Weeds, Weeds, Everywhere! Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
Each spring, my husband David and I have high hopes for our garden: we think about those juicy red tomatoes, fresh green beans, and bright zinnias for the table, and we get all excited! But most years, we don’t get around to planting our garden till early June… and by early July, we’ve grown a wonderful crop of weeds; there are weeds, weeds, everywhere! If we push them aside, we might find a tomato or two. It’s pretty embarrassing, actually. To look at our garden, you’d think we had read this parable of Jesus as if it were instructions on how to grow a healthy crop of weeds.
As pitiful a gardener as I am, even I know that this parable sounds backwards. Let the weeds grow, side by side with the wheat? It doesn’t make sense; the weeds are going to get out of hand, and choke the life out of the good plants.
It’s interesting that Jesus chooses weeds as an image for sin and evil; it’s really a brilliant analogy. Think about it… weeds are persistent; they’re always springing up in new places. Weeds are hardy, they don’t need any cultivation, they thrive with no attention at all. Just as you get one area cleared of weeds, more pop up somewhere else. Just as we don’t want to have weeds in our gardens, yet they are inevitably there, so sin and evil are inevitably part of life on this earth.
And, weeds can be deceptive; some weeds are really pretty! Children, learning to be garden-helpers, are easily confused: which green thing is a weed, and which is a good plant? It can be easy to pull up the good plant, while leaving that pretty weed to grow, fooled by its colorful blossom. Just like weeds, sin can be deceptive, putting on an attractive face just to fool us.
In this parable, we find ourselves identifying with the servants, who are eager to get rid of all those weeds, and tidy things up, and “root out the evildoers”. We want orderliness and purity. It seems obvious to us that surely Jesus would oppose evil in every form, and exhort us as Christians to root it out at each new sighting, and quickly, before it gets out of hand. Yet this is not what Jesus says. This parable serves as a warning, that in our efforts to do something good, like root out evil, we may be inadvertently doing something not good.
Throughout history, we can see that people who may have started out with good intentions to address something that wasn’t right, ended up perpetrating an evil instead. During the Crusades in the Middle Ages, Christians, in the name of God, slaughtered thousands of innocent people, simply because they were not Christian (and would not “convert”); the Crusaders were absolutely convinced that God wanted them to do this. It’s obvious, in retrospect, that that wasn’t a Christian thing to do; it was a horrific, unspeakable evil. In more recent history, right here in SC, lynch mobs hanged black men who had done nothing worse than looking a white woman in the eye; the evil they perpetrated was a million times worse than the fabricated wrong they were addressing. And even more recently, people who identify themselves as pro-life have ended up killing doctors, which doesn’t fit with being pro-life. They ended up killing people to say that killing people is wrong? Or we think of the man who stormed the pizza parlor just last year, eager to rescue all the victims of a child sex trafficking ring; he created chaos when he entered shooting bulletsthat could have killed someone, but there was no sex trafficking ring there… it really was just a pizza parlor. It can be easy to lose perspective, and get so focused on the evil we’re trying to root out that we don’t realize that we are the ones perpetrating evil. Just this morning, I read a funny observation on Facebook: “Since the War on Drugs got started, even more drugs have come into the country; since the War on Terror began, there are now more terrorists in the world. Maybe next year we should have a war on farmer’s markets.”
This parable warns us that, as obvious as it may seem to us humans what is good and what is evil, life may be far more ambiguous than we’re comfortable with, and that God alone can make the final determination.
Yet, even as this parable is a warning, it’s also a promise: even though it looks to the servants that the farmer waits far too long to deal with the weeds, the farmer will indeed deal with the problem and harvest a good pure crop of wheat. This parable is a promise that, in the end, God will triumph over those forces of evil that seem so insidious and strong.
As we look around at our world, it’s easy to see weeds, weeds, everywhere! Weeds of abuse, violence, greed, corruption, human trafficking, oppression, abuse of power… We even see lots of weeds in the “capital C” Church: manipulations, financial misconduct, sexual misconduct, distorted theology that plays on fears and condones oppression and racial injustice. The biblical scholar Tom Long writes that, as eager as we may be to root out all those weeds, this parable “frees us from having to ‘play God’ and set things right all by ourselves.” Tom Long goes on to write that “in the parable, the farmer is patient. The farmer’s patience allows the church to be patient and confident and not to launch any fearful or destructive inquisitions, ripping itself apart out of a puritanical zeal to punish wrongdoers.” Yes, of course, we can put structures into place that bring a measured, calm accountability for misbehavior, not focused on punishment but focused on healing and restoration and redemption. But we need to beware any emotional crusade that whips up passions and distorts the Gospel of love into a weapon of judgment, condemnation, and violence.
The good news of this parable is that God’s ultimate victory over sin and evil is not dependent on our actions, and that the persistence of the weeds is not the final word.
In this parable, we tend to identify with the servants, who want to pull up all those weeds. But there is another place we can find ourselves in this text: in the wheat field! Each one of us is like that wheat field: each one of us is a mixture of good wheat and weeds; each one of us has good qualities and destructive behaviors. Now, some of us are better than others at hiding our shortcomings, but every one of us has that ‘shadow side’, those parts of ourselves we don’t like and that we’d rather not admit or face or remember. One minute we might be living as faithful disciples, and the next minute we’re not: we speak hurtful words, we’re too busy to pray, we judge others, we withhold forgiveness, we overlook the suffering of our neighbor. As we recognize ourselves as this field that is full of weeds as well as wheat, we can find great hope in this parable: that God will, in the end, separate out the good from the bad, and cleanse us and purify us.
Each year in December, Handel’s Messiah is played on the radio and performed in person. All of the lyrics of the songs are straight from the Bible. One of the songs has words from the prophet Isaiah: “God is like a refiner’s fire…” A refiner’s fire is used to purify gold; it’s a fire that burns away the waste, the dirt and debris, what they call the “dross”, in order to clean the gold and make it pure. So, I wonder… what if these fires Jesus mentions in this parable are not primarily fires of condemnation or eternal damnation, but instead are fires primarily of purification? What if the purpose of these fires is to burn off all the bad parts, so that the good parts shine brightly?
I’d like to close with a modern-day parable written by Barbara Brown Taylor, a nationally known preacher and writer:
“Hear another parable of the wheat and the weeds. One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheat field. No sooner had they begun to work, however, than they began to argue – first about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds, and then about the rest of the weeds. Did the Queen Anne’s lace pose a real threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration? And the blackberries? They would be ripe in just a week or two, but they were, after all, a weed – or were they? And the honeysuckle – it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet.
About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss showed up and ordered them out of his field. Dejected, they did as they were told. Back at the barn he took their machetes away from them, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit down where they could watch the way the light moved across the field. At first, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was, what a discredit it was to them and their profession, but as the summer wore on they marveled at the profusion of growth – tall wheat surrounded by tall goldenrod, ragweed, and black-eyed Susans. The tares and the poison ivy flourished alongside the Cherokee roses and the milkweed, and it was a mess, but a glorious mess, and when it had all bloomed and ripened and gone to seed the reapers came.
Carefully, gently, expertly, the reapers gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked. And the fire that the weeds made was excellent, and the flour that the wheat made was excellent, and when the harvest was over the owner called them all together – the farmhands, the reapers, and all the neighbors – and broke bread with them, bread that was the final distillation of that whole, messy, gorgeous, mixed-up field, and they all agreed that it was like no bread any of them had ever tasted before and that it was very, very good. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.” 1
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004, pp. 36-37.
Tandy Gilliland Taylor
July 23, 2017
Triune Mercy Center