July 23, 2017
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by Nichole Torbitzky
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
I am blessed to have grown up in a lovely house with a big, lush back yard. Now, as my parents age, they often need help keeping up with their beautiful piece of land. My father has a passion for trees and has planted a veritable forest in their yard. My mother prefers flowers and spends most of the Spring, dividing, and planting. Most of her flowers are annuals, but some are perennials. Regardless, between the flowers and the trees, my parents have lovingly created a yard that glorifies God. This last year, my father got sick, and my mother was too busy caring for him to spend as much time in the yard. Knowing that weeding is the most tedious task, I decided to surprise my mother and help her prep her flower beds. Early one morning, I brought my young sons to her house and quietly we got busy in the backyard happily pulling weeds. When it was all over, we had a good sized pile of weeds collected in the yard waste bag. Tired and a little sore, we trooped inside to surprise Grandma with our good deed. Grandma was delighted with our contribution, happy to be able to put some pretty flowers in the ground. Fast forward to late summer. Once again, my boys and I were visiting my parents and gazing out the window to the backyard, I noticed something missing. “Mom,” I asked, “did you take out all of your beautiful mums around the bird bath?” No, she replied, she just could not figure out why they had not come up this year. Then, it hit me. Way back in the Spring, in my weeding frenzy, I had pulled out all of the tender young shoots of her mums, mistaking them for weeds. Of course, my mom was forgiving, and she has since added new flowers to that bed. Part of what made me feel bad was how great it felt to pull out all of those “weeds!” I pulled and yanked mercilessly. It felt good to get rid of all those “bad weeds.”
I find our parable for today so self-righteously satisfying, that I have to confess up front that I want God to find the weeds in my life, and give them their just rewards on judgment day. I confess this because it is sinful and needs confessing. I like to think that this is a temptation that we all fall into, but that is mostly just an attempt to dilute my guilty feelings. Maybe it is something we all fall into now and again, and while it is understandable, it is still contrary to God’s will for us. How can I say that with such confidence? Because in this parable, the wheat does not rejoice at the weeds in the fire. No one does.
It is very tempting to use this parable to point out the weeds in the world right now and rail against the problems we see going on around us. I would suggest treading very lightly there. Naming “sons of the evil one” by name is a type of playing God that I would not want to recommend. We are commanded to refrain from judgment because we will get the judgment we give (Matthew 7:1-3). This command is not meant to shackle us from making healthy decisions about the people we do and do not allow into our lives. It is meant to warn us away from making judgments about the state of other people’s souls. We simply do not have the power to discern who is a weed. We simply do not have the power to know if what we think is a weed is actually wheat not yet matured. That judgment is for God alone.
I would further caution against making sweeping statements that “we” are the wheat and “everyone else” is the weeds for the same reasons as above. Since we stand among the stalks, it is very difficult to tell one from the other. I would like to suggest that it is very tempting for us to divide the world into the two groups: the good and the bad, the in and the out. The problem is that in most of us, me included, there simply is no clear and sharp dividing line between good and bad. Best to leave that sorting to the Angels.
So, if this passage is not meant to empower us to judge the state of another person’s soul, if it does not encourage the self-righteous satisfaction of future torment for those who have wronged us, then what does it do? The opposite of that. Jesus is encouraging us to trust in God. Trusting God means that we can leave it to the angles to pick out the weeds when the time comes. That is not our job. Our job is to grow and produce good fruit. Our job is to grow and produce good fruit even in the midst of the weeds. As followers of Christ, we are not commanded to separate ourselves from the mess of this world. The weeds simply grow alongside the wheat. The good grows alongside the bad. God’s rain comes and the sun shines on weed and wheat alike.
With those cautions firmly in place, and regardless of Jesus’ simplistic explanation of this parable, there is more to it. First, it is important to note, that what in English translates as “weed” refers to a plant not uncommon in Jesus’ day and place that looked like wheat until it produced seeds that were very clearly not wheat. The word for the weed in Greek is ζιζάνια. According to http://biblehub.com/greek/2215.htm, this is a kind of plant that grows in Palestine, looks like wheat, but does not bear edible grains. One of the reasons why the workers do not recognize early on that weeds have appeared in the field is that until the plants bear fruit they are nearly impossible to tell apart. Then, when the plants have matured enough to tell the difference, the roots of both plants are so entwined that pulling up the weeds would also uproot and kill the wheat. The farmer simply must let nature take its course until the harvest comes.
While I have strongly cautioned above against naming names, we are empowered to name evil as evil. This parable gives us a place to talk about the power of evil. Most of its power comes, like the weeds, from deception and ignorance. Evil is real and lots of its power comes from its ability to pass as good. I would like to return to my earlier confession. Evil masquerades as righteousness when I make claims about the disposition of the souls of people that have harmed me. The self-righteous joy I get in my secret heart, glad that God’s justice will come one day to “those who deserve it” is not righteousness, it is self-righteousness. See how close they are? Separated by one little word. It is so easy to mix up self-righteousness and true righteousness. They feel so similar. I have every reason to suspect that certain people know nothing of Christ and are pretending to be wheat when they are really weeds. I could clearly lay out a case against them. But, what I am doing, in reality, is laying out the case against myself. God’s mercy is deep, and God’s justice is perfect. My judgment is finite and my mercy is, unfortunately, all too limited. True righteousness leaves the judgment to God.
I want to return to an important point regarding judgment. Refraining from judging the disposition of another person’s soul is not the same as refraining from making the very important judgments necessary to protect ourselves from dangerous or toxic people/situations. God does not want us to stay in a harmful situation. Good preacher, it is powerful for hurt, abused, and confused people in your congregation hear you say that God does not want us to allow ourselves to be harmed. Although it may be tempting to judge the disposition of the soul of an abuser, that is not ours to do. Yet, it is very much encouraged by Jesus to remove ourselves from harm whenever possible. (Remember just two Sundays ago, in the section of Matthew 10 that we did not read, Jesus told the Disciples to simply move on from a town where they were not welcomed and flee when violence is threatened.)
If this is a parable about refraining from judgment, and the reality of evil, it is also a powerful parable about patience and trusting God. While we are indeed called to remove ourselves from harmful and hurtful situations, there are also times when patience and trust in God are also called for. For better or worse, the wheat and the weeds grow together. One of my favorite jokes going around social media is a picture of a harried looking man, head bent, hands folded in a kind of resigned prayer. The caption says this, “Lord grant me patience…not opportunities to be patient, I’ve had plenty of those and they don’t seem to be working…the actual patience.” Our media is alive today with doomsday predictions about how bad the world is and how unprecedented state of our current predicament. “Hurry!” insists the noisy, pulsing voice from our TVs, computers, and phones, as it cries about the deplorable situation today. Hurry to do what? Judge? Get self-righteous about the know-nothings who are so very obviously ruining our world? God says, wait. Waiting is not passive. It does not mean that we do not address evil and injustice when we see it. But, when we get to places where the outrage has built to such heights we spend all of our time outraged, it is time to step back, to actively wait for what God has in store. Actively waiting is what the wheat does. It grows, right alongside the weeds, being good wheat, soaking up rain, putting down roots, stretching toward the sun, producing grain, waiting for the harvest. Today, rather than wallow in our self-righteous outrage, perhaps we can actively wait. Perhaps we can put down some deep roots and combat the loneliness and isolation that plague our world. Perhaps we can step out of the negativity game and find a purpose, an aim, that stretches us toward the Son. Perhaps we can stop being angry, outraged people and start being good people. The angels can only sort us out by our fruits.
Let me close with one of my favorite prayers, one you may be familiar with:
So far I’ve done all right.
I haven’t gossiped,
haven’t lost my temper,
haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.
I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God,
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on,
I’m going to need a lot more help.