Sermon from July 20th, 2014. The text for this Sunday was Matthew 13:24-43. Praise God for the rain we received this past week!
Leaving the Weeds Until the Harvest
One of the things that we love to do when it comes to parables is to explain them so that they make sense to us. Nevermind that some ambiguity would be expected with any text that’s from another culture in another language and written nearly 2,000 years ago. And nevermind that Jesus himself said that the parables were intended to confuse and confuddle, so that we would see and not see, hear and not hear. We like things to make sense. So we add little things to try and make sense of the parables in our minds. We like to provide backstories when people’s motives aren’t explained. The story that Cain’s offerings weren’t from the firstfruits of his field? The Bible doesn’t say that. But otherwise why would God reject his offering? But it makes the story make sense.
For example, in the parable we just heard about the weeds in the wheat. It is a little baffling to people that the owner of the field would tell his servants not to take care of the weeds in his field. Weeding is a pretty basic part of gardening, right? Nobody expecting a good harvest would let the weeds grow out of control. The weeds will grow up and choke out the grain. So we go out looking for a way to make the story make sense. And like most people who read the Bible, we find what we’re looking for, whether it’s really there or not. Scholars have found a weed that looks like wheat until maturation, called the bearded darnel. So they say that must be the exact weed that Jesus was talking about. Nevermind that the Bible doesn’t say it and that’s not the point of the story anyway. We’ve found a way for the story to make sense.
The problem with this sort of speculation (other than the fact that we’re studying ancient weeds instead of the Kingdom of Heaven) is that most of the time when we try to resolve these narrative fault lines with our own explanations, we end up creating bigger problems than we solve. For example, if the weed that was sown was indistinguishable from the wheat before maturation, how did the servants know that there were weeds among the wheat at all? My point is this: when it comes to reading the Bible, we have a tendency to inject our judgment, instead of God’s.
The people to whom Matthew was writing had a problem, the same problem that has plagued every Christian community ever. They knew that their church had people who were righteous and people who were unrighteous. They knew that there were weeds among the wheat. And they wondered how do we distinguish between the righteous people and the wrong people in our community? How do we keep the wrong people out? In other words, how do we make sure that our community stays pure from evil influences?
When Christian communities decide this is a problem, we decide to solve it. We try to judge for ourselves who is weed and who is wheat. And we try to eliminate the weeds. The problem, however, is that our judgment isn’t very good. We obsess over unimportant things and ignore heavier matters. We confuse people who disagree with us with people who disagree with God. We sow division in our church. When we try to judge for ourselves, we have a tendency to make things worse.
This is a problem that is particularly pressing for us today. More and more people are placing their focus on keeping the weeds out of the church. They’re emphasizing doctrinal purity as a necessary part of being a member of the Christian community. Evangelical colleges and seminaries are installing litmus tests for their professors and purging everyone who disagrees. Prominent preachers are declaring that churches that disagree with them are “Satan’s church.” As if the enemy hasn’t sown his weeds in every church.
In the midst of this concern about keeping the righteous separate from the unrighteous and anxiety that the kingdom had not come as they expected, Matthew relates to them a story that Jesus told.
A landowner sows wheat in his field. But an enemy comes in the night and sows weeds right in with the wheat. When the seeds sprout and there’s weeds and wheat together, the servants are upset. It bothers them that there are weeds in with the wheat. They’re a lot like us. Like Matthew’s audience, when we discover that there’s weeds in our wheat we want to do something about it. We want to pull them all out! But the landowner says “No, don’t worry about it. Be patient.” The servants are confused. Isn’t this the logical thing to do when you have weeds in your field? Are you sure you don’t want us to weed the garden? But the landowner says be patient. If you try to pull the weeds you’ll just ruin the crop. We’ll let the reapers take care of the weeds.
The reformers talk about this in terms of the church visible and the church invisible. The visible church is easy to identify. It’s made up all the folks who gather together on Sunday to offer prayer and praise to God. The church invisible is much more difficult. It is all those who God chooses to enact his plan of salvation for all the earth. And knowing as we do, that our world is full of weeds and like it our church is full of weeds (something the Reformers knew all too well), we understand that the church visible and the church visible are not always the same. There are weeds within the walls and good wheat without, and to claim to know the difference is to substitute God’s judgment for our own.
So what do we do? The reformed answer, the Presbyterian answer, comes from this Bible story and others like it. We aren’t able to separate the weeds from the wheat, and that’s not what God asks us to do. Weed-hunts, when run by humans, often turn into witch-hunts, and we rip apart the ones bearing fruit in our attempt to make sure we’ve caught all the weeds. The parable suggests that it is not the weeds, but the effort to uproot them that will ruin the crop. And what that tells all of us, who live in messy and complicated world, full of weeds and wheat, is that our responsibility isn’t to decide who is good and who is bad and preserve the good and eliminate the bad. Weeds or wheat, our responsibility is to care for them all until the harvest comes. Who knows, other stories in our Bible suggest that people who once were weeds often end up bearing fruit after being exposed to good wheat. As Presbyterians we don’t claim to have all the answers. And we know that the world is messy and the church like it. We know there are weeds amongst the wheat. We simply say that we are people of God who are trying to bear fruit.
And the good news, in the midst of this parable about being patient with our messy world, is that it isn’t our effort that will bring forth fruit, but God’s work done in us. Matthew sandwiches his parable about the weeds and the wheat around two short parables, of the mustard seed and of leaven, that tell us that the growth of the Kingdom of God is easier than it looks. Mustard was known for being a plant that was easy to grow and germinate, so much so that people were cautioned about where to plant it, lest it take over the rest of the garden. Such is the Kingdom of God. It only takes a little seed to take root and take over the field. And the leaven makes the dough rise overnight. No amount of kneading will help it rise faster or better. We simply trust that the yeast is good and the Kingdom will rise.
All three of these parables suggest that one of the great challenges of Christian witness is being patient and trusting enough to see it bear fruit. So let the weeds in your garden grow. Plant seeds and wait for them to take root. Trust the yeast to make the dough rise. And God will take care of everything else.