The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2005
Weeds and Wheat – A Strange Mix!
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” . . . . . . . .
His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”
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The story is told of a man who went from church to church, hoping to find and then join a “perfect church.” In the midst of his search someone was bold enough to say to him, “I feel sorry for that church if you ever find it, for in the moment you join it, it will not be perfect any more!”
The parable before us today, which is in reality more of an allegory than a parable as it is presented to us, confirms that observation in spades! Were there to be a perfect church, it would be less than perfect once a sinner joined it. I.e., there will always be weeds among the wheat.
A Pure Church -- A Proper Intuition, To Be Sure
This urge to uncover a “perfect church” is an age-old search, though. One of the earliest heresies of the church, in fact, was the heresy of insisting on maintaining the “purity” of the church, which meant, of course, cleansing all “impurities” from it. That insistence had to be met forcibly and forthrightly from the beginning years of the church. It is possible that this parable is, itself, an early sign from Matthew’s pen (the parable is found only in his Gospel, and it is in his Gospel alone that the word “church” with several allusions to life in the unfolding church are found in direct fashion) that such a teaching had to be confronted and declared to be faulty. Yet there are those in our age as in every age before us who are anxious to “cleanse” the church, to “purify” it, to fashion it after “the will of God” as such people perceive that “will of God” to be.
One can readily understand why such a desire is so persistently present among the people of God. Is this desire not, in fact, in one fashion or another, latent within all of us? Should it not be there, in fact, for who would gladly settle on any church that reflects less than “the will of God” and “the glory of God”? We do, indeed, yearn for a church that “measures up” to everything that God asks of it. After all, has the Son of Man, the Sower, not sowed good seed in the field of this world? Is it not “logical” to expect that seed to bear its appropriate fruit? Jesus has spoken of this very thing in the verses just before the words of this parable in the parable of the Sower and the Seed!
It is not surprising that the master’s servants should ask, “Where, then, did the weeds come from?”
The Weeds of the Enemy
“An enemy did this,” the master replied. The enemy had come by night and, undetected, had done his dirty work.
How subtly the grace and glory of God’s creation is sullied by this “enemy.” This enemy loves the darkness, to be sure, for he would be too easily discovered were he to work in the light of day.
Is his work not evident everywhere, though? There is a strange paradox about the “works of goodness” in the world that seem always to have a dark side to them. Scientific and technological advances are notorious for just such dark sides to the promised benefits they offer. Seldom are they evident when they first appear. Sometimes they are as subtle as the invention of the automobile . . . an advanced form of transportation that has become a bane to modern life in ever so many ways. A blessing, to be sure, but a blessing with a very dark side. Sometimes they are not so subtle – marvelously encouraging medical advances, e.g., that show great promise upon first appearance frequently show, much later and in spite of every effort at thoroughly testing them before admitting them to the market, a very dark side. This “back side” of worldly advances becomes a curse almost as quickly as it appears in the form of a blessing.
Nor is the church immune to this same phenomenon. The proclamation of “grace” is easily and quickly turned into a permissive “license” that suggests it doesn’t matter what one does as a child of God, for God’s grace is so overarching that it relieves the pressure of a meaningful obedience to the will of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called this “living by ‘cheap grace’” carrying with it no responsibilities quite contrary to the constant call of our Lord to “lose our life” in his behalf. Then the ugly head of “legalism” rears itself as a counterpoint to “cheap grace,” suggesting that Jesus’ call to live responsibly requires one to “clean up one’s act” in order to become acceptable to God. From one extreme to the other -- a word of grace becomes a word of license and a word of responsibility becomes a word of required obedience in order to claim God’s approval! And there are many stops in-between as we take the word of the Lord and twist it to our own ends. The “enemy” comes in the darkness of our best efforts at being faithful and sullies them, taints the wheat of God’s word with the weeds of our human handling of divine gifts.
Is it strange that this should be so? After all, do we not attempt to understand this field planted with the seed of our Lord and contaminated by the weeds of the enemy, on our own terms? Do we not confuse the weeds with the wheat in this bewildering attempt to discern between the two? The weeds look so much like the wheat, do they not? Is it not to be expected that people will “act rightly” – which is to say, is not the church a “moral arbiter” for what is right and wrong? And if people do not live up to what we expect of them, should they not at least be admonished if not pulled up and prematurely thrown into the fire? Is it not to be expected that people will “believe rightly” – which is to say, is not the church a “faith arbiter” for what is right and wrong? And if wrong belief (not to speak of unbelief) is discovered, should such people not be pulled up and prematurely thrown into the fire? One expects the church to maintain “standards,” does one not? Surely we not only have a right but a responsibility to maintain its purity.
The Necessity – and the Risk – of Judgment
Now admittedly this can be pressed to an extremity, denying the right of the church or the world -- or anybody in general, for that matter -- to make judgments about right and wrong. That is not the point here, for surely there is a place and a forum within which such judgments must be made, whether that forum be in a court of law wherein those who have disturbed the civil order must be tried or whether that forum be in the circle of God’s people wherein proper actions and teachings must be maintained in orderly fashion.
The parable, however, warns us against extending premature judgments as “norms” by which final judgments are to take place. After all, is not the first place where this parable takes its shape and form within our own lives? C. S. Lewis notes that he once had considerable difficulty in the saying that one should “hate the sin but love the sinner.” It didn’t seem to make sense to him until one day it occurred to him that it was within himself that the saying showed its most certain truth. Did he not “love himself” while at the same time he “hated the sin” that so dominated his life? Is this not a reflection of the words of Paul we heard only recently when he speaks of the great distress created within himself when he did the things he did not really want to do while not doing the things he very much wanted to do? St. Theresa of Avila prayed, “Oh, God, I don’t love you. I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you.” Do you not recognize yourself in reflections like these? The great physicist Werner Heisenberg said, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wants to will.” He spoke for all humankind, did he not? Is it not fearful to recognize that the weeds in our own lives threaten to suffocate the wheat of God’s grace planted within us?
It is no wonder that the master tells the servants that they are to leave the weeds alone once they have been discovered growing among the wheat. While, on the one hand, they are distinguishable, on the other hand, one can easily make a mistake in judging which is which, not to speak of the danger that, in uprooting the weeds, the roots will be so intertwined with the wheat that the risk to the wheat is too great for such an undertaking. Our poor human intuition is to “clean up” the field, but our Lord knows that we will only do damage if we are left to ourselves and our own judgments and our own actions. If we cannot govern our own lives rightly and well, why would he turn over to us the task of governing the lives of others rightly and well?
It must be reiterated that this does not mean there is no place for judgments. Jesus speaks of them elsewhere as do the holy writers in their letters to the early congregations of God’s people. But the preemptory judgment, the willingness to uproot the wheat while busily engaged in sorting out the weeds from the wheat – that is best left to our Lord who will entrust that task to his holy angels who see these things better than we do. And even they are to be entrusted with doing that only “at the end of the age.” We are to wait patiently for them to do that final work.
Life Together as Wheat and Weeds
For now we are to live together. It is, to be sure, an uneasy truce in some ways, and Jesus readily recognizes that. He has spoken of it earlier when he speaks of the word that is sown in places where the weeds suffocate the wheat. He speaks of it in various places as he warns us against the encroaching tentacles of the evil one that seek constantly and silently – “in the dark of the night,” so to speak -- to entwine themselves within our lives, claiming us for himself.
But suddenly one sees a strange note in this parable that may have easily been overlooked up to now. It is easy to assume that the wheat-bearing seed is the word of the Lord – the same seed that was sown in the parable prior to this one. But not so! Listen carefully as Jesus tells us, “The good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one.” Is this not astonishing, to say the least? We, the ones who have been claimed by the Son of Man who sows the seed, are, ourselves, the good seed! That surely brings one up short, does it not?
One of the most common problems Christians face is the fact, as it is put in common parlance, that “we look so much like everybody else in the world.” How can they . . . how do they . . . or, for that matter, how do we . . . tell the difference? We go about our business much like everybody else. We eat and drink, work and play, marry and have families, etc., much like everyone else.
Some people attempt to make “the difference” apparent by means of a certain dress code or a particular vocabulary or a frequency of obvious acts of piety. None of them are wrong in themselves, but none of them fully accomplish their purpose. For the children of this world continue to recognize how much alike we are in ever so many ways . . . and they delight in pointing them out – especially when there are “breakdowns” in the Christian community. The wheat looks just like the weeds! The world recognizes this, nor does it escape the notice of the children of God.
Yet, strangely enough, in many subtle but very real ways there is a discernible difference. To belong to our Lord is already in itself to become a citizen of another kingdom, to become a stalk of wheat in the field of God’s world. And in some quiet way, that becomes apparent even to the world.
Turning the Parable Inside Out To See What Lies Within It
It is an unusual thing to do, I am aware, but can we not see this “from the outside in” if we turn this parable inside out? To the world, the weeds are precisely what they plant . . . and they are exactly what they expect to grow because they have so deliberately planted them.
Therefore the wheat appears to be “the enemy’s seed,” the “foreign substance” that does not belong in this “field of the world.” There is no better example of this than our Lord Jesus, himself! Did he not appear to be the “outsider” to those on whom the world had its hold? Was it not a perpetual point of contest between him and those who confronted him about why he did not conform to the conditions established by the world? Was it not precisely because he was so clearly an “alien” to the ways of the world that he was crucified? His cross is the clear sign that to the world he appeared to be the wheat that threatened the very life of the weeds they had planted.
But when his Spirit went forth across the face of the earth, calling people to the Word of the Lord whose suffering, death and resurrection had shifted the powers of the earth and called forth the life that is grounded in God for all who would become his in the waters of baptism, the weeds of the earth found themselves under extreme threat. For their lives were now being suffocated by the life of those whose blood was coursing with the life of the Son of Man whose angels will be those who do the final sorting out of the weeds and the wheat.
It is for the Spirit of God to make plain to the weeds that the wheat are the sons of the kingdom. In our poverty-stricken lives we think that God’s glory will be set forth and his righteousness will be revealed in our “better moral acts,” our “higher forms of living,” our “drive towards perfecting the world,” our “will to clean up all the filth that surrounds us.” Without suggesting that we should not live our lives in full response to the grace of God – in urging and exhorting us, in fact, to be all that God would enable us to be under his grace – we must still recognize that we will constantly live with weeds growing inside us alongside the wheat of God’s grace while at the same time our lives will constantly be surrounded by the weeds of this world attempting to suffocate the life that was born of the waters of our baptism and nourished on the body and blood of our Lord as they are energized and made lively in us through his word.
God calls us to be who we are – the people of God – not merely a bunch of individual stalks of wheat in the midst of the world, but a wheatfield called the church faithfully living out and speaking forth the mercy and grace of the One who has planted us in the midst of the world as the sons and daughters of the kingdom. We will never be the “pure church” the fellow of whom I spoke at the beginning was seeking. But we will be God’s people, forgiven, living by promise. That is enough!
Hubert Beck, Retired Lutheran Pastor