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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Weeds and the Wheat

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 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.’” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

It’s always dangerous for me to talk about farming in a sermon, since my farming expertise is best illustrated by something I did at about seven years old on my grandparents' farm. I was staying with them, and went with my grandmother to the store in Seaford, where I fell in love with a model of a Palomino horse, just like Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger. I asked my grandmother if she would buy me the horse, and she answered that I should ask my grandfather. When we got back to the farm, I asked him, and he asked me what I was going to do to earn the money. I had no idea, so he suggested I go hoe the soybeans in the field.

The next morning I got out of bed early, got a hoe out of the barn, and started down a row of soybeans behind the garage. I had no idea how or what to hoe, so, after experimenting with several weeding techniques, I decided the most effective way to do the job was to swing the hoe like a golf club, taking out weeds and a few soybeans in the process. A few minutes later my grandfather came out to watch my progress. When he saw what I was doing, he cried out, “For heaven’s sake, STOP! I’ll pay you the money if you’ll just STOP!”

In the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, Jesus recognizes that sometimes it’s hard to tell the weeds from the wheat. Although this story follows hard on the very similar parable of the sower and the seed, the stories have two very different destinations. The sower and the seed addresses the question of why God’s outpouring of grace in the world receives such very different responses, from nothing to abundance. The parable of the weeds among the wheat is a story about life within the community of faith – the church. This is not the hard path or the rocky soil. We thought this ground was well plowed and cultivated. There was abundant growth in this field, but now it seems as though not everything here is godly. In the midst of the church there are – God forbid – sinners. And not just struggling-with-the-usual-stuff sinners, but people who seem to be genuinely destructive to the work of ministry. People who keep ministry from coming together; people who unravel the fabric of community and ministry, people who are bad influences upon other people’s lives and faith. Did God sow bad seed along with the good? Should we go through and clear out the bad seed, to protect the good?

Like my seven year old self, trying to separate the weeds and the wheat can be dangerous for everyone. That’s why Jesus says, clearly, that it’s not the job of the wheat – you and I – to separate the two. The time will come for that, Jesus says. Just as at the end of the soybean season when my grandfather pulled his Allis-Chalmers combine through the crop, cutting everything off at ground level and separating the beans from the weeds and the rest of the bean plant, so, Jesus said, the angels would come at the end of the world and separate the good from the bad. It’s not the wheat’s job to judge – that is God’s job, and God’s alone.

There are at least two reasons why the wheat doesn’t make the judgment. The first reason is because not everything that doesn’t look or act or think like us is a weed. Jimmy Talley says that a weed is just something growing where you don’t want it to grow. I can remember orphan corn stalks growing in the soybean field the year after that field had been planted in corn, and going out to those random stalks when the corn was ripe and bringing the ears back for supper. Farmers who used to plow to the edges of their fields are relearning the Biblical principle of leaving hedgerows for erosion and pest control, and for pollination. I have been impressed, watching the beautiful French countryside during the Tour de France the last two weeks, of the incredible diversity of French agriculture. France is not Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa, with thousands of acres of corn or wheat as far as the eye can see – there is a field of corn next to a field of sunflowers next to a field of beans next to a vineyard.

Jesus knew all too well the Pharisees who believed that anyone who didn’t look or act or think or believe as they did were wrong, needed to be corrected or even excluded. Jesus had been the victim of that theological monoculture, harassed by the Pharisees when he befriended sinners and tax collectors and Roman collaborators and Gentiles and children and women. The Pharisees were purists, trying to restore Israel to a glory they imagined but which history never revealed. Israel had always lived in the tension between what was and what might be, and her greatest days came, in fact, from unlikely combinations of people and circumstances: Joshua’s triumph was aided by Rahab the Canaanite prostitute; King David was the great-grandchild of a Moabite named Ruth; God used Assyria and Babylon to punish his people and a Persian to redeem them; Jesus was born out of wedlock in a barn. Sometimes what we think doesn’t belong is in fact a gift from God.

Recently I had a conversation with a pastor from a different denomination about who is welcome in the church, which ultimately became a conversation about who is a child of God. He comes from a denomination which was founded in the sixteenth century specifically to purify what was believed to be a corrupt Christianity. This pastor recognizes that we are all sinners, but he also believes that certain behaviors disqualify people from church membership. We’re not talking about anything in the Ten Commandments, or in anything that Jesus taught, mind you. He doesn’t seem to mind people eating shrimp, or wearing blended fabrics, or associating with women at certain times of the month, or with people who store up treasure in ever-expanding barns while ignoring the needy at their gate, all of which are prohibited in the Bible. The conversation really came down to who is a child of God. He believes that only Christians – and, I would suggest, only his kind of Christians -- are God’s children. He believes everyone else is made in God’s image, but is not a child of God until they personally accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I agree that people should accept Christ as Lord and Savior, but I also believe that when the Letter to the Ephesians says there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all, that means everyone, not just those who recognize it. But then, this pastor doesn’t believe in one baptism, either. I believe that children who die in utero or in infancy, and the mentally challenged who can never make a profession of faith, and people who have never heard the gospel, are all children of the same Father, who loves them all just the same. God is not our Father and we are not God’s children because we say so – we accept it because it’s already true. And that’s why I believe this parable is telling us to be very careful about who we call wheat and who we call a weed.

The second reason why it’s not our job to separate the wheat and the weeds is because eternal judgment belongs to God and to God alone. We are expected to be discerning – not everyone in the church can be treasurer, or can work with children, or be a musician, or preach. But the first and most important act of faith is to say that Jesus Christ is Lord, which means we are not Lord. The judgment of the world is not our call. Who is saved and who is damned is not our call. Who is in and who is out is not our call. Yes, we live amongst the weeds. We need to put our energies into producing fruit with which God can feed a literally and spiritually starving world, not waste our efforts pointing out the weeds. The weeds will get taken care of, at the right time, more surely than we ever can manage. Stop playing God, deciding who is saved and who isn’t. Make room for all God’s children, and let God do the sorting. You might discover that that plant next to you, which you thought was a weed because it didn’t look like you, might be wheat and you’re the weed. Or you might just discover it’s a different strain, and the mixture makes the loaf all the more healthy and delicious.

Every ounce of energy we put into judgment is energy diverted from being fruitful for God. Yes, there are weeds among the wheat. That’s not our problem. Instead, grow and shine and be fruitful for your Heavenly Father, who alone is Lord of the Harvest.

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