July 23, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
By the time we get to the end of Jesus’ story of the wheat and the weeds and his explanation of the story, we might feel gratified. With some especially vivid descriptions of torment and of joy, Jesus said the evildoers will get their punishment and the righteous will get their reward. This is the way things ought to be, we might think. This is justice in its most basic form. It is what we deserve, all of us, who have had to endure the fears and the frustrations of living in this world that never seems to be fair.
We have no shortage of fears and frustrations. In our world, it seems that terrorists prevail, abusers get elected, crooks and cronies get huge bonuses and stock options, cheaters get promoted, and rich and famous and beautiful people waste their power on frivolous and self-centered pursuits. In our own city, violence seems to rage, with murders and other violent crimes committed at rates far above what other cities our size experience. The police say they are understaffed, the courts say they are overwhelmed, the aldermen say they don’t have any money, the neighborhoods speak out with thinly-veiled prejudices about race and social class, and families can’t control their kids. And while all of them are trying to sort it all out, murderers are getting away with murder. When will they get what they deserve? We don’t know exactly, but there is some reassurance in the fact that Jesus promised that at the end of it all, they would.
But if we read this story Jesus told as a boost to our sense of justice or a reassurance of our ultimate vindication, then I think we will have missed the point. Because the point of the story is not what will happen in God’s sweet justice of the by-and-by. The point of the story is what happens while the wheat and the weeds are still all mixed up together.
It is really a simple story about a simple field. In the field, the farmer planted good seeds of wheat, which, if everything about the weather and the birds and the other conditions of nature worked out just right, would in its season be harvested. The scene evokes premonitions of the joyous harvest that will come in the fall; we can almost hear songs singing in the air like the hymn we will sing in a few minutes: “Come ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home!”
But then, the tension comes. An unnamed enemy came by night and threw seeds of weeds in the same field. Thus, when the seeds of wheat germinated and sprouted, the weeds did as well. One person whose comments on this story I read said that there is a weed called a bearded darnel which is especially vicious for wheat farmers. Many assume this is the weed referenced here. Its seeds, instead of providing healthy nutrition for livestock and people, are a hallucinogenic narcotic. Its roots web their way around other plants to steal water and nutrients. But until the grains appear, the stalks and leaves of the bearded darnel are almost impossible to differentiate from those of the good wheat plant.
When the weeds sprouted, the farmer’s field hands came to him to ask him what to do. Shouldn’t we just pull out the weeds so the wheat can grow? But the farmer said no. You can’t even tell the difference between the two kinds of plants anyway, so how would you know whether you are yanking out the good or the bad grains? And the roots are so bound together that to tear out the one would risk tearing up the whole field. He had a different strategy. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together, he said. We will wait. Then, at the end of the season, when we are thankfully raising the song of harvest home, we will separate them. We will be able to see the fruits and distinguish between the poisonous weeds and the good wheat. We will burn the one and we will use the other for food for people and animals and for seed to start the crop again next season.
Now, as you probably know, most parables in the gospels simply stand on their own without any further explanation. But we can tell that this little story of Jesus’ was an important one to Matthew because Matthew included in his story Jesus’ own explanation of the parable. The disciples asked, and Jesus obliged. The planter is Jesus, he explained. The wheat are the righteous people, and the weeds are those unrighteous people we want to get what they deserve. The field is the world, and the harvest is the end of the world. So, the story goes, when the world is dug up and re-made, Jesus will lead the way in sorting out which of the people are unrighteous and which of the people are righteous.
In the meantime, though, both exist in the world together, and that fact gets to Jesus’ point. Until you see the fruit they bear, the wheat and the weeds are indistinguishable. And their roots are intertwined. If the season is good, with lots of rain and plenty of manure and earthworms to loosen the soil, then both the wheat and the weeds will prosper together. If the season is bad, with drought and poor nutrients, then both the wheat and the weeds will suffer together, and they might even both shrivel up and die together.
This story is both brilliant and terrifying. It is brilliant because it is a creative way to help us understand what is true. We have no way of knowing who among the ones we deem unrighteous will turn out to do good in the world, and we have no way of knowing which of the people we most trust will do harm. We have no way of seeing on the surface who are the wheat and who are the weeds. All we know is that we have to live alongside people, even people we disagree with, and even people we fear will do bad things. And we are not just living beside each other, but we are intertwined. We share the air we breathe and the ground we walk on with the people whom we most fear, whom we least trust, and who seem to be doing the most harm to others. Until God sorts it all out at the end, we all look the same. If we are going to prosper, then we will all prosper together. If we are going to fail, then we will all fail together. And so, if we are going to prosper, we have to seek the prosperity of all of our neighbors, whether we think they are good or bad.
When you think about it, though, all of that seems paradoxical. Why should we help people who don’t seem to deserve it? Why should we be kind to people who have done very unkind things to us, to our neighbors, and to people all over the world? Why should we seek the prosperity of people who have abused others, terrorized others, cheated others, and even murdered others? Why should we see any humanity in people who have done such inhumane things? How do they deserve any grace?
And that paradox is what makes Jesus’ little story about the weeds and the wheat terrifying. It calls us to be humble, acknowledging that we do not have all of the information we would need to judge others. It calls us to be forgiving, never forgetting the wrongs that people have done, but always pushing ourselves to give them another chance to bear good fruit. It calls us to be generous, sharing our money, our time, our energy, and our compassion with other people, because we will not prosper if they do not prosper. It calls us to the many gifts of the Spirit which do not come naturally to us when we feel all those fears and frustrations, and so it calls us to rely on the power of God.
At the end of the story, everyone will get what they truly deserve. But we do not live at the end of the story, and we do not have the right or the responsibility to bring the story to its conclusion. We live in the middle of the story, when the weeds and the wheat are all growing together. And while we are growing together, we prosper together or we fail together. It is brilliant, and it is terrifying.
But at the very end of the story, Jesus offered a phrase he often offered at the end of an important teaching. “Let anyone with ears listen!” This is our calling and our invitation, and it is my prayer for us this morning. I pray that we may listen as Jesus offers us the hope of the end of the story, when God will sort out the weeds and the wheat. And I pray that we may listen as Jesus challenges us with a vision of the present, when the weeds and the wheat are growing together, and they have to overcome their fears and frustrations, and they have to look out for each other, because they will fail together or they will prosper together until the harvest time comes. Then, and only then, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Let anyone with ears listen!