The Wheat and the Weeds
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus tells us that rooting out the weeds would do more damage to the crop than leaving the weeds to grow. The lesson for the church: Leave he weeding to God, and remember that the quality of our life together, with those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree, is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Wouldn’t it make life easier if we could sort people as simply as, “This is wheat; this one’s a weed”? In Roald Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, candy maker Willy Wonka uses trained squirrels to sort nuts for his chocolate bars. The squirrels know the difference between a good nut and a bad nut. Five children are touring Wonka’s chocolate factory, and one of them, Veruca Salt, wants one of those squirrels. Veruca always gets whatever she wants, so she chases after one in the squirrel pit. The squirrels, however, determine that Veruca herself is a bad nut, spoiled rotten, and down the garbage chute she goes.[i]
This person is a good nut. This one’s a bad nut. This is wheat; this one’s a weed. This text is troubling. You could read into it that Jesus is saying that there are two groups of people in the world – children of the kingdom of God, and children of the evil one, wheat and weeds – and their destinies are fixed. One group is gathered safely into a barn, while the other is – yikes! Burned? It helps to know that hyperbolic speech and exaggerated metaphors were typical in the ancient Middle East; Jesus used them all the time. So maybe we shouldn’t press the logic of this parable too literally. In other words, Jesus isn’t necessarily talking about eternal damnation for anybody here. Maybe it’s just that there were some overzealous “weeders” in Matthew’s congregation who wanted to purify the community by rooting out the bad seed. This seems to be a temptation for followers of Jesus in every age, doesn’t it? Folks whip themselves into a weeding frenzy, certain that they know the difference between weeds and wheat. And they know how to deal with the weeds!
Here is this grace in this parable: Jesus says rooting out the weeds would uproot the wheat as well, doing more damage to the crop than leaving the weeds to grow. He’s telling us that we simply can’t be certain who’s “in” or who’s “out” with God; in fact, God might surprise us. The weeding, on the other hand, does serious harm. It harms the crop; it harms the church and its mission. Matthew is warning us: If we think we have it all figured out, that we know exactly how to judge evil from good, moral from immoral, right from wrong, think again. According to whom? In what contexts? Tragically, in both the past and present, there have been zealots in the church, eager to do some weeding. In the process, real evil has been justified as biblically mandated, theologically correct, or morally imperative. Think about the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, the Holocaust, the subjugation of women, persecution of LGBTQ folks, and on and on – all excused as legitimate weeding. As author John Pavlovitz put it, “One of the biggest, most damaging mistakes too many Christians so willingly make is assuming God is as much of a judgmental jerk as we are.”[ii]
The wheat and the weeds, and the harm caused in the weeding, got me thinking about one of our Presbyterian ordination questions. New elders, deacons, and ministers are asked, “Will you further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?”[iii] I don’t think anyone ever explained this question when I was ordained as an elder, or later, as a minister. But it’s there because of our inclination to weed.
What does “the peace, unity and purity of the church” mean? Peace – that’s the easy one. Peace means free of conflict. Purity is the word that raises eyebrows. It reminds us of Puritanism, or maybe even ethnic cleansing. But all it means is righteousness – not self-righteousness, just living according to God’s will. That’s what we as people of faith are supposed to be doing. We are supposed to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and that means we are supposed to confront evil, seek justice, and live holy lives. That’s all righteousness, or purity, means.
The verse from Psalm 85 that we read at the beginning of this morning’s service is a remarkable vision that speaks to this: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”[iv] It’s remarkable, because it is so difficult. Peace often requires negotiation or compromise; righteousness or purity is, well, pure, uncompromising. Peace and righteousness stand in tension. To focus only on peace forgets our commitment to doing the right thing; to “purity.” But if we’re aggressive in doing what’s right, we run the risk of upsetting the peace of the body. At times, keeping the peace calls for keeping our mouths shut. On the other hand, doing the right thing requires that we speak up, because to stay silent in the face of wrongdoing is to be complicit with wrongdoing. But again, on the other hand – and I feel like Tevya here – on the one hand, on the other hand – on the other hand, the pursuit of purity can lead not only to discord, but to the very weeding that Jesus condemns.
Churches do this weeding in more or less subtle ways. Some churches make it perfectly clear who isn’t welcome. Some churches advertise welcome but in practice, discourage differing views. How can peace and righteousness ever kiss?
The glue, the word that sits between peace and purity and holds them together, is unity. Unity, mind you, does not mean uniformity. A number of years ago, when the Presbyterian Church was still fighting over ordination standards, the General Assembly set up a task force to develop a process for reflecting on the matters that unite and divide us. It was called the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. The Task Force included people from very different theological perspectives. Together, they issued a report which concluded with these words: “To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together – our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ – is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”
“To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but … the quality of our life together … is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”
Making visible the quality of our life together: that is the church’s challenge and calling; it is Calvary’s challenge and calling. A story from our national life is a cautionary tale that points to how we might respond to this calling. Not too long ago, our legislators used to live in Washington, D.C. with their families. Their kids went to school and played Little League together; their spouses – back then, frankly, it was mostly wives – their wives went to luncheons and PTA meetings together; and they all hung out at dinner and cocktail parties that crossed party lines. But in the 1990’s, Congress changed its calendar so that members could fly in on a Monday or Tuesday and leave by Thursday or Friday. They quit moving their families to Washington; their families stayed back in their home states, and like-minded lawmakers got apartments together in Washington. They did battle for a few days and headed home. Author Jonathan Haidt says this most certainly contributed to our current political polarization.[v] When you get to know people, when you share a meal or play golf with them, it’s harder to hate them. And it’s easier to listen to them.
So much about our politics, our social media, and our lives today encourages us to live in silos of like-minded people; to dismiss or even dehumanize people with whom we disagree. That achieves purity, and it achieves a kind of peace because we don’t even have to listen to the other side. It does not achieve unity. In a sermon just four days before he was killed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that whatever differences we may experience, our mutual vulnerability and humanity unite us more deeply. He said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”[vi]
In other words, we are all in this together. Jesus’ parable condemns the weeding that tears us apart. And so, we are called to further the peace, unity and purity of the church – all three. Certain moments call for more emphasis on one: tabling an issue because it’s become so hot it’s tearing the community apart, or, on the other hand, not being afraid to tackle a difficult issue even when it might make some people unhappy. When we withhold the truth because our conversation partners might speak a different truth, our holding back does not result in unity, in one body. It results in NO body – nobody learning, nobody growing, nobody transforming, nobody being church.
Instead, might we not set an example for our polarized nation, and try to understand the other person’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it? Might we not engage those with whom we disagree, looking for common ground and ways to work together? Might we not celebrate what brings us together? All the while, trying our best to speak the truth in love,[vii] as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, and remembering that conflict is not a sign of failure. How conflict is managed, whether we make visible the quality of our life together; that is what determines whether we have succeeded or failed in furthering the peace, unity and purity of the church.
Then, righteousness and peace will kiss, and we can leave the weeding to God. May it be so for you, and for me.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.