Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Ps. 86; Rom. 8:18-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
"The servants said to the householder, ‘Do you want us to go and gather (the weeds)?' But the master said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.'" Matthew 13:28-29
The problem with parables is that the message is not always clear. In fact parables are never what they appear to be on the surface. The theologian Marcus Borg describes the parables of Jesus as
"invitational forms of speech that Jesus used to invite his hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. As evocative forms of speech, they tease the imagination into activity, suggest more than they say, and invite a transformation in perception." 1
Most of us hearing the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew's gospel today, would initially hear it as a story about judgement. We might even picture the Grim Reaper - that specter of death - coming as the judgement bearer against the weeds to root them out from the good wheat and destroy them. But that doesn't occur. This is a story about judgement - not it's leveling, but rather the absence of it.
We find ourselves wanting to root for the Grim Reaper - here played by the servants - as we hear the parable. We want him to pull out those weeds. We want to cheer him on, to encourage him to destroy what we think is the evil that lurks among us, the good wheat. To use a more contemporary illustration, think of Lord Voldemort bringing his enormous powers to bear on someone we might see as being evil, instead of looking to eradicate Harry Potter. It is a paradox of human nature that we can justify, even enthusiastically support the use of something sinister, to eradicate what we believe threatens us: the end justifying the means. Although it often doe not.
But that doesn't happen in the parable. The householder of the field - who is God -stays the Grim Reapers hand. The evil weeds are allowed to stay. There is no judgement against them. And it is that lack of judgement that can make us human beings pretty disappointed, even angry. It's the twist in the parable - what is expected and desired doesn't happen. So what is God up to?
Jesus' parables always have a twist - a twist that often perplexed his hearers at the time, and that is not so easily understood by us in the 21st century either. It is why last week Jesus commanded the crowds to "Listen!" before he told the parable of the soil. And it is why he ends today's parable by proclaiming, "He who has ears, let him hear." To understand the parables meaning, we are to listen. with open ears and open hearts.
Like the parable of Good Samaritan - where the least expected person, an enemy and an outcast, offers compassion to the one in need- and the Prodigal Son - where a scoundrel is offered total forgiveness for his errant ways by his father - the parables contain within them unexpected surprises, which jar our preconceptions and stereotypes ,and point us to a new way of living in the Kingdom of God.
The parable of the wheat is no exception. When we look at it carefully and study it in the context of the agricultural society of 1st century Palestine, we find a surprise. Even in those days a farmer would have pulled up the weeds as they became identifiable in the field. No farmer would have allowed the weeds to grow and possibly kill the wheat. So, it would have been unusual and rather foolhardy to allow the weeds to grow among the wheat. The parable of the wheat is after all not about wheat or weeds, it is about the farmer.
What does this story teach us about God and the Kingdom life? First of all the parable speaks to inclusion. The story tells us that the reign of God encompasses both good and evil . . .both the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow and both are harvested.
For my canonical/ordination exams, one of the theology questions was to explain Jesus' statement to, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Mt. 5:45) This saying of Jesus causes us discomfort - it irritates us- because it seems so unfair of God to do this, and worse yet, to request it of us. I used this parable to answer that question.
God's kingdom included the weeds, the unclean, the corrupted, those seen as bad . . . because this is in fact the material of conversion - of redemption. And that's precisely what Jesus came to earth to do: redeem us. ALL of us.
Second, the parable teaches patience and tolerance. We can only be the servants in this parable. There is no other role for us in this production. Our human tendency is to judge too quickly. And we are imperfect judges. We are very imperfect judges. Witness the staying, or reversals of death penalty judgements taking place across the country, based on the science of DNA. We are finding over and over that our judgement of guilt of those standing accused to be dead wrong. The reality is that often a person who we have judged to be a bad weed, turns out to be good wheat. And conversely, a person judged to be good wheat often turns out to be an evil weed. It is not our place to identify or eradicate the weeds- as tempted as may be to do so. That role is exclusively reserved for the Son of Man and his angels - the harvesters. It is not our role to judge. Let me repeat that. It is not our role to judge! That role is exclusively God's.
Third, the parable contains the caution that to eradicate the weeds is to risk losing the wheat. Evil is frequently intertwined with good, and perhaps that goodness actually flourishes in response to evil. Some of the greatest work done by Christians is done among the worst members of human societies. The kingdom life is not about perfection, it is about conversion and redemption.
Fr. Thomas Keating, the founder of the centering prayer movement, tells a story of a Christian woman living in California. Her only son, a young man just out of college, with a brilliant future ahead of him, was shot to death on a street for no reason by a sociopath, a man who wanted to kill for the pleasure of exercising power over another person. The murderer was sent to prison, but the mother continued to wonder why God had abandoned her, whether God loved her, whether she was being punished for her sins, or why God had not intervened.
After much prayer, she wrote to the man in prison to offer her forgiveness. For a full year she received no response. Finally a letter came acknowledging her letter, but without any sign of remorse. She wrote back and asked if he would be willing to see her. Again a year went by, and then a letter came replying that he would. She went to the prison and met the murderer of her beloved son. He spent time with her describing, without any emotions, his horrendous childhood - a time when he was subjected to physical abuse in the extreme.
He said to her, "You cannot imagine the immense joy I felt when I stood over your son and realized that I had killed him!" The mother, despite her anguish, reiterated her forgiveness.
The mother stayed in contact with the man and offered to return. He replied, " Please don't come again. I'm afraid, if you keep coming, I'll have to face the unbearable pain of my life." She went back, and she continued to go back, over and over.
Her pain has not gone away. At her last visit she cried. She has become his mother . . . he is becoming her son.
Is he still a weed?
Is she better wheat?
1 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (Harper, San Francisco: 1994) p.70-71Back to the top