Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
The focal point of much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in the gospels is “the kingdom of God.”
The opening of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mk 1:14-15) Of course, this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is quite unlike the kingdoms of the world that we human beings know from experience:
God’s reign is not about exerting authority; it’s about offering service;
it is not about dominance and power; it’s about humility;
it is not about being first or greatest; it’s about identifying with the lowly and the poor.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employs a number of images or metaphors to introduce the concept of God’s kingdom to his hearers, most of whom were peasants, subsistence farmers, living in an agrarian society. Jesus speaks about agriculture, about planting and harvesting, about sowing seeds – images easily understood by the people. His images regularly startle and surprise his listeners, and us. Over and over again, his point seems to be that this kingdom of God is never quite what we expect.
The Parable of the Sower, for example, made it clear that although the “seed” of God’s Word is powerful enough to produce a plentiful harvest, it is at the same time oddly vulnerable. It can be snatched away by birds, burned up by the sun, or choked by thorns.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast show us that the kingdom is smaller and more subtle than we might guess. The kingdom may be the single most powerful and important reality in the world, but it does not have the flash, the glitz, the razzle-dazzle we normally associate with mighty movements of history.
The kingdom Jesus describes isn’t quite what we expected. Apparently God prefers to work behind the scenes. Apparently changing hearts and minds is a quiet and gracious business more than a noisy or forceful affair. What’s more, the growth and spread of this kingdom, which is going to extend throughout the world, may never exist is a pure state. To illustrate this, Jesus tells this Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat: A farmer carefully plants an entire field of wheat. His furrows are straight, his wheat seed is of the highest quality. He does it all right and goes to bed content, believing he has done everything that is needed to ensure a good crop.
But while he rests, an enemy comes in and, with equal care, plants weed seeds in the same furrows. Worse, the weeds he plants are “darnel,” which looks almost identical to wheat and thus constitutes a dangerous threat. If the darnel isn’t carefully separated from the wheat before grinding, the resulting flour will be inedible.
When the wheat starts to grow, the farmer’s hired hands notice the darnel is coming up with it, and what’s more, they see it growing almost as uniformly as the wheat itself. This was no accident! These weeds didn’t result from a few stray spores drifting onto the field on a breezy day; this was the work of an enemy! It was an act of agricultural terrorism!
The servants ask the farmer if he wants them to go and start plucking out these dastardly weeds. It is the logical thing to do. The last thing they’d want is for the darnel to go to seed because that would mean that next year’s crop would be ruined as well.
Contrary to agrarian good sense, the farmer tells the hired hands to leave it be. They’d sort it all out at the harvest. If Jesus’ listeners knew anything about farming, and presumably they did, this would make no sense. They would be shocked by the farmer’s decision to do nothing about the weeds threatening his wheat!
But that’s a clue that this story isn’t really about agriculture; it’s about theology. Jesus’ stories aren’t lifted from some journal of farming; they’re told to illustrate truths that are essential to understanding what the kingdom of God is all about.
The disciples don’t get it. They come to Jesus later and ask him to please explain it to them. Jesus obliges, but you can almost detect a little weariness in the rather dry way that Jesus connects the dots for them: ““OK. Listen up, everybody. ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels…’ OK. Do you get it now?”
[Have you ever told someone a joke and they just didn’t get it? If you have, you know that having to explain the joke takes all the fun out of it. Have you ever seen anyone burst out laughing after a joke has been explained to them? Generally, they don’t laugh; they say something like, “Oh, now I get it. Heh-heh. Very funny.” But that wasn’t the reaction you were looking for when you told the joke!]
So here too there’s something a little dry about Jesus having to spell out things so simply for the disciples. The punch of the original story gets lost a bit. In fact, if you set aside Jesus’ explanation and read only the parable, you might be left with some pretty interesting questions, like:
What might it mean to let the wheat and the weeds co-exist and grow together for now? What kind of risk would that represent?
How might pulling up the weeds before the harvest threaten the wheat?
And, if the wheat stands for the true members of the kingdom and the weeds for imposters, how should we behave when we’re forced to grow right alongside of nettlesome folks?
It’s easy to get too focused on the explanation. It’s easy to see ourselves as the wheat, and start dreaming about how all those annoying, weed-like people we know are going to get theirs in the end. If we’re too focused on the explanation, we won’t ask the difficult questions and we’ll get caught up in who’s right and good and who’s headed for the fire.
I’m suggesting that although we can accept the Lord’s explanation of his own parable, we need to be careful that we don’t lose the “punch” of the parable itself or misunderstand its purpose. Because this parable is not so much about wrongs getting righted at the end of time; it’s about our lives right now. It’s a parable that’s primarily about PATIENCE. God’s patience, and the patience God expects of us.
The farmer obviously believes that the weeds themselves won’t threaten the wheat; the two can grow side by side. The weeds themselves are not the threat; the danger is in how the wheat (and those of us who identify ourselves with the wheat) reacts to the weeds. The solution when we find ourselves in the presence of sin is not to start trying to root out all the sin we see. The challenge here is to resist taking matters into our own hands and yanking up all the weeds we see around us. The farmer’s message to his servants is to let things be, to leave it to those who will harvest at the end.
God is patient, and we too are meant to be patient.
What situations might call for this kind of PATIENCE? To whom is this parable addressed?
What first comes to mind are the challenges of living together in community – whether in a marriage, in a family, in a church community, in a monastic order, in a nation, or in our world. We recognize the challenges of living together with others in our Rule of Life when we say, “The first challenge of community life is to accept wholeheartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will…We are called to accept with compassion and humility the particular fragility, complexity and incompleteness of each brother.” (The Rule of the SSJE, p.10-11) Rather than trying to pluck the speck out of the eye of our neighbor, heeding this parable might mean bearing patiently with his brokenness, just as God has borne patiently with ours.
To bear patiently with one another in love also means withholding our judgment of the other. It is not usually helpful to point out another person’s sins and shortcomings. What people need far more is a loving acceptance and affirmation of their worth, a kindly forbearance and love towards their weaknesses. Again, the Rule is helpful when it reminds us to “honor the mystery present in our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption, and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.” (The Rule of the SSJE, p. 54)
This compassionate acceptance and withholding of judgment we must exercise not only towards others, but also towards ourselves. There are parts of ourselves that we know are damaged; there are attachments from which we have not yet experienced freedom; and there are behaviors that we know should be changed. To bear with the weeds growing among the wheat might require being more patient with ourselves, acting and speaking firmly but compassionately to ourselves, just as we would to a friend who was struggling.
We can benefit from taking time to observe and reflect upon Jesus’ interactions with his disciples – and with various “sinners” he encounters on the way. See how patient he is when they fail to grasp his message or understand his mission. See how daring he is, crossing social boundaries to enjoy the company of “tax collectors and sinners.” He doesn’t rush in to root out their sin. Rather he invites them to “come and see,” to listen and learn, to follow him and imitate his example. His acceptance of them makes it possible for them to choose repentance. Knowing they are loved helps them imagine that their lives might be directed towards a higher goal.
How do we respond when we see evil in ourselves, in others, in our world? Jesus’ parable of “the weeds among the wheat” is a good reminder that pointing fingers, hurling judgments, or rushing in to pull out the weeds, may be the wrong strategies to employ. After all, “love is patient; love is kind;… it does not insist on its own way… it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4-7) This is what real love demands.
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