a sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
preached on July 17, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I’m not a great gardener, but I’m as good as anyone at raising weeds. The backyard at the manse, as some of you know, is incredibly difficult to keep clear of weeds. There’s a lot of planting space and an older brick patio with plenty of cracks for weeds to sneak through. For a couple years, I just let the weeds take over everything – it was a nice green space, but soon the thorny bushes had nearly suffocated the more beautiful azaleas and other plantings. Thanks to the special efforts of some dedicated church members and my parents, the backyard at the manse is no longer overrun with weeds, although even continuous removal and treatment with the nastiest chemicals isn’t enough to keep the weeds away for any length of time!
Jesus’ parable this morning, as told in the gospel according to Matthew, deals with weeds, so I feel right at home. However, Jesus puts this parable in the midst of a series of stories about the kingdom of heaven and uses these pesky plants to talk about how God’s new way of being will take hold in the world.
So here Jesus tells of a farmer who sowed good seed in his field only to have an enemy come along at night and plant weeds alongside his wheat. When all the seeds – good and bad – sprouted, the damage was apparent, and the farmworkers reported the mess to the farmer. He knew right away that someone had tried to sabotage his crop, thinking that he would rip up the whole field and lose everything for the season. But instead this wise farmer instructed his workers to let the weeds grow alongside the wheat and leave everything to be sorted out at harvest time, the weeds into bundles for burning and the wheat into the barn.
Jesus left the story there, but his disciples were a little confused, so when his message to the crowd was over, they asked him to explain this parable to them. Jesus made it clear again to his disciples that this parable was all about the kingdom of heaven. The Son of Man – seemingly Jesus himself – sowed the good seeds in the world, and the children of the kingdom of heaven were the good seeds that he planted. The weeds were the children of the evil one, planted by the evil one himself. The harvest came at the end of the age, and “just as the weeds [were] collected and burned up with fire, so… the angels will collect out of [the] kingdom [of heaven] all causes of sin and all evildoers… and throw them into the furnace of fire.” In the midst of all this, though, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom” of God.
A few years ago, I would have said that this treatment of the weeds was a little harsh – but after dealing with those pesky things in the backyard at the manse, I’m a little less sympathetic. Weeds are just insidious plants. You pull them up, they keep coming back. You kill them with some chemical and another one pops up two inches away. You think you have them beat, then another stalk emerges from out of nowhere. You try anything and everything to get rid of them, and somehow they manage to survive. But the reality is that weeds have their advantages, too. Weeds, like any other plant, reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – a very important thing in this day and age of global warming. Weeds can cover up bare spots and add a touch of green where there was none before. Some flowering weeds add color and interest to an otherwise boring palette of greens, and weeds like dandelions can even be healthy and good food for us to eat. And many weeds keep growing in times of drought, requiring much less water than the carefully-maintained green yards that have become the norm. But when dealing with those weeds in the backyard at the manse – and with the weeds Jesus describes here – it’s tough to see the good in them. As far as I’m concerned, you can burn those up in the fire anytime you want to!
Still, I think there has to be something more to this parable than just a basic and standard condemnation of the plants and people that God doesn’t seem to approve of or a simple statement of who is in and who is out in the world to come. Maybe this parable can give us some insights into this world just as much as it can tell us about the kingdom of heaven. After all, Jesus insisted over and over that the kingdom was not just coming some day soon but was rather being revealed in this world in and through his life and living and so also in and through the continuing faithful work of those who followed him. The farmer may not have just meant his crops for the world to come – maybe what was growing in the field mattered even before the harvest, too. Maybe something was growing there that even he didn’t fully understand. He told his servants not to pull up the weeds until the time of the harvest not just because it’s hard not to disturb the wheat when you pull the weeds but also because you can’t always tell whether something will be wheat or weed until it is harvest time. You can’t always know immediately if some strange, unknown stalk might be the beginning of something unusual and new. You can’t always sort out the good from the bad right away but sometimes need to figure it out in time.
Preacher Ted Wardlaw suggests that this strange delay on the farmer’s part might be purposeful and good, reflecting that “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.” Maybe even the not-so-good weeds around us can be helpful and beneficial to the good wheat, too! (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p. 264) This doesn’t mean that the weeds won’t be held to account when the time comes, but it does remind us that God’s judgment and redemption will come – but in God’s own time and with God’s own purpose, not ours. Again, Ted Wardlaw gives this more beautiful words than I can: “Christians believe that, for the sake of this hurting and impatient world, and through Jesus Christ our Lord, God’s realm will at last be completed and revealed in all its fullness. Meanwhile, this realm is thriving in us, around us, and even, miraculously, sometimes through us; and God is pleased to let all of it ‘grow together until the harvest’ (v. 30).” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p. 264-266)
I can speak from experience to say that this approach of letting the weeds and the wheat grow together doesn’t work all that well sometimes, particularly in the backyard at the manse, but I think there is nonetheless some wisdom here for us. We aren’t the ones to decide what gets saved and what does not – we must leave that choice up to God. We don’t have to jump in so quickly to condemn the weeds of our world and potentially destroy the good wheat along the way – God will sort things out when the time is right. And we can even see things growing unexpectedly in the fields of God’s love – we can expect nothing less of our amazing and surprising God.
So may we have wisdom and hope to see the weeds and the wheat in our midst; may we have trust in God the master farmer to grow a harvest enough for all; and may we have love and grace to look for new expressions of wheat even among the weeds as we await the fullness of the kingdom of heaven now and in the world to come. Lord, come quickly! Amen.