Sermon; 7 Pentecost, Proper 11A; Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43
Today we continue our journey with kingdom parables. If you remember from last week, I said that Matthew uses the word “kingdom” more than any other gospel, and because of that, how he presents Jesus' lineage, and his telling of the birth narrative, we refer to Matthew as a kingdom gospel. All of the parables we hear in this three week period have as their basis, “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .”
Last week's parable was about the sower scattering seed over a variety of landing places. Today we hear of a farmer who plants good seed only to find out later that an enemy has sown a weed in the midst of his crop. If Jesus were from Hagerstown, those parables may have been less agrarian and more along the lines of, “The kingdom of heaven is like a hub that draws to it all manner of highways and railroads,” or, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a city held hostage by an enemy army.” But he didn't, so this is what we've got to work with.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a farmer who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the plants came up, the slaves were astonished to find weeds mixed in among the wheat and they ask the farmer if they should pull up the weeds. “Let them be,” says the farmer, “otherwise you will uproot the good with the bad. I will have my reapers separate them at harvest time.”
Like last week the lectionary skips over several passages in order to focus on one parable. Unlike last week, what was skipped over today will be heard next week with another grouping of parables. And like last week, we also hear Jesus' explanation. The sower, he says, is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed are the children of the kingdom of heaven, the enemy is the devil, the weeds are the children of the evil one, the reapers are the angels, and the harvest is the end of the age.
What's going on in this parable?
First is that both here and in the kingdom of heaven we are being asked to live with people who differ from us. This is easier said than done. It's difficult living with weeds when we ourselves are beautiful flowers. It's difficult living with prickly weeds when we are gentle to the touch. It's difficult living with people who seem to have no redeeming social values as opposed to ourselves who are morally upstanding individuals. It's difficult living with people who have the wrong ideas about church, liturgy, and theology, when we ourselves have the right, correct, and orthodox ideas that have been handed down for generations.
But this is precisely what God is asking us to do. He is asking us to live with those we consider weeds. He is asking us to share our resources with those who are different from us. He is asking us to be patient with those prickly people who annoy us to no end. The reality is that we don't always get along, even with flowers of our own species – just ask anyone who has been married or serves on a vestry. God knows this. God knows we are different. God knows there will be friction and competition for resources. And God asks us to live with weeds. Are you willing to obey God and wait until the end of the age, all the while living with the tension of difference?
Besides this issue of learning to tolerate the other, we need to understand that it is not our job to pull weeds. In this parable, the farmer tells his slaves that the reapers will gather and separate the wheat from the weeds at the harvest. If he let the slaves remove the weeds, all they would do would be to pull up the good along with the bad, and then the whole crop would be ruined. Removing people who differ from us is not our job because we just might destroy the kingdom. The job of separating the two will be done by the reapers, the angels, at the appropriate time.
And yet . . . we try anyway. We can be so firmly convinced of our own righteousness or rightness that we see anyone who thinks differently, acts differently, interprets differently, as a weed that must be pulled up and tossed aside. And while we think we are doing the Lord's work, the reality is that we are destroying the Church.
This happened during the Reformation when reformer after reformer broke away because the one before wasn't right enough. Luther was followed by Calvin who was followed by Zwingli who was followed by another who all decided that the previous reformer didn't go far enough and wasn't right enough because they still held to some doctrine that the next reformer found to be problematic at best and heretical at worst.
It happened in England when the Puritans tried to cleanse the church of all things “popish” including candles, vestments, wedding rings, icons, and organs.
And it is happening today in the worldwide church over issues such as full equality, environmental protection, biblical inerrancy, the place of women, healthcare, patriotism, and a growing intolerance for anyone dubbed “other.” The desire to pull up those we see as weeds in order to keep us pure and undefiled is strong. But that desire to pull up those we label as weeds will ultimately result in pulling up the good as well and leaving behind a barren patch of ground where nothing grows.
The kingdom of heaven is apparently like a big garden with sowers, seeds, laborers, and reapers. The kingdom of heaven has both wheat and weeds. In today's parable, we are asked to live with the weeds, to live with those different from us, to live with those whom we determine are detrimental to the garden, until the end of the age. That is a long time to put up with someone we deem worthless.
So here's something to consider: just exactly what is the definition of a weed? A weed is nothing more than an unwanted plant. We used to rent a house that was a veritable jungle of all kinds of plants and flowers, but no grass – because the owner thought grass was a weed. A weed, then, is in the eye of the beholder.
Sometimes weeds and wheat look awfully similar. St. Jerome noted this and said, “The Lord therefore advises us that we should not be quick to judge what is doubtful but should leave judgment up to God.”
Instead of spending our energy looking for weeds and then tearing up the garden trying to get rid of them, we should be spending our energy putting a stop to those things that are actively destroying the garden. We should be ever vigilant and on guard for those who claim to know the difference between weeds and wheat and have not only assigned themselves the role of reaper, but have promised a garden of only plants they approve. We should watch out for those spraying spiritual RoundUp in an effort to eliminate the unwanted.
In the beginning, God created plants of every kind, and he saw that it was good. Let's let God determine when to cull weeds from wheat, and let's spend our time ensuring that all the plants in the garden are healthy and growing.