July 17, 2011
Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew. The farmer’s workers went to him and said, “Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?”
“An enemy has done this!” the farmer exclaimed.
“Should we pull out the weeds?” they asked.
“No,” he replied, “you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.”
Then, leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.” Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels. Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!
Weeds. We are surrounded by them. There is this vine growing in the yard of my new house that is impossible to eliminate. It must grow about 15 feet a week. I am convinced that when humans are no longer around to manicure the earth, this evil, weedy vine alone will take over the planet. Ever since humans began planting and cultivating plants, weeds have been a problem. Weeds. Despised and rejected. In the garden or in the lawn, there is nothing in their appearance that we should desire them. Pull those things up and get rid of them.
The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a weed and a more desirable plant. A story came out last May about weed misidentification. Triumph quickly turned to embarrassment for some police officers in Corpus Christi, Texas. The police received a call from a teenager who thought he had seen hundreds of marijuana plants while biking through a city park. Officers arrived on the scene believing they were dealing with a not-so-secret pot farm. They spent about an hour pulling up, bagging and tagging around 400 plants. But when they took their haul back to the station, tests revealed that it was a common weed called horsemint. Police were so excited about making a major drug bust, they forgot to check to see if the plants were actually drugs. Although the estimated street value of the horsemint is $0, the officers’ effort wasn’t entirely in vain. Since horsemint has a tendency to spread quickly, the cops at least helped spare the park from a troublesome invader. All to say, sometimes it’s hard to tell an imposter from the real thing. Or, as Jesus might say, it’s hard to tell weeds from wheat.
It’s true for plants, and it’s true for people. I once read a story about an incident at a traffic light. A man was stopped, waiting for the light to turn green. When the light changed, he was distracted and he didn’t budge. The woman in the car behind him honked her horn. The driver still didn’t move. She honked again. By this time, she was pounding on the steering wheel and blowing her horn non-stop. Finally, just as the light turned yellow, the fellow in the first car woke up and drove through the light. The woman in the second car was beside herself, now stopped at the red light. Still mid-rant, she heard a tap on her car window. She looked up to see the face of a police officer. “Lady, you’re under arrest,” he said. “Get out of the car. Put your hands up.” He took her to the police station, had her finger printed, photographed, and then put her in a holding cell. Hours passed. The officer returned and unlocked the cell door. He escorted her back to the booking desk. “Sorry for the mistake, Lady,” he said. “But I pulled up behind you as you were blowing your horn and cursing out the fellow in front of you. I noticed the stickers on your bumper. One read “Follow me to Sunday School.” The other, “What Would Jesus Do?” So, naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.
It’s often hard to tell who is wheat and who is a weed.
The meaning of Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds becomes clearer when we look at the specific kind of weed he talks about. The Greek word for weeds refers to particular type of weed that looks just like wheat. You can hardly tell the difference. Today we call it bearded darnel. As it matures, it looks like wheat, it acts like wheat, but it is not wheat. It fools you. It bears the closest resemblance to wheat till the ear appears, and only then the difference is discovered. The problem with taking our hoe to the evil weeds of the world is that good and evil sometimes look so much alike.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am wheat and sometimes I am a weed, and I usually don’t know when I’m being either. Some of the things I do that I think are so good and holy have turned out to be more about me than about Christ. Sometimes I do things or say things I’m not really paying attention to, and they end up making a positive difference.
Wheat and weeds. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. That’s why Jesus suggests that Christians are not qualified to distinguish between the two. We are not good at telling the difference between true and false believers. Most times that the Christendom has presumed to do that it has produced an ungodly bloodbath. For instance, when the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine required every person to make a profession of faith in Christ on pain of death, he succeeded in killing many true Christians who refused to submit to his violent brand of Christianity. During the
Crusades of the Middle Ages, unbelievable brutality was committed against non-Christians, especially Muslims and Jews, in the name of the Prince of Peace. During the Protestant Reformation, countless thousands of Christians who did not submit to the dogma and authority of Roman Catholicism were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Even in Reformed branch of our congregational history, the great Reformer John Calvin was at least peripherally involved in the burning of heretics in his hometown of Geneva, Switzerland. We have the Salem witch trials to our shame, as well as the settlers’ horrendous treatment of native American populations–often using religious justification. How many beautiful, decent, moral, and spirit-filled people have been killed in the name of Christ by Christians who claimed to know who God favored and who God was going to punish? Even today, how many wise and wonderful people are alienated or discriminated against by Christians who claim to know the difference between wheat and weeds How many would never step foot in a Christian church because of the ways people have been treated by Christians?
Jesus knows we are not good at telling the difference between wheat and weeds. So just leave the plants alone and let God take care of the gardening. Our job is not to be God’s Weed Killers. We are supposed to be God’s ambassadors and witnesses, nurturers and caretakers.
Jesus says, “Let the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest.” That’s a hard one. It sounds like he wants us to let evil go unnoticed -- to ignore that which is horrible and destructive in our lives and in our world. That point is not that we ignore evil. Evil is destructive. Do you know what’s more destructive? Assuming we alone are the judge and jury.
Jesus says, “Let the weeds grow.” Something is lost in the translation here. The word Matthew uses to describe what is to be done to the weeds that we translate “let” is the same word that he uses in the Lord’s prayer, where we translate it, “forgive.” In our translations, we hear Jesus say, “Let the weeds grow.” People hearing the original words might as easily have heard Jesus say, “Forgive the weeds that are growing.”
Our criteria for judgment can be so superficial and trivial – we accept people similar to ourselves and we find it easy to write-off people who are different. God is not like that. God doesn’t want us to be like that. For now, leave the final judgment to God. Forgive the weeds.
We are being asked to tend the garden, to nourish the plants. To focus our energies on growth and life, rather than waste our energy weeding. Instead of judging others, pay attention to God’s criteria of good and evil. It’s not about fulfilling ritual observance or adhering to some religious authority’s definition of purity. God’s criteria of good and evil is about paying attention to the least of those among us. From Christ’s perspective, I don’t get credit for being a pious if I leave a victim on the side of the road to suffer or die. Nobody, no matter how respectable one looks, gets a pass for accumulating riches at the expense of the poor. There is no excuse for those who have been willing to look at those who are hungry or thirsty, naked or captives, and then turn the other way.
The sober truth in my own life is I have a sketchy track record. Sometimes I help those in need and sometimes I turn away. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m a fruitful, beautiful stalk of wheat. And sometime I’m a weed. We can’t always tell the potentially fruitful from the potentially destructive. So try not to judge. Forgive the weeds. Sometimes, you and I might be one of them.
The good news is that the good seed of God’s bounteous love will grow no matter what weeds may take root. We can trust that God has planted good seed in our lives even when some days all we see looks like weeds. So, live in humility, with mercy, with forbearance and forgiveness. In these ways, we continue to make God’s love known, and help God’s presence grow in our lives and in our communities.