This morning a famous story about weeds, wheat and a cantankerous, jealous, no-good neighbor helps us understand an important characteristic of life in Jesus’ kingdom.
[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And 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?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.’”Commonly called The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, today’s lesson, like the Parable of the Sower that we read last week, draws on the common experience of the first generation of disciples to make an important point.
The thought that someone would sabotage his neighbor’s wheat harvest wasn’t unheard of in Jesus’ day. It was, in fact, judged to be enough of a problem that the practice was explicitly condemned in Roman law.
Jesus wasn’t talking about someone blowing dandelion spores into the field next door. The weed in the parable is a ryegrass called darnel, and spreading it around was no joke.
Darnel is a nasty little plant. One of its ugly qualities is that in its earliest stages of development, it looks exactly like wheat. You could have a field invested with the stuff and not even know it. Differences between the two plants don’t become obvious until late in the season, but by then their roots have intertwined and it is impossible to remove the weed without inflicting tremendous harm on the wheat. Doing nothing about the darnel, however, is not an option because if you ultimately gather it, grind it, and bake it into bread, it can kill you—or at least make you very sick.
We might call the crime of using darnel seeds to settle old scores germ warfare or terrorism and we can understand why the Romans passed laws against it. We can also understand why victimized farmers had to be very careful about how they handled an infested crop.
Farmers determined that the best way to separate the weed from the wheat was to pick both, then place all the grain in a fine sieve so it could be sifted. Because the grain from the darnel was smaller than wheat grain, it passed through the sieve allowing, at last, for one to be divided from the other. The preserved wheat could then be put to use, but the darnel, because of its harmful properties, was burned up, lest it be baked into someone’s lunch or fall into another unsuspecting farmer’s field.
The people who first heard this parable understood exactly what Jesus was talking about and grasping the lesson’s slice-of-life realism also helps us come to a better understanding of Jesus’ point.
Like so many parables, there are many directions in which we could take our interpretation of The Wheat and the Tares. One possibility is to read it as an allegory, finding symbolic meaning in the story’s parts and players. The second half of the Gospel lesson, verses 34—46, gives us just such an interpretation.
For our purposes, though, I think there’s an important point to be drawn from the text that we can reach without the help of allegory, a point about the nature of discipleship, a point that has everything to do with the farmhands’ impatience.
In their haste, the workers were prepared to walk the rows that very day, pulling up weeds and, in their mind, preserving the garden. Doing so, however, would be disastrous, for even if they could accurately identify which plants were weeds and which were wheat (a sorting that would have been difficult if not impossible), in pulling the one they would destroy the other’s roots.
“Not so fast,” said the master. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”
Given what we now know about how this weed worked and what we know about the earliest Christian community, I think it’s fair to say that this aspect of the parable reveals our Gospel lesson’s decidedly inclusive message.
Like any group of people, we can be sure that the first Christians were tempted to divide their gatherings into groups of insiders and outsiders. We know this happened, in fact, because the New Testament—especially Paul’s letters—addresses this conflict on almost every page.
Over and over again in the history of the early church we see incredibly self-righteous and self-serving behavior on display. We see people trusting more in their preconceived notions of the kind of people God loves rather than grace’s wide embrace.
“Well, that person was born over there and grew up doing that so there’s no way God can love them as much as he loves me, right? They’re nothing more than a weed that needs to be plucked.”
In light of this temptation, Jesus instructs his disciples to choose a better way, pointing out that what they think is unwanted growth could actually be the first sign of an abundant harvest.
Jesus seems to be saying that any community in a rush to expel the “unclean”/ “the stranger” / “the unwanted” from its midst is risking its own wellbeing and is likely to undermine its own potential.
Imagine, for a moment, another parable in which the farmhands say something like this to their boss. “The good news, sir, is that we got all the weeds out of the field. The bad news is, just to be sure we got them all, we plowed up all the wheat, too.”
Even city folk know that those are some seriously awful farmhands. But maybe we’re more like them than we’d like to admit.
It should give us pause to consider the number of people who were uprooted from their place in God’s kingdom before they had a chance to reach their full potential because someone acted like the hasty farmhands in the parable and told them that their kind weren’t wanted here anymore.
But Jesus said, “In gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
Now, before closing, I should mention that there’s also a big difference between being inclusive (which I think this parable is) and being indifferent to virtue and holiness (which it is not). The impulse to remove the darnel from the field was not foolish. It was bad stuff, without a doubt. It just had to be dealt with in a proper way. The same goes for the attitudes and practices of religious people that are at odds with the Gospel of mercy and grace entrusted to us by Jesus.
Hatred, greed, self-righteousness, bigotry—the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is not telling us to make peace with these because we’re going to be stuck with them for awhile. Rather, the parable is saying that God is dealing with sin, and that we have a part to play in that process.
Our part is to recognize that, unlike weeds and wheat, we can change. The corners of our hearts and spirits that are being choked by life-sucking tares can be made fertile ground, and strangers and enemies who seem destined for destruction can become brothers and sisters in the family of God “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
Our part is to be a people animated and sustained by the Good News of Jesus Christ—the words he spoke, the death he died, and the life in lives in and among us.
So then, let us be slow to exclude and quick to welcome.
Let us take up the ministry of love that lifts up Christ and builds up the weak and fallen.
Let us forgo the works of malice and guile that tear down and divide.
Let us cultivate the fruit of Spirit in our hearts and in this place.
And let us, this day and always, give thanks to the God of life’s harvest, the One from Whom All Blessings Flow.
Thanks be to God for the Good News today. Amen.