WHEAT AND WEEDS
A sermon preached by Rev. Robert von Trebra and Madeline Cihak at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on July 20, 2014 (Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen! – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
I am becoming more and more of an expert on weeds. I never learned much about gardening when I was young, and when we first had a home, and I had to take care of a lawn, and even tried growing things in a garden, I had a hard time figuring out what were the plants I wanted, and what were the weeds. These days I can pick out the weeds pretty quickly, although I am astonished at the endless variety of them. I have learned which ones are easy to pull out, and which require greater care, or even digging.
But the weeds that Jesus was talking about were another matter. Some biblical scholars have suggested that the weeds he was talking about were a particular species known as “tares” (this is how the word is translated in the King James Version of the Bible), that are very similar in appearance to wheat plants. As they grow together, the roots of wheat plants and tares get entangled, so it is not possible to pull out the weeds without damaging the wheat plants.
Somehow, Jesus saw in the wheat and the weeds something that could give us insight into what he called “the kingdom of heaven.” It is also known as the Kingdom of God (gospels of Mark and Luke), or the Realm of God. I think when people hear this phrase – “the kingdom of heaven” – they think it is about that place of blessed rest and peace we hope to go after we die – heaven. But this parable makes it clear that Jesus is talking about something else – some place else.
Jesus is talking about the community of those who believe in, and love God, and who do God’s will. It is something that is here and now – in this world, but it is transient. It is hard to maintain it, because it requires devotion to God’s ways rather than human ways. It is where — as the apostle Paul would put it — people live according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh (whatever that means!). It can be the church – at its best, although we often fall short of being the Realm of Heaven. It is what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “Beloved Community.”
It seems that the early church saw itself as the Kingdom of Heaven. Many of those early Christians had repented of selfishness and sinful desires, and were attempting to live together in inclusive communities of mutual love, while they waited for Christ to return. But there seems to have been a problem of great concern for some of them. It is hard to know the details from these brief gospel passages, but perhaps they were wondering whether they could live as God’s people in the midst of a culture that was majority pagan – people who held religious beliefs contrary to their own, and who often engaged in what the Christian community believed were immoral practices.
Are Christians called to form isolated communities of their own, or are they to live as witnesses in an alien and sometimes hostile world? There have been times when Christian churches have urged their people not to associate with unbelievers, or to marry outside their religion. They have sometimes separated from society to form “pure” religious communities. They have started private schools for children in an effort to teach them their own beliefs and protect them from bad influences.
But I think the parable of the wheat and the weeds suggests that we are not to try to escape from the world, but rather to do our best to live our faith in it – wheat among weeds. After all, we believe that God took on human flesh in Jesus and lived among us – facing disbelief and misunderstanding and even violent hostility – in order to be a light to the world – to transform the world.
That is one way to understand the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. Another might be that the early church was concerned about the faith and morality of its own members. Perhaps there were those among them who had not completely given up their former ways. Or some may have had doubts about who God was, and who Jesus was. Maybe some were family members of believers who hadn’t quite come to claim the gospel message for themselves. And maybe some were initially devoted believers who, as the days they hoped for Christ’s return turned into years, reverted to old habits (some Christian traditions would call them “backsliders”). These may have been the weeds that Jesus had told them about.
So, what to do about them? They gave a bad reputation to the other members of the community. They were a bad influence on the rest of the believers. Should they be dismissed and excluded from the community?
It is a question that faces every group: Who is in, and who is out? Most groups have some means of including and excluding. Just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis made news by declaring that members of Italian crime families were excommunicated from the church – outside the grace of God. Our own constitution and by-laws for Lyonsville Church allow for the removal of members who “become an offense to the church and its good name by reason of immoral or unchristian conduct, or by persistent breach of his or her covenantal vows…”
Perhaps there are times when such drastic actions must be taken for the good of the community. But Jesus’ parable of the weeds among the wheat suggests that we should be careful about excluding people. They may be in great need of what the faith community has to offer. Excluding people can damage relationships with those within the community. And we humans are rarely in a position to judge the character of others.
I recently read about the noted biblical scholar F.B. Meyer, was never in a hurry to jump to conclusions about the alleged improprieties of others. He argued that, first, we do not know how hard he or she tried not to sin. And second, we do not know the power of the forces that assailed him or her. We also do not know what we would have done in the same circumstances.
So maybe Jesus counseled the early church not to try to remove the weeds because we aren’t always able to distinguish between wheat and weeds.
In the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim musical “West Side Story”, the gang known as the Jets sings a song about the local cop, Officer Krupke, and about their tough lives and how they became troublemakers:
ACTION AND JETS
Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents,
Deep down inside us there is good!
There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good!
Like inside, the worst of us is good!
In fact, maybe the reason that Jesus told this parable — counseling the church not to pull up the weeds too soon — is because the wheat and the weeds are us. Every one of us who have been baptized into Christian faith has the good wheat of God’s word growing within us. We are becoming more Christ-like. But we also have the residue of our human instincts and sin – the weeds – that often tempts us to act out of selfishness or fear or ignorance.
I remember, as a youth, reading a short story about a man who was given the power to ask for any wish, and have it granted. He wanted to use this gift wisely – for the good of all, not just for himself. He thought about it for a long time, and finally decided that he would wish that all evil people would be made short – about half normal size. He didn’t want to destroy them, because they were people, after all, and it was possible they might learn and change. He just wanted to make it easy to identify them, so good people could take precautions around them. As he made this wish known, he could feel a great surge of power as his wish took effect around the world – and he suddenly found himself half of his former size.
There is an old Flemish proverb that says, “Everyone has enough weeding to do in their own garden.”
We are fortunate that the time of God’s judgment has not yet come – that there is still time for us to do some weeding in our own lives. As we grow in faith, we are less likely to be driven by unconscious needs and desires. If Christ has died for us and been raised to life, we have nothing to fear, and there is no reason to act out of fear. In the end, we believe we will be purified by God’s grace. But until then, let us seek to love as we have been loved, and not act out of hatred and suspicion and misunderstanding. Let us seek to be wheat among the weeds.
Robert J. von Trebra & Madeline Cihak