Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Wheat and the Weeds: Proper 11 Year A

Think back two weeks. I know, I know. It’s almost an impossible task; I can barely remember yesterday. No worries, I will refresh our memories. That week, we heard Jesus praise John the Baptist and utter the comfortable words, “Come unto me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens…” Those words are part of a long section of Matthew’s Gospel.

The section actually begins with a question from John’s disciples, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”  They are really asking: Jesus, who are you?  Jesus’ answer is not very clear: “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk…etc.”  Matthew’s Gospel, though, is very clear: Jesus is the Son of the David, the king of Israel. We know this because Jesus’ life fulfills the work of the prophets. First, there is his genealogy. Then, there is his ministry in Galilee.  And now, Matthew begins to define who Jesus is through story. 

The stories Matthew tells us are the parables of Jesus.  Matthew tells us, again, that this is to fulfill the prophets. The prophets waited for a Messiah, a Messiah who would “speak in parables; proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (Mt 13: 35). Jesus’ use of the parables reveals that He is the Messiah, the One who is to come. 
Our lectionary, the Sunday reading schedule, divides these parables across several weeks. They are divided in such a way that we do not hear them in order. This is both helpful and not-so-helpful. It is helpful because there is time to examine each parable on its own. It is not-so-helpful because we can easily forget the big picture. Remember each Gospel was written in a particular way for a particular community. Matthew arranges the parable in a certain way to paint a full picture of God’s kingdom. It is important that as we study them separately we remember their place in the larger story.  

The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat follows Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower. When read together, the two parables are linked by images of farming: sowing seeds, the threat of weeds and the inevitable harvest. In my mind, the parable of the sower is the frame; the weeds among the wheat is the image.

For just a moment, let’s return to the Parable of the Sower. We know that it has several themes: the Sower, the Seed, the Soil and the Harvest. Each theme, each character, has a role to play in God’s kingdom.  Certainly, each person who hears Jesus’ word has a role to play in God’s kingdom.

We know Jesus’ ministry evokes dramatic responses from his listeners. Immense crowds, sometimes numbering 5000, follow Him. The Pharisees and Scribesangered by his ministry, are driven by a desire to denounce and destroy Him. The disciplesfaithfully following their teacher, are regularly befuddled and empowered by Jesus. Here we arethe faithful Church, seeking wisdom and discernment for our daily lives and our future.

Today, the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat, speaks of God’s kingdom again. Only now, we have a different set of characters. There is a landowner, slaves and an enemy.  And there are two kinds of seeds, wheat and weeds, growing together. Today’s parable moves us from the creation of God’s kingdom to the realities of our life. 

And now, finally, we turn to the parable itself.  Here we have a story of bad seed sown among good seed in secret by an enemy. 

In ancient Israel, it was not uncommon for enemies to sow weeds among one another’s seed.  Perhaps this still happens in modern farming: one landowner seeking to harm and embarrass another.  The weeds growing among the wheat implies that the landowner has faulty practices. It also threatens the harvest and the future stability of the landowner. The enemy hopes to evoke fear, anxiety and shame from the landowner and his associates.  In such a situation, we would imagine that the landowner would work hard to remedy the situation. 

The landowner, though, acts in an unexpected way. The advice of the slaves, to immediately pull all the weeds, is not heeded. Instead, the landowner seems neither embarrassed nor anxious. We will wait, he says, until the harvest.  We might read this as a sign that the landowner is beaten or defeated. Yet, there is wisdom in the landowner’s patience. There is no guarantee that, in their haste and anxiety, the slaves would pull the weeds. The landowner knows there is much at stake.  Rather than retaliate or react, taking unnecessary risk to cover the enemies’ behavior. The landowner’s patience reveals hope for the wheat growing among the weeds. 

Our reading today is actually missing a middle section including two small parables: the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. They come between today’s parable and it’s explanation. We will hear them next week, along with three others, so I won’t spend much time on them. I do want to point out that these are stories of unexpected results. Can we imagine a farmer sowing a mustard seed among his wheat?  Can we imagine that same mustard seed producing a bush large enough to house birds of the air? Can we imagine one portion of yeast is enough to produce one hundred loaves of bread? Matthew places these parables here to fuel our imaginations: can we imagine what these weeds among the wheat might produce in God’s kingdom? 

Here is what Jesus tells us: that the parable is a story of judgment. The landowner who sows the good seed is Jesus. The devil sows the bad seed. At the end of the age, those who do the work of Christ will unite with God in eternity. And those who participate in the work of evil and sin will not. This is an allegorical explanation for the parable. I do not think, though, that this is the only meaning of the parable.

Remember those slaves; these are the ones who see the weed growing up among the wheat. These are the ones who wish to act: to do something about those weeds. There is meaning for us in their work.
Every day we see the suffering of the world. Some of these are natural disasters or outcomes of the reality of how the world works. Some things, though, seem preventable like acts of violence, addiction and poverty. I find that we are often anxious to do something about these.  Perhaps we are quick to judge or anxious to help. Many times, though, our judgments and help are inappropriate or create other difficulties. The reality is that the suffering of the world will never end. The parable asks us: how will we respond?

Today’s parable begins with these words, “The kingdom of God may be compared to…” Jesus then tells a tale that looks and feels a lot like our world. In the midst of this story, Jesus advocates for our patience.  He is the landowner who tells us to wait,  to care for the weeds while we care for the wheat.  

This means gentleness for everyone,  even those we might readily reject. This means compassion for the sick and suffering, no matter who they are. This means mercy, even for those we deem undeserving. This means loving one another, even our enemies. This means serving Christ, rather than ourselves, our desires, our fears and anxieties. 

This is what the kingdom of God looks like: the mercy of God offered to everyone through the power of Jesus, the Messiah.

It is not easy work. And it is the ministry given to us through Christ. May God grant us calm strength and patient wisdom to do the work we’ve been given. 

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