Sermon: Wheat and Weeds
July 30th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Psalm 105:1-4
Another scripture passage about seeds and planting, farming and gardening. I’ve already confessed to you all my great ignorance of this subject and last week I reached out to Fritz for help. This week I searched the internet to find information. I learned some valuable things. For instance, I learned a great trick for distinguishing between a weed and a good plant. You take hold of the stalk of the plant and give a gentle tug. If it slips right up out of the earth easily, you can be sure it was a valuable plant!
This morning we hear more of the Kingdom parables that Jesus tells to the crowd listening along the lake shore. And again, like last week, I want to emphasize as we try to be those with ears who will hear, that Jesus shared parable stories not as detailed explanations or definitions of Kingdom realities, of Kingdom truths, but simply to give glimpses of truth into God’s reality as placed alongside our experiences in this world. There are two competing realities – God’s and the world’s – and we are invited by Jesus to choose which one we will follow, which one we will participate in, which one we will put our trust in and place our hope in. The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s reality, what happens when God is in charge and we are cooperating fully with Christ and with the Holy Spirit. The Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is the glimpse of that reality we try to take in today.
In Jesus’ explanation of the parable to his disciples, he seems to turn parable into allegory, linking each element of the story with a spiritual element. But again, it is important to proceed with caution that we don’t try to read more into the meanings than Jesus intended and push the metaphor too far. This is a difficult parable that can raise more questions than it answers, and unfortunately, has at times been used in ways that were not helpful. So let’s listen together (my earlier listening / your listening to me / all of us listening to the Spirit) and see what we hear. (Guide my words and all our thoughts in Christ Jesus…)
The Parable of the Weeds has some similarities to the Sower and His Seed which we thought about last week. God/Jesus is the one who goes out to plant the good seed. In fact, one of the surprising facets in today’s story is that this farmer is not just a one-man family farmer, he is the owner of a large estate with servants. Yet it is not his servants who plant the seed. The owner himself plants the good seed. This time, rather than focusing on the soil, the focus is on weeds; rather than shining a light on the nature of human hearts, it shines a light on the question of evil.
We read this story after it has been translated into English from Greek. Most translators have chosen to use the word “weeds” or, if you are older, you might remember the word “tares” being used. When Matthew recorded the story, the word he actually used is the word zizania. It is a word that refers to a specific weed, not just weeds in general. It is the name for a weed called darnel. It was a noxious weed that was plentiful in the land of Israel at the time. It looked very much like wheat as it grew – almost indistinguishable. In fact, another name for darnel is “false wheat”. But, as the wheat and darnel mature and it comes to harvest time, the heads of the real wheat start to droop with the weight of the grain, while the heads of the darnel stand straight up in their light-weight uselessness.
We are told a critical truth right at the start of the story: the Sower did NOT plant the darnel, the weed. It was never the owner’s intention to have weeds in his wheat. He planted GOOD seed! It is important that we hear that right away. The whole Bible story begins with the story of creation and every time God creates, God looks at what is created and says, “It is Good!” “It is very good!” God did not create this world, or create humanity, with the intention of it being marred by evil. God intention for His creation and for us was, and always is, and always will be, for good. Allow that truth to make its way into your heart.
And yet, we look out on the world and our experience of life and we see evil. We are like the servants who look around, see weeds, and get confused and frustrated, upset and even angry. They question the Owner; they ask for an answer. Who among us has not questioned why bad things have entered our lives or the lives of our loved one? Who among us can watch the news reports of violence and starvation, of deception and betrayal, and not question the terrible suffering that is going on in the world? In my own life over the past weeks, as I coughed and struggled to breath, as I held icepacks to my head to just try to get a clear thought, I have to admit that I asked God these questions. Where did this illness come from? Why? I prayed, You so clearly called me here to serve as pastor of this church, Lord, and why is this weedy illness going to get into the good wheat that is growing in our fellowship and in me? Why did an illness have to target my voice and my breath, just what I need to proclaim Your Good News, Lord?
You may have asked those kinds of questions about dark journeys you have gone through or are going through with illness. You may have asked those kinds of questions about losses in your life, about broken relationships or lost jobs or lost investments. You may have asked those kinds of questions about temptations that entered your life and ended up stealing time and energy and joy from you – alcohol, drugs, over-spending, gambling, pornography, anger, guilt… so many evil weeds that can choke out life. The evils of war and poverty, of selfishness and greed, fear and hatred and adversity, infest our world so insidiously and destructively.
So let me repeat the first truth and add a second from this parable. First, God did NOT sow the weed seed, God sowed the good seed. Second, there is an enemy, and that enemy sowed the weed seed. This enemy does his evil under the cover of darkness, in ways that prevent us from seeing the evil work clearly for what it is. But the Owner of the farm is aware and has a plan.
The servants think they have a plan, too. They say to the owner, “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?” This is terrible; let us get on it! We’re impatient and demand that something be done immediately! Who among us hasn’t demanded that God do something about a bad situation? Who among us has not wanted to simply take matters into our own hands? Our instinct is to get out into the field, out into the garden and start pulling the weeds.
Early this summer I happily and boldly offered to help Linda Weckel pull weeds from her garden. Very rightly so, she responded with gratitude for my offer but with some clear reluctance. When Linda finally allowed me to join her on a morning of weeding, it became clear that I didn’t know all my flowers from weeds. I needed guidance. I needed supervision. I needed to proceed with caution to not cause more damage than good.
Jesus issues a word of caution in this parable. The wheat and the darnel can be nearly indistinguishable to our human eyes and understanding. Good and evil exist together in the world, together in this community, even in our church and within each one of us. We must resist the urge to rush to label a person as good or evil, resist condemning ourselves as all good or all evil.
The parable of the yeast has something to say also about this mystery of Kingdom life, of life under God’s charge. We now think of yeast as a good thing, but when Jesus first told the story everyone on the lake shore listening would have associated yeast with things that were negative and sinister. Yeast then didn’t come as neat seeds in a packet. It was stinky, sticky, frothy starter-stuff. And Jesus says that the woman “hides” the yeast into the flour. So it is unclear, is the yeast good or could it perhaps be some evil, some difficult, challenging, uncomfortable thing? But rather than focus on that, Jesus focuses on the transformative power to stimulate, to provoke the dough, to uplift it and help it to overcome. God’s way of working is to take it all, good seed and weed seed, sacred yeast and sinister yeast, and bring out goodness.
So here is another truth from this parable: the owner of the field does not abandon the contaminated crop. He practices patience. He stops his servants and says that the best way to protect the wheat is to let it grow together with the weeds until the harvest time. The Sower is still fully committed to the wheat, to its thriving and producing a bountiful harvest. God is fully committed to us, to the thriving of His people, of the church, and to the work of producing a harvest of saved souls. Perhaps in patient hope that what initially looks like a weed may turn out to be wheat. God does this in the midst of the evil that has infested His good creation.
It reminds me of the verse from Psalm 23:5 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” In that psalm I picture King David, seated at a banquet table on which God has loaded all his favorite foods, like a sumptuous summer picnic with fried chicken and spicy bratwurst and potato salad and bright fruit salads and brownies and ice cream and strawberries, and, and, and… Here’s the King, he’s in the middle of the battlefield apparently, if the enemy is surrounding him, and God invites him to sit down and eat, to be strengthened and encouraged and blessed.
God is not letting us off the hook for working for justice and combating evil. We can read the rest of scripture and the message comes through loud and clear, particularly in God’s use of prophets and Jesus’ directives to his disciples: we are to defend the weak, welcome the left-out, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, serve our neighbor. This is where we have to resist reading too much into every detail of the parable, and instead focus on the wider truths. But we must practice patience. So here is that wider truth from the story, we need to get on with whatever work God assigns us and patiently trust that it is God’s job to deal with the weeds. Judgment is not ours. We are not the reapers in this story. It is the job of the Son of Man, of Jesus, and his hosts of angels.
And then finally, this story is about how things will turn out in the end. Actions do have consequences. Evil will be seen for what it is and it will be taken out. And then, “God’s people will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom.” Mt.13:43 Hallelujah! What a day that will be! It will not be our own glory that shines. Rather, we will be like little mirrors and prisms and sequins of every sort, reflecting the light of Christ to the glory of God the Father.
We are left with many unanswered questions about good and evil, about suffering and sorrow, but here again are the truths that we cling to in this day:
First, God does NOT plant weed seed; God plants GOOD seed.
Second, there is an enemy; the enemy sowed the weed seed.
Next, the owner of the field does not abandon the contaminated crop. He is fully committed to the wheat, to its thriving and producing a bountiful harvest. So the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow up together. God practices patience. We should, too.
And lastly, it’s the owner’s job to deal with the weeds ultimately. In the end, God will remove the weeds and wheat will shine!
Closing Song: “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” # 561