The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.
We may not want to believe it given the rate of change in our world today, but the world we live in now isn’t all that much different from the world Jesus inhabited two-thousand years ago. People are still people. We may no longer turn out in droves for public executions, but more than 14 million people tuned in to watch Thursday’s parole hearing for O.J. Simpson. We may not know where our boneless, skinless, tasteless, chicken breast comes from, but we are still very much reliant on the land, and the farmers to tend it. There might be a television waiting to distract us in every waiting room, dining room, gas pump, and minivan, but we are still restless souls longing to find rest in the quietness of God. This is why, I think, we continue have such a fascination with the parables of Jesus. Despite their first-century plot-lines, which can seem so foreign to us, we can still find meaning in what Jesus is saying through the parables.
Personally, I love parable season. It challenges me as a preacher, but more than that, it challenges me as a Christian. This is especially true of today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds because it feels as though Jesus is speaking directly to me. This parable occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel. Some scholars think that he included this less popular parable because of the particular issues going on in his community. It seems Matthew’s church may have been struggling with some Judgey McJudgersons who had a tough time understanding how false teachers and notorious sinners were allowed to go on living side-by-side with the faithful. There were, to be fair, quite a few false prophets running around in the early days of Christianity. You don’t have to read the New Testament for too long to realize that the struggle for the truth was a daily one. Matthew’s challenge was keeping a community of faith together in a period of accusations and hardship.
Enter the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Here Jesus deals explicitly with the problem of true and false – good and evil – living side-by-side. He names the reality that sometimes wheat and weeds – children of God and children of the Evil One – occupy the same space. The field is said to be the entire cosmos, so it seems reasonable that wheat and weeds are intermingled in every city, every church, every family, and, if we are honest, every soul. Which brings me back to how this parable challenges me personally. Most of you don’t know me well enough yet, but in time, you will come to realize that, like some of the members of Matthew’s congregation, when it comes to those who I think are false teachers, I too can be a Judgey McJudgerson. This is especially true when it comes to one person in particular – Joel Osteen, the shiny-toothed “preacher” in a slick suit whose pithy sayings about “our best life now” get stuck in my craw when I think of holding hands with the dying, looking into the vacuous eyes of a dementia patient, or praying with parents who are trying to find something to hold onto as they mourn the death of a child.
I am the slave who is eager to pluck up the weeds. I want to get out there, roll up my sleeves, and start pulling books from the book sale; tossing out false preachers. I’m the member of Matthew’s church who struggles with why God allows the message of the Gospel to be corrupted, why terrible things happen to good people, and why the Evil One seems to have so much power in our world. But as I spent a week reading, praying, and studying this passage, I quickly realized that the weeds I see in others aren’t nearly as important as the weeds that I’ve allowed to grow in my own heart. Or as Jesus says elsewhere, I should probably deal with the log in my own eye before I worry about the speck in the eye of my neighbor. So, what am I to do? What are we to do?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Despite the nice allegorical explanation given by Jesus at the end our lesson, this is still a parable, and parables are never as straight-forward as they seem. As Eugene Peterson once suggested, parables are like narrative time bombs. We hear them, and because they are familiar enough, we hold on to them, even if we can’t understand them, until one day, without warning, they explode with meaning in our minds. Obviously, then, this isn’t a story about farming practices in the first century. In fact, it seems Jesus farming technique left a lot to be desired. The bad seed planted by the evil one was likely darnel, a poisonous rye grass that until it comes to seed, is nearly impossible to differentiate from good wheat. By the time the slaves would have noticed the problem, the solution they suggest could have been easily done. The wheat and darnel would have both been pretty well close to harvest anyway, and the damage done in uprooting the weed would have been fairly insignificant compared to the cost of the darnel seed falling to the ground, germinating, and having another year of bad crop to deal with. Yet, Jesus instructs the slaves to wait so the harvesters can deal with it. Jesus is sure that to cause damage to even one good wheat stalk would be a cost too high.
Beyond that, this isn’t just any parable, this is a kingdom parable, a story meant to tell us about how the reign of God is different than the prevailing wisdom of the world in which we live. This isn’t a story about farming, but rather a story about how God’s reign turns the upside-down world right-side up. How God makes the last, first and the first, last. How God cares so deeply for one good wheat stalk that he’s willing to risk the entire crop to ensure its fruitfulness. In the kingdom of the world, weeds don’t become wheat and dead men don’t come back to life, but with patience and faith, under the reign of God, both are possible. When we see the world through the lens of this world, we are quick to grab weeds and toss them into the fire no matter the damage we might inflict, but God’s view is long range, God’s goal is the restoration of all of Creation, and God’s dream is a field full of wheat. And so, the slaves are told to leave it to harvesters to deal with differentiating the good from the bad. Who knows, by the time the harvest comes around, maybe the greatest miracle of all is that by the grace of God, weeds can become wheat.
It is hard to be patient in a world full of weeds. Whether it is about the false prophet out there or the false hope I place in my own ability to judge, what I’m taking from this parable, this time, is the thing that God is probably constantly trying to teach me: God is God and I am not. My job, as a patch of soil interspersed with wheat and weeds, is to continue to grow, to give thanks for the gifts of water, nutrients, and sun, and to hope that one day, by God’s grace, the fruitfulness of God’s wheat growing within me will outpace the danger of my weeds growing alongside.
The world in 2017 isn’t all that different than it was in the first century. People are still people. We would still prefer God come down and fix it all today, rather than wait for the kingdom to arrive someday. We would still rather see the bad in the other than deal with the evil within ourselves. We would still rather have nice clean explanations for the parables than let them bounce around our brains for too long, lest they challenge our nice and tidy worldviews. But alas, that’s not how God works. That’s not how grace works. Instead, we are called to do what wheat does best: soak up God’s nourishing love, shine like the sun, and bear fruit worthy of the harvest. God will take care of the rest. Amen.