Text: Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43
We may disagree about a lot of things, but one thing most Americans can agree on is that we don’t care for weeds. Weeds are extremely unpopular. In a recent Gallup poll, weeds ranked below used car salesmen and members of Congress in likeability.
Gardeners don’t want weeds in their tomatoes and peppers and flower beds so we use hoes and tillers and we mulch and we get on our knees and pull weeds. We might even invest in The Garden Weasel. (I bought one at a garage sale a few years back - it didn’t work nearly as well as it does in commercials, but it was worth a shot.) Homeowners want a nice lawn and so we use Weed and Feed or have the Chem-Lawn people come by. We do what we can to eliminate weeds.
And in fact, battling weeds is big business, a multi-billion dollar industry. Over 90% of our country’s corn, soybean, and cotton crops are grown from genetically modified seeds, the vast majority of those being glyphosate tolerant – otherwise known as Roundup Ready. Weeds can be killed off with an herbicide that doesn’t affect the crop you are growing. It means not having to till and theoretically using less herbicide. And it means not hiring a bunch of teenagers to walk beans with a hoe or knife or machete to take out weeds. Personally, I think that is kind of a loss, and I read just this week that walking beans is making somewhat of a comeback both because of the growth of organic farming. But the point here is that one way or another, farmers are going to do what they can to eliminate weeds.
Whether it is your yard or your garden or a field, the objective is to get rid of weeds. But Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who took a completely different approach. This farmer said, “Let the weeds grow. Don’t worry about them. Let’s just let it all grow till harvest and then we can sort it out.”
This is not a common farming strategy. In fact, it is a terrible plan for farming. To follow Jesus’ advice, to just let the weeds grow till you’re ready to pick the corn or gather in the beans, is asking for all kinds of trouble. If you do that, you might not even be able to find your corn or beans. And your crops will almost certainly be smaller and less healthy because the weeds robbed them of nutrients.
Jesus strategy is a recipe for disaster. Lutheran preacher Barbara Lundblad says,
these parables about sowing seeds and leaving weeds must have sounded completely ridiculous to people who knew about farming. But come to think of it, would one shepherd really leave 99 sheep in jeopardy to go searching for one who got lost? Jesus’ parables that seem so simple and ordinary don’t really make good sense at all. Not to people who make their living by farming! Did Jesus really mean to draw such pictures of the Kingdom of God? Or was he simply a bad farmer?
Jesus’ real subject, of course, is not farming. He is talking about life. In this world, there is good existing alongside the bad. There are weeds among the wheat. The question for us is, “What do we do about those weeds?”
William Willimon was interviewing a man who had spent 20 years counseling pastors. This man told Willimon that he had found that someone who had been a professional photographer or printer ought never to go into the Christian ministry.
Willimon wondered what on earth that had to do with it. He explained, “If you are the sort of person who has a great need to get everyone in focus, to have everyone stand still, like in a photograph, you’re going to be miserable in the church because folks just won’t stay in place. Things are messy. People are always getting out of focus. It’s a lousy place for people who like things definite and neat because people are hardly ever neat.”
“People are hardly ever neat.” You can’t argue with that. Weeds grow alongside the wheat. Life can be messy. There are weeds and there is wheat, even in the Church. Power struggles and jealousy and gossip and hypocrisy and self-righteousness are found even in the Church. There are weeds in the garden. But part of our problem is that we can’t always tell the wheat from the weeds.
In King James language, Jesus speaks of the “wheat and the tares.” That word, tare, refers to a specific plant that is today called a bearded darnel. It looks very similar to wheat, and in fact even farmers can’t always tell which it is until it matures. It belongs to the wheat family, but it is toxic. It won’t kill you, but it will make you sick. You don’t want tares mixed in with your wheat.
But the problem is deeper than simply identifying what the plant is. Because sometimes, one person’s weed is another person’s flower.
When I was a kid, I can remember we would sometimes go on Sunday afternoon drives. This was back when gas was 35 or 40 cents a gallon, and maybe 25 cents a gallon when there was a price war. We would get in the car, with us three kids in the back seat of our 1960 Ford Falcon. It was a great car because it had lines on the upholstery in the back seat. We all knew which lines drew the boundary of our area in the back seat and we weren’t supposed to cross those lines. We would get in our Falcon and go for a drive, just driving kind of aimlessly through the countryside. Sometimes, my mom would want to stop and cut flowers growing along the road for some kind of arrangement. We might get some Queen Anne’s lace or cattails or some kind of wildflower to use in a flower arrangement.
Just driving along the highway, these looked like weeds, but cut them and put them in an arrangement and they become decorative flowers. Just how do you tell a weed from a wildflower anyway? I hate dandelions, but children love to gather them—to them, they are pretty flowers. In our neighborhood, when it comes to dandelions, some people spray them and some people dig them and some people curse them, but I also know that some people use dandelions to make wine.
Weeds are simply unwanted plants. Plants growing where they are not wanted. And if we take Jesus’ parable to be about people, then maybe he has a point after all, because I don’t want to be the one to determine which ones are the weeds. We have gotten into a lot of trouble that way. Through the centuries, the church has tried to purify itself, to remove the weeds, with disastrous results.
There were the Crusades in which Christians from Europe intent on doing God’s work embarked on a giant weeding mission. In one of the first crusades, Christian knights blew thru an Arab town on their way to the Holy Land and killed everyone in sight. Not until later, when they turned the bodies over, did they find crosses around most of their victims’ necks. It never occurred to them that Christians could have brown skin as well as white.
Later, the Inquisition hunted down suspected heretics and burned them at the stake, like weeds. Some of our Anabaptist forebears were drowned. Even in this country, we had the Salem witch trials in which weeds were burned. And we need to remember our Baptist beginnings as a persecuted minority--we were the ones thought of as the weeds in the garden. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island essentially as a place where the weeds could grow unhindered – and in that day, the weeds were Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers.
There is still this desire to straighten things out and clean things up and make sure that weeds are driven off. We want to protect the harvest, and we can’t have weeds growing among the wheat. But isn’t that exactly what Jesus said that we are to do? To wait until the harvest and leave it up to God?
It is painfully obvious that goodness and sinfulness exist side by side in this world. There is no question about that. But we can’t always tell which are the weeds. For years, people tried to kill tomato plants because they were thought to be poisonous weeds. St. John’s Wort, found to have all kinds of medicinal properties, was nearly killed off completely by ranchers because it gives cows indigestion. We can’t always determine which are wheat and which are weeds—and thankfully, we don’t have to. That is not our job but God’s.
And what’s more, we cannot drive out the weeds by our own efforts anyway. We cannot drive out sin by our own efforts because we have been so affected by it. Martin Luther said that the Christian is at the same time saint and sinner. There is wheat and weeds in all of us. Good and evil not only exist in the same field, they exist in the same individual human beings. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
For now, even in the Church, good and bad exist side by side. Things are messy. For now, the weeds are allowed to grow. And for us, that may be just as well.
Thomas Merton, the Catholic writer, said that the goal of the faithful was to strive to be perfect; but he suggests that true perfection is learning to work with imperfection—accepting ourselves as we are. Which means accepting that we have weeds in our own garden. It means knowing that God can use flawed, imperfect vessels such as us. The field doesn’t have to be weed-free. What is most amazing is that God looks upon this world, filled with weeds, blemished as it is, imperfect as it is, and God loves us anyway.
We can be thankful that for now, God allows the wheat and weeds to exist together, because so often, to paraphrase Pogo, “we is the weeds.” This parable speaks of judgment that comes in due time, in God’s time, but it also speaks of God’s grace. God is patient with this world, and God is patient with us.
This is not to suggest that we are not to be concerned about evil in our midst. And this is not to suggest that we do not worry about working for a more just and peaceful and righteous society. But as Christians, we are to align ourselves with God’s purpose, and God’s purpose is to save. Our premature judgment of others may thwart God’s purposes. And knowing that we ourselves are not immune to sin may help us as we relate to those who may seem to us to be weeds. Do you remember the story of the woman caught in adultery? Jesus did not tell those about to stone her to stop. He simply reminded them of their own sin, and once reminded, they left her alone.
This weeding business can be tricky. And it gets trickier still. It doesn’t happen on farms; it doesn’t happen in gardens; but it happens in life: by the grace of God, tares can become wheat.
As they hung on either side of Jesus, the two thieves crucified with him probably appeared to be no more than two weeds who deserved exactly what they were getting. But Jesus said to one, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” He looked for all the world like a weed, but Jesus saw things differently.
The power of God’s love can change even the most stubborn weed into a beautiful plant. There is hope for all of us. This parable speaks to us of God’s patience. God does not give up on anyone, and neither should we.
Chris Brundage, a pastor in Michigan, performed a funeral for a man named Vic, who was 96. Vic had no children. Chris said that he’d known Vic only the last few years of his life. At his request, Chris had baptized him. He knew Vic’s wife Connie had died several years earlier, and that some friends had taken him in and cared for him in his final years.
He also knew that, as a young man, Vic had had a promising baseball career. Among the memorabilia on display at his funeral was his Detroit Tigers uniform. He had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, as they say, but alcohol ended whatever career he might have had, along with a lot of other things in his life.
Ordinarily, at 96 and with no children, there would have been just a handful of people at the funeral. But 200 showed up. The funeral home had to pull out extra chairs. People came from neighboring states.
Why did so many come to Vic’s funeral? The man was a legend in Alcoholics Anonymous. He had not only remained sober for 55 years, but his gentle testimony had influenced thousands of people. His funeral became an impromptu AA meeting, with many people coming forward to tell what this man had meant to him.
To know Vic as a young man in his 30’s and 40’s, already bankrupted financially and emotionally by alcohol -- who would have guessed then that he was wheat and not a tare?
This parable is not about being passive in the face of evil. Rather, it is about the way we think of others, and it is about leaving final judgments to God.
When the New Testament writers list the gifts and fruit of the Spirit, none of them include the gifts of being right or doing things perfectly. None of them list the spiritual gifts of calling out woeful sinners. They do not include the spiritual gift of judgment. But they mention peace and patience, as well as love.
In the 13th century, the Church responded to the Cathar heresy that was prevalent in areas of Spain and France with a crusade in which tens of thousands of heretics were killed. At one point, an entire town was besieged by a Christian army. The town was full of heretics and the army was there to eliminate them. But there were also innocent people in the city, and no one could tell for sure who was whom. So the army asked the Bishop, “What shall we do?” The bishop said, “Kill them all. God will sort out his own.”
Jesus, in effect, says the opposite. “Let them all live; God will sort out his own.” Judgment comes, but in God’s time and in God’s way. God is patient and full of mercy, and God’s purpose is to save.
For now, there is goodness and evil side by side, but eventually, all evil, all sin, all pain, all hurt will be wiped away, even the evil in our own hearts. And at harvest time, you can count on some surprises. Amen.