Here is a sermon on the gospel lesson for Ordinary 16A, the parable of the wheat and the weeds. We need to beware when we find ourselves wanting to take spiritual and ecclesiastical weedeaters to one another. Take a look at the photograph on the right. What is this? Wheat or weeds?
A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Everybody within earshot of Jesus could instantly imagine the weed-infested field. What a vivid way to picture the way life is! Ever since the Garden of Eden, people have been asking, “How did these weeds get in here? How did decay and death get in here? How did sin sneak its way in and sorrow twine itself around our joy?” Weeds: they’re what ought not to be there.
But there’s another truth about weeds: one person’s weed may be another person’s flower. The experts in God’s sacred law concluded that Jesus, his teachings, and his followers were weeds. And as Jesus told this parable and others about seeds and growing and fruit, these experts—the leaders of the faith—were escalating their campaign of weed control against him.
They looked for every opportunity to question, to criticize, to nip Jesus’ teachings in the bud. Why? They sincerely believed that Jesus was offending against God’s holy laws and condoning sin. Mixing with the impure made you impure, they believed. Breaking the Sabbath was an insult to God. Jesus was leading people astray, the leaders believed. He was a weed, and by chapter 12 of Matthew they had already decided that he needed to be eradicated.
Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples had their own ideas about who the weeds were. Those who rejected Jesus were the weeds in their eyes. They themselves recommended getting out the weedeaters. Once, for example, when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus because he was headed for Jerusalem, James and John said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54). That’s one way to deal with weeds: burn them like poison ivy.
The church of Matthew’s day suffered the reality of weediness. Some of them were tossed like weeds out of their home synagogues, their home congregations, because they followed Jesus. And then there was the frustration, exasperation, sometimes downright pain because of weediness—and attempts at weed control—within the fellowship of the church! Weediness showed up in obvious forms, such as lax living and hypocrisy—playacting at being a disciple. There were disagreements over doctrine and practice and the temptation for each side to label the other as “weeds.”
What’s more, the people of Matthew’s church would know just what Paul was referring to when he wrote to the congregation at Philippi and said that these two women, Euodia and Syntache needed to learn how to get along (Philippians 4:2-3). We talked about them recently in a Morton Salt Shaker Bible study. Each one was so sure that she knew best, and the other one was wrong. They were ready to weed one another out, and this distressed the whole fellowship.
And the church is still a weedy field twenty centuries later: weedy attitudes, weedy behaviors. Sometimes people do outright harm to one another in the church, exploiting and abusing—the sort of thing that makes the secular news. But most of the time it’s ordinary, everyday kinds of weediness that trouble the church. Resentments creep in, for example. Hardworking folks wonder why others who could do more seem not to care. People with a strong sense of call wonder why others seem not to “get it.” While their hearts are invested in the congregation, others seem to have a church and a preacher in the same way they have a dentist and a doctor. They’re there when you need them, checkups recommended. Walking with Jesus is a way of life for some, and they can’t understand why faith seems more like a consumable good or a hobby for others. And just because they’re human, people get on each other’s nerves. It’s just unavoidable. No matter how beautiful the garden, no matter how healthy the church, it is still subject to weeds.
The servants in Jesus’ parable were more than dismayed. How did this happen, and why? “This is the work of an enemy,” the master farmer told them. An adversary slipped in under cover of darkness, sowed the weeds, and slipped away.
The farm workers were ready to get in there and fix it. “Do you want us to get in there and pull up the weeds?” they asked. At least they asked. It’s tempting when something is awry or not quite right, something’s wrong, to want to jump in and pull this problem up by the roots now. Respond right now. Have it out right now. Nip it in the bud. Set those people straight. The servants could not be more well-meaning.
“No, there’s a problem with that,” replied the wise farmer. “You get in there pulling up weeds, and you’re going to pull wheat up along with it. Nope. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll see that the weeds are taken care of.”
The problem was that the weeds looked almost exactly like the wheat. Folks knew what Jesus was talking about. There was a species of weed that looks just like wheat through the early stages of growth. By the time it gets big enough for you to begin telling the two apart, their roots are already so intertwined that you can’t pull up one without pulling up the other. Try to pull out the weeds and you end up with nothing. Farmers separated the two at harvest time after threshing. Sharp-eyed women meticulously picked out all the bad grains from the good.
Just as aggressive attempts at weed control could prove damaging agriculturally, so it is spiritually, Jesus implies. You can observe this phenomenon in the church on the local level, right on up to the denominational and world level. People who consider themselves more knowledgeable, more correct, more holy pounce on those they see as less so. One local congregation’s experience of this was spread all over the national news a few months ago. The church split, and the pastor and some of the members left. What was reported was that the pastor had told the congregation that anyone who planned to vote for a certain candidate in the national election needed to repent or leave the church.
When people pull out the weedeaters on the denominational level it can look like this: firing or forcing out seminary professors, denominational employees, and people who write for official publications. In the Presbyterian Church it usually looks like this: groups of people who disagree with others on matters of scriptural interpretation, doctrine or practice form committees that resemble political action committees, and they duke it out in debate and publications. Often it’s over emotionally charged issues that people experience a great deal of anguish about, like abortion. Each side is tempted to speak with contempt for the other. I’ve even heard one side call the other apostate, practically infidel. Everything would be alright if we could just get those weeds out of the church, they seem to say. Sometimes the secular press picks up and reports one side or the other, or covers the fighting between them. What doesn’t get reported is the stories of the thousands and thousands of people not in the spotlight, in the pews all across the land doing their very best to follow Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor.
When Christians break out the weedeaters against each other, the enemy is laughing all the way to the bank. It’s like this, as Robert Capon says: The enemy doesn’t need to do anything other than sow the unclean seeds. He can count on people to get all up in arms like the farm workers in the parable. The enemy can count on some well-meaning person to tear up the field for him. (Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of the Kingdom, p. 102. Cited in Jim Somerville, “A World Full of Weeds,” Day 1 sermon for July 17, 2005.) Get the Christians busy focused on each other with their weedeaters, and the enemy can get on with the business of grinding humanity down with all manner of devastation: poverty, disease, every form of evil and death.
One of the central points of Jesus’ parable is this: if you go to pulling up weeds, you could be wrong. In fact there’s a good chance you will be wrong. What you think is a weed might not be so in God’s eyes. The Bible is full of such cases. We noted one from the Old Testament this morning, Jacob: a lier, a cheat, a thief, as self-centered as they come—surely he’s a weed. But instead of a weed, God saw a covenant partner in Jacob. God saw the next person to take God’s dream of a covenant people forward.
Then there’s Paul in the New Testament. Whereas Rabbi Gamaliel counseled leaving the Christians alone, don’t try to weed them out, Paul was revving up his weedeater. He saw Christianity as a dangerous weed, and he tried to eradicate it. Naturally, this made Paul a weed in the Christians’ eyes. But instead of a weed, God saw in Paul the potential for great faithfulness.
“Don’t go pulling up the weeds,” said the farmer in the parable. “You’ll uproot the wheat with them. Leave them be until harvest time.” What this means for Jesus’ disciples is this: Leave the weeding to God, the only one who truly knows what is in people’s hearts. God is the only one who knows how to safely separate wheat from weed, light from dark, good from evil. And God will do that in God’s way and in God’s time. Harvest time is coming.
Meanwhile, our call is to focus not on others’ faults and failures but on our own faithfulness and fruitfulness. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” See if there is any weediness in me.
For the truth is that our lives produce a mix of weeds and wheat. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus put it this way: tend to the log in your own eye before you presume to take the splinter out of another’s.
The other week one of our members was telling the book study group about her efforts at weed control in her flowers. She had been vigilant, and things were looking pretty clean. Then one day here was this big weed. Where did that come from? Our member said, “Apparently it had been there all this time, and I didn’t see it.”
That’s how it is in our lives. The weeds are there in us, and often we can’t see them, even when they get very big. Before we go getting out the weedeater to use on somebody else, we need to tend to ourselves. What do we need to do to be wholesome grain and pure? What would God have us do to live as faithfully, obediently, justly, and fruitfully as we can?
Leaving the weedeater in the shed when we approach others looks like this: patience and forbearance. One of our wise elders put it so well one time. I’ll always remember this. He said, “You just have to overlook some things.”
To sum that up in one word, it’s grace. The kind of grace that holds marriages and families together. Spouses know all one another’s weeds, and we know what we could do if we took the weedeater to each other’s weeds. Same thing in the church family, locally and all across the church. We can do a lot of damage to one another if we approach each other with weedeaters instead of grace.
Yes, the weediness is exasperating. And some of the weeds that have their tendrils around humanity truly are dreadful. How did all this pain get into God’s good creation? All creation groans, says Paul, waiting for redemption. Waiting for God to set things right. Waiting for God to sort it all out.
Which God will do, says Jesus, in God’s own time, and in God’s own way. When it’s time for the final curtain on this drama, God’s goodness will prevail. What is good and beautiful and fruitful will be protected and saved. All that is evil will be destroyed. No more weeds. All will be beautiful in God’s time, and God’s people will shine like the sun. No more darkness.
Thanks be to God!