Some years ago, a friend of mine was appointed to a new church in Michigan. He and his wife moved into the parsonage, which had been built many years before. The back yard was bordered by flower beds, which were something of a mess when they moved in.
My friend was inundated by all the work of getting settled in his new parish, and his wife had been shouldering most of the move-in work, so they hadn’t had any time to clean up the flower beds. But one Saturday, my friend found himself pretty well caught up. His sermon was ready, and he had a little free time on his hands. His wife had gone out to lunch with some of the women of the church, so he thought he would surprise her and weed the flower beds.
He had a difficult time. All the roots were so entangled that he pretty much just pulled up everything unless he definitely recognized it as a flower. He told me that, while he worked, he was picturing how pleased his wife would be to see the nice, neat beds, and he thought that maybe he’d take her out to dinner and then to a local nursery to pick out some new flowers to plant. He pulled up several garbage bags full of weeds, which he took to the dump.
He was all done and getting cleaned up when his wife came home. She could hardly wait to tell him what she had learned about the history of the parsonage, especially the flower beds. He listened as his wife told him about the wife of a former pastor. She’d been beloved by the congregation, and it was this woman who had planted the flower beds. Among the more familiar varieties, she had included and carefully tended some very special, late-blooming heirloom perennials. When they bloomed, they were so spectacular that the church had a tradition of holding a special vespers service in the yard, surrounded by these beautiful flowers. His wife told him, “The ladies described them to me so that, when we weed the garden, we won’t pull them up by mistake!”
You guessed it. Mixed in with all the weeds my friend had taken to the dump were every last one of the heirloom flowers which, for years, had given so much pleasure to the congregation he had just been appointed to serve.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to tell the difference between weeds and flowers. Sometimes it’s hard for us to tell the difference between good seed and bad seed. The good news is that we don’t have to. Our parable today about our God, who says to us, “Leave the sorting out to me.”
Our parable is the second in a series of stories that Jesus told his crowd of listeners. Earlier, Jesus had been challenged by the Pharisees, on multiple occasions and in multiple ways. He’d been called “a glutton and a drunkard.” He’d raised eyebrows by befriending tax collectors and other sinners. He’d been criticized for healing on the Sabbath and for allowing his disciples to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath. These Pharisees were sure that they knew what God wanted and felt well-qualified to judge Jesus. Of course, they found him wanting; he was a weed in the field they were in charge of, and he needed to be pulled up by the roots.
Maybe the grain that Jesus and his followers had picked and eaten on the Sabbath was still on Jesus’ mind, because the first story he told was the one about seeds that fall into different kinds of soil. He followed it with our parable for today—another parable about seeds.
Some of the seeds in this story had been sown by the farmer himself in good, fertile soil. But, while the farmhands were asleep, the field was contaminated with the seeds of weeds. The wheat sprouted and grew. So did the weeds. But, it wasn’t until they both bore fruit that the farmhands realized what had happened.
Now, for those of you who are good gardeners and farmers, I’m guessing this might seem a little odd. Surely when you go out to your fields and flower beds, you can spot the weeds as soon as they poke up out of the ground. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not that gardener. I didn’t know that I had wild mustard in my yard until my precocious six-year-old neighbor pointed out that what I thought were pretty wildflowers were an invasive species that I was required by state law to get rid of. So, the fact that the farmhands didn’t identify the weeds early on doesn’t sound odd to me at all.
But, it wouldn’t have sounded odd to Jesus’ listeners either. They would have recognized the weed in this story. It’s called darnel, and it grows widely in Palestine. When it’s growing along with wheat, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart until they produce grain. So, it wasn’t surprising that the farmhands thought everything was fine until the two began to produce fruit.
The farmhands are understandably disturbed. In spite of the farmer’s investing in good seed and their work tending it, they now have these weeds in the field. First, they want to know how this could happen. Maybe they feel a little protective of the field they had tended. Maybe they’re a little afraid that they’ll be held responsible; after all, they were asleep when the damage was done.
But no, the farmer knows exactly what has happened. An enemy has come and contaminated the field. This, too, would have been a familiar situation for the crowds listening to Jesus. It wasn’t uncommon to sow darnel in an enemy’s fields as revenge or to cause trouble, even though it was illegal under Roman law.
Probably with a sense of relief that the farmer wasn’t upset with them, the farmhands were ready to get to work on those weeds. They (and the crowd of listeners) know the dangers of mixing darnel in with the wheat. It has poisonous properties. Eating bread contaminated with darnel can make you very sick. (I’ll spare you the details.)
But, rather than giving them the go-ahead, the farmer makes a different decision. He tells the farmhands to leave the weeds to grow along with the wheat until harvest time. The farmer explains, “In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them.” “Ah, yes,” the crowd might have thought; they know how the roots of wheat and darnel become intertwined. “Just leave them be,” the farmer says, “and I’ll have the reapers sort everything out later.”
That’s where Jesus ends the parable. He goes on to tell some more stories but, as far as the crowd is concerned, Jesus is done with this parable about the kingdom of God. If they have questions about what he means, he leaves them to puzzle it out.
This isn’t good enough for the disciples, though. Later, when Jesus and his disciples take a break and go back to the house where Jesus is staying, they ask him what the parable means. “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field,” they demand, and Jesus does.
Jesus explains the parable as an allegory, where everything in the story stands for something else. First, he says, the field is all the world. The good seeds, sown by the Son of Man, are the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of evil, grown from seeds sown by the devil. (Matthew’s readers may have smiled a little at this play on words. The Greek word for “devil” means someone who speaks falsely, and the Greek name for darnel means crafty, deceitful, or treacherous.) The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels who will remove and destroy all causes of sin and all evildoers from the kingdom. Free of sin and evil, the righteous will shine.
There are couple of things in the parable that Jesus doesn’t explain. For one thing, he doesn’t specifically explain who the servants are. We’re inclined to cast ourselves in that role. As followers of Jesus, we pledge to serve him and the world. It’s our job to “grow” the kingdom by making disciples of Jesus Christ. We call ourselves his servants, so we might get the notion that weeding is our job.
We often act like the Pharisees. We think we need to identify and remove anything that looks like a weed in the kingdom. But, Jesus makes it clear that weeding is not our job. It’s God’s alone, to do or to delegate as God sees fit, and for good reason. When we put ourselves in charge of weed control, we put ourselves in God’s place. We make ourselves judges—and we become judgmental. We start making distinctions about who’s in and who’s out. This is nothing less than sin. It separates us from God, by denying that God alone is Lord over all. It separates us from others—especially those we judge to be weeds. And it separates us from the selves God desires us to be—people of grace. “Leave the weeds alone,” God says to the servants, whoever they might be.
So, if we’re not the servants, then we must be the seeds. And, if we are the seeds, we have to ask, what kind of seeds are we?
We’d all like to think that we’re wheat, sown by the Son of Man. We serve, and we pray, and we worship. We study our Bibles and look to Scripture for guidance. We try to discern God’s will for us and the world, and we try to live by it. We try each day to live in Christlike ways.
But, our desire for faithfulness is always at odds with our sinful nature. All too often we find ourselves in Paul’s shoes when he said, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We hope that we are wheat, but sometimes we can look a lot like weeds.
And, I can guarantee you that someone thinks you’re a weed. It might be someone who disagrees with you about how a ministry should be run. It might be someone who thinks your interpretation of Scripture is not only wrong but heretical. I’ll bet that, during the splits of this congregation, a lot of people thought that they were wheat, sitting next to some weeds. This is certainly at the root of the present problems in the UMC: people with differing theological positions believing that the denomination is being overrun with weeds, while they—the wheat—are being crowded out.
We have a hard time telling whether we ourselves are weed or wheat, and we certainly can’t tell what other people are. No one but God can tell that. Who else searches and knows us? Who else can discern our thoughts from far away? Who else searches out our path and is acquainted with all our ways? Who else, even before a word is on our tongue, knows it completely? No one but God.
This should give us both pause and hope. It should give us pause if we’re inclined to think too highly of ourselves. It should stop us in our tracks when we begin to judge others in our thoughts even as we serve them with our hands. If we examine our hearts and minds, we may find that we are more weedy than we thought. We can look pretty on the outside but still cause pain because of what’s on the inside, like my pretty but destructive wild mustard.
But, God’s knowledge of us should also give us hope. God gives us time to grow into fruitfulness. God doesn’t rush to call us a weed when there is every chance that we will turn out to be wheat. The process of sanctification—of being perfected in love—is a life-long endeavor. Lives that start out looking like they’re full of weeds may prove in the end to produce fruitful grain.
God knows that prematurely removing what appears to be a weed may take away something valuable from the kingdom of God. That darnel that was sowed in the farmer’s field in our parable? It certainly can be poisonous. But, it has beneficial uses as well. Long ago, it was used to treat many diseases, from dizziness and insomnia to stomach and skin problems. It contains a chemical that can act as a pain reliever.
It could be that when the farmer told the farmhands not to disturb the weeds, he knew that what appeared to be a weed actually had value they didn’t recognize. It might it be that uprooting what looks to us like a weed would rob the community of faith of gifts we cannot see or don’t understand. Instead of trying to silence those who cry out against injustice or call for wider inclusion or offer a different perspective, we would do better to listen and strive for understanding. Instead of trying to uproot what we call weeds, we should remember God’s instructions: that all the seeds are to be left to grow together. Because, it just may be that what we see as weeds, God see as something that will offer healing to the Church and, by extension, to the world.
Does this mean that we are to ignore the evil in the world? The answer is clearly “no.” The words of the prophets and Jesus’ own example rule that out. Over and over, the prophets proclaimed that many of Israel’s woes came from just such an acceptance of injustice against the poor, the alien, and the vulnerable. Jesus had harsh words for those who took advantage of the poor and the sick. We are called to act against injustice and exploitation, poverty and disease, and violence and oppression. We are called to actively confront and work to eliminate actions and systems that deny the humanity of others. We can judge and act against unrighteous actions. But, we must always remember that only God can pass judgment on the human heart.
We can trust that God judges the living and the dead. We can trust God’s promise that one day, “God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” We can trust that, at the end of the age, God will collect out of God’s kingdom all causes of sin, and the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
Are we weeds or wheat? Only God can judge. Weeds can turn out to be blessings, and good seed can produce disappointing results. But, God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We were planted in the love of God, we are tended by the grace of Jesus, and we grow by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the world which is God’s field, God allows us all to grow together, so that, together we may bear fruit for the kingdom. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young