Homicide is the killing of a human being. Regicide is the killing of a king. Suicide is the killing of oneself. So why is herbicide not the killing of plants? The dictionary defines it as an agent, such as Roundup, used to kill vegetation. But today’s parable is about the temptation to commit herbicide, with one’s own hands.
If you have ever farmed or planted a garden, you know that no matter how careful you are in preparing the soil and planting the seeds, weeds will grow amongst whatever seeds you have planted. You have to pay attention and be vigilant to remove the weeds so they will not overcome the crops you are growing.
The parable Jesus tells is about a more difficult situation, in which the crop and the weeds cannot be distinguished from each other until it is very late in the process. Talitha Arnold explains. “The bearded darnel is a devil of a weed. Known in biblical terms as ‘tares,’ bearded darnel has no virtues. Its roots surround the roots of good plants, sucking up precious nutrients and scarce water, making it impossible to root it out without damaging the good crop. Above ground, darnel looks identical to wheat, until it bears seed. Those seeds can cause everything from hallucinations to death.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3, p. 260)
That helps make sense of the parable. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like this: Someone sowed good seed in his field, but while everyone was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. This is a subversive undermining of the kingdom of heaven rather than a blatant attack upon it. In time the plants came up, and when the seeds and grain appeared at last the workers were horrified to see all the weeds in the midst of the wheat. They went to the master and said, “Did you not plant good seed in your field? Where have all these weeds come from? He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The workers asked if he wanted them to go pull the weeds up and he said no. As you heard earlier, the roots of the weeds surround the good roots and choke them, so you would pull up the wheat along with the weeds. He says to let them both grow until the harvest, and they will be separated at that time.
In the explanation, Jesus tells the disciples that the field represents the world, the good seed represents the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the evil one. While there is plenty of value in talking about this parable with reference to the world, most interpretation I have read has to do with the church, and I think that is probably enough for us to try to tackle this morning. So for all of us who have been tempted to commit herbicide in the church, this message is for us. The old joke is to say that there is nothing wrong with that church that a few funerals couldn’t fix. The implication is that there are a few bad apples dragging everyone else down and if we could just get rid of them everything would be hunky dory.
There are many Christians who act as though it is their responsibility and calling to weed out those who do not belong for one reason or another. Whether they think wrongly about an issue or espouse the wrong politics or act in a way we consider outside the lines of Christianity or just try to keep things stirred up all the time, we come to the conclusion that the church would be a better, purer place without them. The problem is that if we are thinking that way about them, they are probably thinking the same way about us. So which of us would have the better right to do the weeding? Claiming the right has led to all manner of inquisitions, excommunications, church splits, and discouraged people just dropping out of church and faith. This parable teaches us humility and patience, and frees us to live the life of faith in a positive manner of inclusivity rather than a negative manner of exclusivity. Dealing with the weeds is not our business, but God’s. Let’s take a look at some of the implications of this important teaching.
First is to note the character of the farmer, who represents God. The farmer’s intention for his field is purely good. It is not his plan that there be weeds. But when the weeds show up, he does not panic and start hacking away at the weeds. He is patient, enormously patient. He knows that leaving the weeds is not ideal, but that pulling them up endangers the wheat as well. They can be separated at the harvest. The farmer instructs the workers in the field to be patient as well.
The second implication is to realize that human beings – us included! – are not competent to make the judgment as to who is wheat and who is a weed. Only God can make this judgment, because he will judge not just by what we can see in a person at a particular point in his or her life, but by the person’s whole life. Douglas Hare writes, “We must be more patient with each other. Taken in this way, the story becomes a parable of grace. In the strange world of the parable where separation is graciously postponed, it may even be possible for weeds to become wheat.” (Interpretation, Matthew, p. 155)
The third implication is that we can expect that a hostile power will always be at work, often in subtle ways, in the world and in the church trying to undermine the good of God’s creation. This power wants to teach us hate, division, anger, greed, and despair.
The fourth implication is that we must be careful about the arrogance of too easily identifying ourselves as the wheat in this story. Remembering that we are all sinners with much darkness within us should keep us humble in this regard. In each of our lives at any given time there is wheat growing and there are weeds growing which are trying to choke out the wheat. In the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul agonizes over the power of sin in his life, saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” God’s patience is good news for us, too.
The fifth implication is that judgment will come in the end, rendered by God, so we must attempt to persevere as wheat, knowing our faithfulness will be vindicated by God just as unfaithfulness will be judged by God. The weed sowing enemy will not be able to stand, but will be defeated.
German theologian Helmut Theilicki, in his book on the parables entitled The Waiting Father, says there are three reasons for us not to attempt to root out what we perceive to be weeds. First, he says, we should not think we can exterminate the evil in the world by our activity. The evil is within us as well as without. Second, the Son of Man came not to destroy, but to save. If we were to take it upon ourselves to “cast out of the temple the hangers-on, the hypocrites, the borderliners, and all the other wobblers in Christendom… we would rob these people of the chance at least to hear the Word and take it to heart.” (p. 77) Third, have you ever met a person of whom you would dare to say that there is absolutely nothing good in this person? None of us can know what God sees in that person and whether God may have something planned for that person that none of us can imagine yet.
William Barclay lists five learnings from this parable, which he says is one of the most practical stories Jesus ever told. First, “It teaches us that there is always a hostile power in the world, seeking and waiting to destroy the good seed. Our experience is that both kinds of influence act upon our lives, the influence which helps the seed of the word to flourish and to grow, and the influence which seeks to destroy the good seed before it can produce fruit at all. The lesson is that we must be forever on our guard.”
Second, “It teaches us how hard it is to distinguish between those who are in the Kingdom and those who are not. A (person) may appear to be good and may in fact be bad; and a (person) may appear to be bad and may yet be good. We are much too quick to classify people and label them good or bad without knowing all the facts.”
Third, “It teaches us not to be so quick with our judgments. IF the reapers had had their way, they would have tried to tear out the darnel and they would have torn out the wheat as well. Judgment had to wait until the harvest came. A (person) in the end will be judged, not by any single act or stage in his or her life, but by his or her whole life. Judgment cannot come until the end. A (person) may make a great mistake, and them redeem himself or herself and, by the grace of God, atone for it by making the rest of life a lovely thing. A (person) may live an honourable life and then in the end wreck it all by a sudden collapse into sin. No one who sees only part of a thing can judge the whole; and no one who knows only part of a (person’s) life can judge the whole (person).”
Fourth, “It teaches us that judgment does come in the end. Judgment is not hasty, but judgment comes. It may be that, humanly speaking, in this life the sinner seems to escape the consequences, but there is a life to come. It may be that, humanly speaking, goodness never seems to enter into its reward, but there is a new world to redress the balance of the old.”
Fifth, “It teaches us that the only person with the right to judge is God. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad; it is God alone who sees all of a (person) and all of that person’s life. It is God alone who can judge.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, pp. 74-75)
Ted Wardlaw, who spent time at my home church in Kingstree and is now president of Austin Theological Seminary, writes about this parable: “In our time we hear this parable as an amazing insight into the life of the church. Like that field in which there grow both healthy wheat and destructive weeds, the church is a mixed-bag reality. Like the householder’s servants who want to weed out the field’s dangerous elements, we too either embody or suspect their surrogates in every age. Matters of behavior or theological and biblical orientation become the fodder for litmus tests of all varieties. Elements within each of our different churchly communions are forever troubled by how broadly or narrowly we should draw the boundaries of the contemporary church. Whom can we afford to let in, and who must remain out? Who is accepted by God, and why? Who is not accepted by God, and why not? In the very act of asking such questions, we so often assume that it is our job to draw up the specifications regarding the wideness of the church’s welcome. How wide, really, can it be, and still be the church?… In our impatience with others, we often want to bring matters to a head and so determine whether others are in or out; but the God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3, pp. 261, 263)
And I’d like to close with one more quote, Helmut Thielicke’s wonderful summary of this parable. It speaks to me deeply and I think it captures the essence of the meaning of the parable and the mind set it calls us to as Christians. He writes, “The last judgment is full of surprises. The separation of sheep and goats, of wheat and weeds, will be made in a way completely different from that which we permit ourselves to imagine. For God is more merciful than we, more strict than we, and more knowing than we. And in every case, God is greater than our hearts. But one thing is certain, and that is that Jesus the King will come with his sickle and crown. Then our sickles will fall and all the false and illegal crowns will drop from men’s heads. Then all will be changed and everything will be utterly different. But one thing will remain: love, the love in which we have believed and hoped and endured, the love which will never let us forget that God can find and bring home and set at his table even the blasphemers, the erring, the deceivers, and the deceived. May he give us the grace of the long view and the calmness to live confidently in the name of his victory – until one day he shall say to us and to those for whom we have interceded: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your master.” (p. 82, The Waiting Father)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 20, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church