Anna Carter Florence suggests that some of Jesus’ agrarian parables seem to reflect a complete lack of understanding about how farmers might be expected to act. She wonders if he was a “city boy” trying to use images familiar to his audience – yet lacking a full knowledge of the realities of country life. He talks about crop yields that are unimaginable – 40, 60, a hundredfold! Even the best modern fertilizers can’t create that kind of yield! Or he speaks of leaving 99 sheep in the wilderness and going after the one that was lost. Again, what shepherd would risk the 99 in order to bring back one that had wandered away? In today’s parable, he suggests giving the weeds room to grow, until the harvest. Is this good gardening? Now, I’m not a gardener – but, theoretically, I know that you are supposed to pull those weeds so that they don’t take over!
My problem is that I can’t tell the weeds from the good plants! When my friends Kathy and Jack visited earlier this year, Jack spent time outside. He brought me a beautiful flowering plant which he added to a barren planter outside our garage. Then he wandered through the backyard and found other plants to dig up and put in planters to further adorn the front yard. Well, the flowering plant died while Mark and I were away and the summer storms hadn’t yet started. But one little plant is thriving. I suspect that the thriving plant is actually a weed of some sort. But, maybe I’ll be proved wrong.
In the parable Jesus warned his listeners that in their eagerness to uproot the weeds they might well uproot some of the wheat. Perhaps that was a way of saying to them that they would not always be able to tell what plants were weeds and what plants were wheat.
But, oh, it’s so tempting to name the wheat and work vigorously to weed out that which isn’t. Church history is filled with stories of the church, in many forms, striving to do just that! It’s part of our current reality as well. We hear the stories, we see the agenda. Church people are determined to separate the wheat from the weeds.
Professor Jennifer T. Kaalund wrote that the parable’s first purpose is for Jesus to tell his disciples that “there is opposition to the kingdom of heaven.” She goes on to warn, however, that seeing the world in terms of dichotomies is not helpful.
"Yet, the establishment of dichotomies is dangerous and has material implications. Dichotomies such as “us versus them” or “body or soul” or “savage versus civilized” or “good versus evil” are examples of the ways in which we attempt to distill our world into two realms. When we reduce our worldview to such sharp contrasts, we often lose the ability to see our collective best interests and common goals."
Sometime, in the last week, I read about a new missive from the Vatican. It wasn’t written by the pope, but it reflected his perspective. (I tried to find it again, but was unsuccessful.) It, too, noted that, for many, faith has led them to view the world as a dichotomy, wheat and weeds. For some, these are divisions that will perpetually and eternally divide the wheat from the weeds, the good people from the bad – and those who see such divisions are willing to tell us that they are counted among the wheat and those who are on the other side of the issues they consider central to the faith are, of course, the weeds.
The Vatican missive or letter said that we should be not be concerned with creating and building walls, but with creating and building bridges that bring us together. Kaalund wrote that noting the distinctions “overshadow the shared desire to identify the common good of all citizens and most often result in conflict that can easily escalate into violence.” I am reminded of the time that a colleague (from a non-denominational church) came to visit me because he was on a “mission from God to oust Satan from the pulpit.” I was, in his eyes, a weed that needed to be uprooted and destroyed –not physically, but my ministry and, perhaps, the congregation which I served.
When I was thinking about this scripture weeks ago, I thought about God’s patience in letting the wheat and the weeds grow together. Biologically, of course, it is not possible for weeds to become wheat. But, it is possible for the plants to grow and begin to look like something different that might have, initially, been labeled a weed. (Maybe there’s hope for that little plant in my front yard.) There are different varieties of wheat! If we are quick to judge, to ostracize, to reject those who don’t fit our understanding of what wheat is, we miss God’s good variety. Even more so, we get focused on the wrong things.
A blog by Darrell Lackey noted the problems with our sometimes narrow approach to faith, one that judges and finds others lacking. He cited a few examples. “If you become upset when hearing that gay marriage is legal or that a transgender person may use the same public restroom as you, but you are less upset regarding the hate, violence, and discrimination directed toward such people, often leading to suicide: You are upset about the wrong things. If you become upset when people use the greeting ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas,’ but you are less upset at the wasteful use of resources during this season and the rampant shallow consumerism while many live in poverty: You are upset about the wrong things. If you become upset when the government uses its power to make corporations protect their workers and protect the environment, but you are less upset when those workers are exploited, injured, or the environment is critically harmed: You are upset about the wrong things. If you become upset at the grocery store when you see someone pay for their food with vouchers or food stamps, but you are less upset with the institutional and cultural structures that often create the very need for such help: You are upset about the wrong things…If you become upset when you feel the government is restricting your religious liberties, but you are less upset or even applaud the restriction of the religious liberties of others: You are upset about the wrong things.”
“You are upset about the wrong things.” Anna Carter Florence said of this parable: “It’s just too dang easy to identify with the wheat. Then you end up having to preach to a self-professed weed-free congregation which contradicts everything the text is about in the first place.” She began to look at this parable addressed not only to the crowds, but to the individuals who heard it. (Yes, I think you can and should hear it each way.) She asked, “What are the biggest weeds in your life? What threatens the wheat you want to produce in your field? The possibilities are endless. Stress, busy-ness, pressure. Money, ambition, competition. Desire for the bigger and presumably better house, car, toys, bling, neighborhood, college, and walk-in closet.”
We’re so quick to hear this as a parable of judgment – on those weeds who have chosen not to be wheat. But what if we take the idea of judgment out of it—or at least that sense of dichotomy out of it – and hear it as a parable of grace. “No;” Jesus said, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
Oh, but we hear those threatening words, “collect the weeds, bind them to be burned.” It’s taken me years to begin to hear those threatening passages that are gleefully lifted up as a sign of God’s wrath in a new way. “For he is like a refiner’s fire,” is an Old Testament passage from Malachi. But what is a refiner’s fire? It is a fire that purifies. God’s judgment is always a judgment to lead toward something purer, something better. It is not gleeful wrath. So, if God allows the wheat and the weeds to grow together, at some point, God will harvest the wheat and remove the weeds. God is willing to take the time and let the plants grow. That is God’s grace at work in our lives. And that is God’s grace offered to the world. The purification is not the removal or condemnation of individuals, but the removal of all that within individuals and human society that separates us from the ways of God’s realm. God will look for that within each of us, within all of us, within human communities and societies that is good – and remove the bad.
I noted earlier that Ana Carter Florence said Jesus told stories that didn’t fit reality. No good farmer, no good gardener would let the weeds grow and threaten the wheat. But, perhaps, that was Jesus’ point. His stories—based on the world around him – pushed the limits. No good shepherd risks the 99 to save the one; no respectable father gives an unloving son his inheritance; no good farmer sows seeds indiscriminately; no good farmer lets the weeds grow. It is a way of telling his hearers (including us) that God operates differently. God sows the seeds of grace abundantly, without prejudging. God seeks out the one that is lost. God gives even to the ungrateful children. God is patient.
“Let them both grow together until the harvest.” As we accept God’s patience with us, with our weediness, should we not extend that patience to the world? Now, I don’t mean that we don’t speak to injustice. Lauren and I listened to two mysteries on our trip whose heroine was the daughter of activists who lived by the motto, “Pray for peace. Work for justice.” That comes back to Kaalund’s observation that we need one another and in our need for one another we have to work for the common good. That is a justice issue. The world becomes a better place when, as Pope Francis says, we build bridges instead of creating divisions or building walls. Perhaps, in our search for justice, we seek the wheat among what we might or the world might see as weeds. Perhaps you have been blessed, as I have, by someone who saw something in you that you did not see, or that you dismissed – a potential, a gift, a possibility for growth. Sadly, in the world today, too many look only for the weeds – and are happy to point them out, in others. So, we hear this parable, we hear of God’s patient love that allows both to grow – in us and in the world. Then, we look for ways to bring the growth that promotes justice, and compassion and mercy. We look for ways to reform the systems that continually label particular people or groups of people as unredeemable weeds.
Jesus’ parables invite us to embrace and live by different values—values the world still rejects. And those values are still, often, disdained – by the world, and, unfortunately even, at times, the church. Yet, the wheat still grows. The poor are helped. The hungry are fed. Those in prison have good news brought to them. The sick are tended. People still pray for peace and work for justice, striving to dismantle the systems that keep the poor poor and the hungry hungry, that feed the prison system, that deny help for the sick. The wheat grows – and Jesus’ good news is that, ultimately, the weeds will be gone.