[This is a very long homily, really a sermon. It’s also from twenty years ago. I came across it recently among other files where it landed when I had it printed for someone who asked for a copy. Strange how things change… and don’t change. I even added a couple of footnotes. They are at the end.]
There is an eschatological touch in the parable from this morning’s gospel — a note of divine humor. After all, everything gets
pulled up in the end: weeds, wheat, the works. This was brought home to me by a kind of Jungian coincidence last Tuesday, when I left the office to discuss the readings and hymns with the liturgy team. The grounds crew had just arrived and were beginning to weed the lawn in front of the building. A few days earlier, I had noticed some particularly beautiful little flowers were growing among the weeds, volunteers from the garden next door. But when I returned an hour later, they were all gone — weeds, flowers, bark, even the soil had been scraped away.
I felt sorry about the flowers. I even felt sorry for the weeds, even though I had to admit that the area looked marginally better. It wasn’t until I learned how upset little Kathryn was — that’s the secretary’s daughter, who is three, that I realized the scope of our loss. Children know about these things. And it was Kathryn who helped me understand what Jesus is telling us in this story. And it’s NOT fundamentally about sorting things out at the end of the world.
The first thing that would have struck anyone hearing this parable who was not a total city-slicker is that it is not only untrue, but actually reverses ordinary common-sense, good agricultural practice. NO one lets weeds grow up unmolested among valuable crops, especially wheat and especially in the Middle East at that time.
Weeds take the moisture, nutrients, and light that wheat needs to thrive. Weeds are usually strong, genetically superior plants which have a competitive edge over the delicate, artificial forms of plant life we humans have developed from earlier forms of edible grass. They germinate spontaneously and with great success; wheat has to be carefully planted and cultivated. Weeds are much less susceptible to diseases, fungus, and blight, because they obey the laws of nature and scatter themselves around with delightful abandon on every passing breeze. Vulnerable, fragile monocultures like wheat, barley, oats, rye, maize, and even rice must be carefully protected from predatory insects and diseases, and above all, from invasion by the common weed.
And weeds are definitely common; low, base, and vile to our way of thinking, no matter how healthy, vibrant, and successful such plants are in themselves or whether they conceal unsuspected treasures. The weeds in the parable are also clever and thus more dangerous. The word used here for weeds is important — Matthew has “zizania,” which we sometimes translate “tares” or “darnel.” It is also known as “cheat,” possibly because it looks like wheat and can thus escape detection easily. It is also poisonous due to a fungus which grows beneath the seed coat.1
Thus, weeding fields early was important. Not having the pesticides and herbicides with which modern people control the enemies of their precious monocultures, farmers at the time of Christ used not only hoes or reaping hooks, but also pulled the weeds up by hand — a task often allotted to women. And they had to be very attentive and skillful, especially with zizania — the insidious false wheat.
Forget all that, Jesus says. Just let the weeds grow together with the wheat and we’ll sort it all out at the harvest. His audience would have laughed him to scorn if they thought he was seriously talking about farming, because it is practically impossible to separate the wheat from the weeds once they have both gone to seed. In real farming, letting things go is exactly what you DON’T do.
Of course, his listeners would have long since realized that Jesus WASN’T talking about farming. OR talking nonsense. He was talking about the mystery of evil and what our stance is to be regarding the appearance of sin in our midst, which is to say, in the gathered community, the church. That Matthew uses the word “gathered” four times in this parable would not have been missed.
There is a lot of humor in this story — although we miss most of the divine comedy under the blankets of allegory and interpretation laid on from the beginning. It would surely have struck Jesus’ listeners as funny that the landowners slaves would have been shocked to find tares growing in the wheat. Tares ALWAYS grow in the wheat. And nobody has to come plant them. So we are not to be scandalized because sin erupts in the community nor even look for scapegoats. But what’s really strange and even comical is that the landowner forbids his slaves from doing what they should logically do next: weeding. In effect, he tells them, “You’re not smart enough. We’ll sort it out in the end.”
What Jesus is telling us in Matthew’s words is that the church on earth will always be a mixed body of saints and sinners, right up to the final sifting. And as a result, just as the Book of Wisdom had urged, patience, tolerance, and forbearance are necessary. It is not our job to condemn anyone. From other teachings in Matthew’s gospel in particular, clearly the good news is NOT that we should be indifferent to evil in our midst, that we should refuse to discriminate between right and wrong, or do nothing about injustice, oppression, or the misery of the poor.
The Gospel is telling us to let God be God, not to usurp God’s prerogative by premature judgment. Jesus specifically enjoins us from attempting to uproot the evil-doer, to weed out the opposition, to napalm or defoliate our enemies, ESPECIALLY those in the household of faith. Do not resist the evil-doer, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. Do not render evil for evil. God, who is the only true judge of the heart, will render a just judgment in the end.
The question we face today, as Matthew faced it in the early years of the church, is whether our trust in God is sufficient to act on that belief. Are we confident enough to adopt the attitude that God shows toward us? Faced with the hard reality of sin as well as misfortune, can we be forbearing and merciful?
Mercy, Meister Eckhart preached, is the highest and purest act God is capable of. All God’s acts begin with mercy. But God is not only lenient with us, as we are supposed to be with each other. God actually comes down to our level, burrows spiritually into our deepest, most inmost parts, and there moves us, as St. Paul says, when we are at a loss how to pray with prayers beyond all words. And that is why God hears the prayers of the poor.
Jesus’ unagricultural polemic against weeding is aimed at convincing us that we’re supposed to be like God precisely in that respect. And a very good reason for patience, tolerance, and forbearance in regard to the temptation to run out and start weeding is that like the slaves in the parable, we are not really competent to judge which is weed and which is wheat. Our weakness and sinfulness often blind us badly — to others’ sins as well as our own. This is as true in the natural and social world as it is in the Church. The way of tactical waiting, what the Taoists call wu-wei, non-action, is the path of wisdom. The propensity to weed everything is reaction.
After all, the rain forests of Brazil and Indonesia and the Philippines are only weeds to cattle barons who want grass for ever-increasing herds of hamburger-meat; and desperate peasants who want the soil (which is actually too poor for sustainable farming) for cash crops. And so both destroy what they consider junk — rare and precious species of plants that provide much of the medicines of the world and harbor still unfathomed blessings. That the whole network of forests is vitally necessary for the health of the entire world is of no consequence.
Here in the United States, up in the Pacific Northwest, yews were long considered weeds, that is, trash timber, by logging companies, because they were less valuable than pine and spruce for construction purposes. So they clear-felled them until only a few survived. About three years ago, it was discovered that the bark of the yew tree contained a potent anti-cancer medicine. Now we are attempting to bring the yew back — only it can take up to 200 years for a yew tree to reach maturity.
In the social world, too, people always want to weed out someone. Protestants and Catholics spent centuries trying to weed each other out. Hitler wanted to weed out the Jews and other non-Aryans. Joe McCarthy wanted to root out communists and communist sympathizers. The Serbs want to weed out the Bosnians, and the Croatians want to weed out the Serbs. Liberals want to root out conservatives and conservatives want to weed out Liberals. Generals and seminary rectors want to weed out homosexuals. Gays want to root out closet cases and homophobes. The East Germans want to weed out Armenians, Kurds, Turks, and Bulgarians. London street gangs and certain members of Parliament want to weed out Indians, Pakistanis, and Jamaicans; in Chicago, Mexican gangs want to weed out Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans want to weed out Mexicans. In Northern Ireland, the IRA want to root out the Unionists, and the Unionists want to weed out the IRA. The Immigration and Naturalization Service wants to weed out everyone without a passport and visa. Each of us is somebody else’s weed.
But one man’s weed is another man’s posy. Even common, irritating plants like nettles, briars, brambles, thistles, ivy, dandelions, and milkweed have long been known to have important nutritional and medicinal value. So, too, out of the common, wretched, despised masses of Earth, God has elected saints and heroes, and is patiently fashioning a people.
The landowner was right about one thing: weeds were not created by God. Weeds were created by farming, and the poor were created by politics and economics. Weeds are plants that don’t fit our present needs or wants — regardless of their worth or value to others or their place in God’s scheme of creation. The poor, then, are social weeds. And from a glimpse at worldwide statistics regarding those in prison, they also tend to be considered sinners. Their crimes are lighter but their sentences longer than those of the rich and powerful. Who, therefore, are we, asks the Book of Job, to question God’s preferential options?
“Will you condemn him who is righteous and mighty, who says to a king, ‘Worthless one,’ and to nobles, ‘Wicked ones’; who shows no partiality to princes, nor regards the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands?” (Job 34:17b 19.)
Similarly, the Book of Wisdom tells us that God’s mercy and forbearance are rooted in absolute power. Just before the passage we read this morning, the author has summarized the whole history of the chosen people, ending with a solemn hymn of praise to God’s unlimited power, which is the basis of God’s condescension to all sinners:
For who will say, “What have you done?”
Or who will resist your judgment?
Who will accuse you for the destruction of nations
which you yourself made?
Or who will come before you to plead
as an advocate for the unrighteous?
nor can any king or monarch confront you
about those whom you have punished.
You are just and rule all things justly
deeming it alien to your power
to condemn someone
who does not deserve punishment.
It is here that our reading continued,
For your strength is the source of justice,
and your sovereignty over everything
causes you to spare everything.2
God’s ways are decidedly NOT our ways. What we call weeds, God calls wheat. What we defend as politics, God condemns as genocide. In fact, all things considered, God seems to favor what we call weeds — not only the wild, sturdy plants that threaten our delicately cultivated crops, but even the wildly diverse swarms of humanly useless animals and insects we love to hate, but especially the unattractive, common, poverty-stricken, illiterate, smelly, hungry, desperate, lonely, sick, unwanted people who threaten our whole tidy, proper, upwardly mobile, security-conscious way of life. In short, the poor, the meek, the humble of the earth. It is well that Jesus warns us to be careful where we stick our sickles. For in the end, those weeds are very likely to inherit the earth.