Dudley Rose, associate dean for ministry studies and Lecturer on Ministry delivered the following sermon during HDS's virtual Noon Service hosted by the Office of Ministry Studies on October 14, 2020.
Let us pray: Gracious God,
Through the written word, and the spoken word,
may we know your Living Word
Some of you will recall that Matthew tells this story in two parts. There is the part we heard today. A landowner plants a field with wheat seeds. But then a neighbor sneaks in under the cover of darkness and spreads weed seeds among the wheat seeds. The seeds of both then germinate. The field is spoiled. The weeds and wheat are intermingled. Left alone, the weeds will crowd out the wheat, and the field will not produce the intended abundance.
In the part we did not hear today, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples as an allegory for the end times. When the world ends, the Son of Man will come and separate the good from the bad, at the harvest, as it were.
These two parts are distinct. Specifically, the first part is far less about the end times than the allegorical explanation is. The original story was meant to address the human condition. In the original story the conundrum is at hand. The original story points to the situation of existence that has persisted ever since Eden.
Our world is a field sown with wheat and weeds. Existence is an exasperating mixture of good and bad. For my part, I tend to agree with the owner’s workers. I want to tear out the weeds that are ruining the field. But this concoction of good and evil in human existence is tenacious. Get rid of the weeds, and they come right back. Remember when God grew so exasperated with humans that God flooded the whole of creation to start over. Immediately afterwards, before the earth was hardly dry, God had a prescient realization. Even as Noah sends the pleasant fumes of sacrifice up to God, God remarks, “[T]he inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” (Gen 8:21) And sure enough things soon go off the rails. Noah gets drunk, passes out, and exposes himself, and then the narrative is unclear about what happens next. But the upshot is clear. Noah’s youngest son is cursed. The weeds are back.
When the workers come to the landowner and ask what they are to do about the weeds, the parable wants us to hear, how are we to proceed in this battle of good versus evil? Ought we not destroy the evil and purify the field? In a way I should be prepared for the owner’s answer, but I never really am.
The landowner in the parable takes a restrained approach. He says, wait. Let things develop. If you uproot the weeds, you will do more harm than good. My first reaction is to hate this answer. It sounds so passive. It feels so submissive. The weeds need to be pulled up by the roots. The landowner’s approach is maddening. How can he just sit back and glibly accept that the weeds will be with us always? I get it. I know the landowner is right, but I resist his answer.
Some commentators have tried to soften our feelings about the parable’s preference for inaction. They say that weed plant in the story, Zizania, looks just like the young wheat seedlings. They say the Zizania is too hard to distinguish from the wheat until the plants are full-grown and bear fruit. By their lights, the parable says, do not be so sure of yourself. You may go into the field and pull out what you think to be weeds, but you may in fact be pulling out wheat.
There is just one problem. This parable is the only place where the word Zizania appears in all the ancient Hebrew literature. It occurs only in this parable. And the parable says nothing about Zizania’s resemblance to wheat seedlings. Nobody has any idea what Zizania looks like and the parable makes no claim about it. Look how hard some will go to say that you can’t tell the difference between good and evil. To say we can’t tell the weeds and the wheat apart in this parable is to engage in a Biblical version of “there are good people on both sides.” To be sure, Jesus often challenges our certainty and our self-righteousness. But that is not the sum of what this parable means to say. In this story the workers, the landowner and we all know which plants are weeds and which are wheat. That’s why the workers come to the landowner in the first place. They can see the field is thick with weeds.
Jesus means to throw down a greater challenge than our sometime confusion about what is good and what is evil. Jesus wants to challenge us to think what we are to do when we are confronted with evil and we know it.
The gardeners among you know that pulling weeds, even when there are but a few, is delicate business. It is all too easy to destroy the plants you are trying to save. All the more is it true, when the garden is overrun by weeds. In this story the weeds abound, and the parable cautions that any sweeping eradication of the weeds will cause more harm than good. I hate this answer. All the parties in this story can differentiate between the weeds and the wheat. For my part, I have no doubt where at least some of the evil is in this world. It is obvious, don’t you think? Look at our times. Look at our politicians. Look at the cancers of racism and white supremacy and nativism. Is it difficult to differentiate the weeds from the wheat? No, I don’t think so. What are we to do, then? Are we to refrain from making moral judgments? May we not identify and act against evil and for justice? Are we consigned to passivity lest we do more harm than good?
We are right to believe in moral action. We cannot just stand by in the face of great injustice and wickedness.
The parable positions the landowner at the edge of the wheat field. The landowner rightly understands the limits on his ability to root out evil, limits born not so much of his inability to discern evil but born of his realization that trying to snuff out evil would fail. More than that, the landowner knows that trying to angrily destroy all the weeds, would inevitably cause more devastation, not less. Earlier in this sermon I withheld a bit of information when I quoted God’s estimation of humankind just after the flood. God did say, “The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” Sounds like a condemnation. But the full sentence goes, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Gen 8:21) God has come to fully appreciate the human condition and recognizes both the uselessness and cruelty in endlessly destroying humanity because of it.
The landowner knows that he will do more harm than good in seeking to eradicate the weeds. He knows that the weeds will never be eradicated. This is what Jesus lays out before us.
And this is where in laying it out before us, Jesus means to bring us up short. Yes, we know there are weeds in the field. Yes, we can identify some of them. Yes, it is true that unless we are incredibly careful, we will cause more damage than good in trying to remove them, which is frustrating. And, yes, it is true that more weeds will replace any that are pulled. And, yes, it is true that God said, “[T]he inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” And, yes, it is true that the one family God saved from the flood because God said it was upright turned out to prove that it, too, had an infected heart.
And that brings me back to where I did not want to go. My own certainty about good and evil, and especially my certainty that my heart is not evil from youth is horribly misplaced.
The landowner realizes that not only is it futile to try to violently destroy the weeds. He also knows that to try to destroy his enemy may make him himself a more mean, spiteful, and self-righteous human being.
We are left with a set of vexing questions. Is it possible build up the wheat in the field and deter the weeds without causing havoc? That is, can we fight for good and against evil without making things worse? Can we improve the field of the human condition without destroying it? And, and, can we even make ourselves better rather than worse in the process?
The parable does leave open an avenue. Jesus does not explicitly take it up here, but as Jesus tells the parable this other avenue can hardly be far from his or his disciples’ minds. The whole of Jesus’ message in the Gospel of Matthew is built on the foundation of the Sermon on the Mount. For three full chapters, beginning just after Jesus calls his disciples, Jesus pours out a veritable fountain of attitudes and strategies, not about how to frantically destroy evil, but about how to build up the beloved community. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers. Let your light shine. Seek reconciliation with your brothers and sisters. Love your enemies. Be careful in judging others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not deceive yourself. Be a doer as well as a hearer.
On the solid footing of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus builds the edifice of the Gospel.
Jesus himself, we may recall, was cautious about recklessly uprooting evil. He himself had been the object of such attempts at the hands of the authorities who found his message of love and healing dangerous, these same authorities who had declared the poor and the sick and the outcasts and the strangers and the foreigners and the weak to be weeds to be uprooted and destroyed. Jesus was keenly aware that those at the margins were most often seen as the weeds in his society. It should not be lost on us that there have been and are still many in our world who, believing they know the mind of God, have sought to rid the world of weeds. The horrors they have promulgated and still do are unspeakable. Their actions should forever remove the weed-pulling, purification option from our toolbox.
The Apostle Paul writing earlier than Matthew and not long after Jesus’ death sounds a similar refrain. In letter after letter—in Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians—Paul says again and again, build up the community, build up rather than tear down, build up love for one another. Were he to paraphrase this morning’s parable, he might have said, “Build up the field of wheat field; don’t just tear out the weeds.”
And you know what? There are many today, many of whom you and I know, who labor in this weed-filled existence to bring about a better world. Many of you are among them. I thank God today for the work of those who have the courage to look at the weed filled field of our time and nonetheless choose healing and reconciliation. I thank God that there are people who even now, believe that something apparently so weak as love is more powerful than hate. I thank God that there are those who know that there are flaws even in their own hearts and yet respond with humility and the courage to work for reconciliation and healing. I thank God that even in these bitter times there are those who choose to build up the field of wheat. Oh yes, I thank God. I thank God that even in the midst of this troubled, weed-filled world, there are among this troubled and weed-filled people those who nurture the wheat, those who build up the blessed community, those who in their mind’s eye truly glimpse the kingdom of God. Oh yes, I thank God. I thank God. Amen.