God’s reign also serve to highlight how God’s reign is markedly different than the reign and rule of the human rulers the people were used to. Jesus’ first-century audience was living under occupation of the Roman Empire. They were ruled by the emperor and agents of the emperor who generally looked on them with disdain. They were heavily taxed. Their religious practices were sometimes curtailed and oppressed. They were afraid. And even their own leaders were sometimes working in collaboration with the Roman government. Corruption and greed and violence were all around. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, then, it sounds a sharp contrast to the kingdom, the empire of Rome. When we hear the parables, that’s another thing we listen for: how does this paint a picture that suggests that God’s ways are markedly different than the ways of the Roman Empire, than the corrupt ways of power-hungry human leadership? The parables paint an alternative, longed-for vision of the way things can be when we let God’s rule guide us fully.
In today’s text, Jesus says that God’s reign is like 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 there 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 by reapers, gathered into the barn, and the weeds will be bundled and burned.
Like with the Parable of the Sower, Jesus offers an explanation later in the chapter, but today we’re using our own imagination to look at the parable in different ways. What do we wonder about when we hear this parable? I wonder, for example, about the enemy that comes and sows weeds in the night among the good seed planted by the sower. I’ve never thought, outside of reading this parable, about someone intentionally planting weeds. Weeds hardly seem to need the help, do they? I have a big planter outside my door at the parsonage. I got it. intending to use it to repot my giant Christmas Cactus, but I couldn’t manage it, so the planter sat, full of soil, outside with nothing in it. But it still didn’t take long for weeds to start growing in the planter, as various seeds were dropped into the soil by the wind over time. No special planting required for weeds to abound. It’s striking, then, in Jesus’ story that an enemy intentionally plants weeds among the wheat.
We also might be surprised that the Master tells the slaves not to pull up the weeds. If you do any gardening, you probably know that gardening includes the seemingly endless task of weeding. After all, when we read the Parable of the Sower, we were reminded that weeds can choke the life out of good healthy plants. But if you weed your garden, your healthy plants have a better chance of thriving. It’s hard work, pulling weeds. I remember getting away with leaving most of the weeding to my grandfather in my childhood gardening days. But growing wheat is a little different than growing carrots and beans and tomatoes. There are a few kinds of weeds that are candidates for what Jesus means in this parable - they look so extremely similar to the wheat, and they grow in so closely intermingled with the wheat that it is hard to tell them apart or safely remove the weeds without simultaneously uprooting the good wheat at the same time. You have to wait until both plants are mature to separate them.
Where are we in this parable? What roles can we try on for ourselves? Typically, the wheat and weeds are seen as the people of the world, and we want to find ourselves among the wheat, the healthy, maturing plant, a product of good seed, ready for the harvest. I certainly think that’s what God intends for us. 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. I believe that deeply. But even if we can play around with different roles we might take in the parable, I think sometimes we want to take all the roles at once, and make the parable a one-person show. Ok, maybe we want to play every part except the weeds. We want to be the good seed, and we want to be the slaves and the reapers, eager to identify the weeds, ready to pull it up, and even if we have to wait, ready to throw the weeds into the fire at the first opportunity. Perhaps you read this parable and quickly think of people who are “weeds” in your life, in the world. If I’m honest, I know I could make a list: people I’ve experienced as weeds.
But if we’re wheat, we’re not also the Master, the sower. If we’re wheat, even if we’re sure who the weeds are, it is not our responsibility to do the weeding. That job belongs to the sower and the reapers, and we can’t be all the roles at once, try as we might. Years ago, I volunteered at the Matthew 25 Farm in Tully, a farm dedicated to feeding hungry people, serving the community. The day I volunteered, I was assigned to picking peas. The farmer told me that a group of students had been helping harvest the day before, and they’d been so overzealous in their harvest, that they uprooted several healthy plants when they carelessly picked the peas. Friends, even if we’re right about who is wheat and who is a weed, our attempts to weed seem to end up like the overeager harvesters 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 roots. If we’re the wheat, it is not our responsibility to figure out and pull out weeds. Sometimes we really want it to be our job. But if we’re wheat, we don’t have the perspective of the sower. We can’t see everything clearly. And we don’t need to. If we’re wheat, we’ve got plenty to do trying to grow and mature.
Where are we in this parable? What if, sometimes, we’re the enemy, sowing weeds in the night? I think this is a hard question to ask of ourselves: am I responsible for sowing weeds? Since we are humans who sin and fall short of the glory of God, our honest answer has to be, “yes.” Sometimes, we’re sowing weeds in the garden around us. It’s really hard to take an unflinching look at our behaviors and actions and attitudes and confront our own sinfulness. It’s really hard to own up to the things we’ve done wrong. But take courage: God’s grace and forgiveness can’t be exhausted. God is so ready to hear our confession and help us sow good seed instead. I think this season in our life together is a time to be particularly attentive to how we might find ourselves sowing weeds. As these days of disruption to our “normal” wear on, I think the stress and strain makes us vulnerable to behaving in ways that don’t reflect the servant hearts God seeks to find in us. We’re stressed. We’re anxious and afraid. We get cranky and irritable. We start to snap at each other. We’re quick to blame and judge. We get a little desperate. We’re sad and unhappy and we start to find it easier to spread all those feelings than to wrestle through them. If you’re feeling any of these things, you’re not alone. I’ve felt them too. But I don’t want to sow weeds. I know you don’t either. If you find you’ve been sowing weeds, what can you do? Ask for help! Ask God. Ask a trusted friend. Ask a dear family member. Ask your pastor. Ask for help. And trust that God’s help, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s promise of new life - God’s gifts are there, ready for you to receive.
Where are we in this parable? What if, sometimes, we’re the sower? The focus of the sower in this parable is simply on the wheat. The sower sows good seed, makes sure it grows, and harvests it. There are weeds, yes, but that’s not the focus of the sower. The sower’s purpose is to plant, grow and harvest an abundant crop of good wheat. If we’re the sower, let’s make sure that’s our purpose too. Where can we plant good seed in the world? How can we cultivate it? What fruit are we producing? What’s the harvest? I encourage you, in the weeks ahead, to think about where you are and where you can plant some good seed in the world, and then act. If you get a chance, you should look into a movement called “guerrilla gardening.” (Guerrilla as in fighters, not as in monkeys and apes.) Guerrilla gardening, despite the name, is a peaceful movement of people engaging in secret planting projects. A while back I read about a group of folks who thought it was silly that their city was planting a bunch of ornamental trees that didn’t bear fruit when so many people were hungry. So they started secretly grafting branches of fruit trees onto the ornamental trees, and posting signs: “Free food.” (1) I love the creativity, the determination of the movement. How determined are we to sow seeds of goodness, to sow seeds that produce fruit? Where can we surprise the world with abundant life? How can we be sowers of the reign of God?
The kingdom of heaven is like this: God sows good seed with love everywhere, all around. An enemy tries to work against God’s vision of abundant life. But despite the weeds, God’s good seed can’t be, won’t be stopped. The wheat can thrive in abundance, undeterred, until the Lord of the harvest gathers it in again. Thanks be to God. Amen.
One example is here: