“Let Both Grow Together Until the Harvest”
(a sermon based on Matthew 13:24-30, page 847 in the pew Bible)
Jesus’ parable about the “Weeds in the Wheat” seems to be a straight-forward story about farming. Although, I suspect, any real farmers (or gardeners) in his audience may have raised a skeptical eyebrow at the very idea of NOT pulling out the weeds and letting them grow together until the harvest time. I can imagine they’d say: “This is no way to run a farm, Jesus!”
Neglecting the weeds during the growing season might easily contribute to the “choking off” that Jesus mentioned in his parable of the Sower! (The story depicted in the banner.)
In that story (which immediately precedes this one in Matthew’s Gospel), Jesus had pointed out how weeds -- other competing plants in the same plot of ground alongside the good seed -- would over-shadow the young shoots, entwine themselves around the blades as the stalks rose up, until they possibly choked them out in the end. That wouldn’t happen if the farmer took the time and energy to clear the field of weeds.
One time when I visited our farm family friends in Germany in July, I spent hours tramping through acres of sugar beets, pulling up thistles and tall, wild stalks. I was told that failure to clear the weeds before harvest would clog up the tractor -- and guarantee a “bumper crop” of unwanted weed seeds in the soil to plague the next year’s planting -- because weeds always “go to seed” before the crop does in which it is embedded. So, it’s better to get them out early. I took my turn pulling up weeds.
Of course, I’m not really a farmer; but even I know these basic facts of horticulture. Certainly the great Rabbi Jesus who gave us the Parable of the Sower -- in which some seed is (1) trampled underfoot as the farmer broadcast it on all sides of the path, some seed was then (2) eaten by birds, some young sprouts failed (3) because of inadequate irrigation or lack of depth of soil, and some plants were (4) choked off by weeds -- any good farmer would know that this is no way to run a farm! You don’t let weeds grow up alongside the crop, if you can stop them. Isn’t that what “herbicides” have been developed to do?
There is something twisted in the way Jesus tells this parable, and his rural audience would spot it immediately!
Matthew, on the other hand -- the Gospel writer who gives us this parable (and he is the only one who has it) -- had been a tax collector in an urban environment before Jesus recruited him to become a disciple. It may be that Matthew did not know as much about being a good gardener! Maybe this parable is his creation, intended to address something in his society.
(Some scholars think so. They don’t believe that Jesus would have told it this way. Frankly, I think Jesus had good reason to tell it as he did… which we’ll get into in a moment.)
Today’s story also reminds me of the older and much shorter Parable of “Secret Growth” told by Mark (Mark 4: 26-34). In that one, as in this, we are told (1) the farmer “sowed good seed” in his field, (2) he slept at night, (3) the “wheat grain” came up (and he knew not how)… and both stories (4) end with a pending “harvest.” The similarity between those two stories has led some scholars to assume that Matthew wanted to re-write Mark’s parable, making it less about the natural vitality of the growing process -- beginning, first, with the seeds, then the sprouts, the shoots, the stalks, and in the end, “ears” of grain -- and making it more about the opposition Jesus encountered.
Matthew obviously expects the disciples (and, by extension, those of us who follow Jesus, the Church) to identify ourselves with the “good seed” -- the wheat (those who will most assuredly be “saved” at the harvest) -- and he equates his opponents (the Pharisees) to the “weeds” among the wheat. Many a sermon has been preached, and many a Bible Study commentary has been written, to make that very point. (See Matthew 13:37-43 for Matthew’s allegorical interpretation.) This parable is taken to be an “us versus them” allegory, in an effort to denigrate one’s enemies. They are destined to be burned in the Final Judgment when God comes to “harvest” us. (It’s grist for a “hell-fire” damnation sermon… if we didn’t know better!)
It was customary in agriculture in olden days to use the stalks and the chaff (the “left-overs” from the harvesting process) as fuel for fire (natural kindling, flammable fuel). That natural ecological reality is augmented in this parable by the harvesters throwing the mature weeds into the fire as well! There is a use for the weeds in the end, even as there is for the wheat. In fact, the weeds may help heat the oven in which the wheat will be baked into bread. No harm, no foul. It’s win-win!
Instead of the emphasis on the sheer graciousness and miracle of growth which is inherent in Mark’s version of this parable, Matthew’s re-write emphasizes the “enemy” who secretly wishes to do harm to the process, who comes by night to sow weed seeds, and the subsequent sense of threat to the listeners, who fear that they might end up like weeds cast into fire. Many an altar call has followed a fearful sermon like that!
I think they are totally off base. There is nothing to fear here! The story begins with someone who knows that the seed he sows in his field is good seed. We find out in the next verse that it is wheat seed. OK. So what? Is this a 4-H lesson? Actually, Jesus says that “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.” Heaven!
We are also told something that nobody (but us) could possibly have known…because they were all asleep. There were no witnesses to what I’m about to tell you: the farmer had enemies who wanted to disrupt his success before it even got started! (No! Yes.)
The enemies (we are told) came by night, while everyone else was asleep, and tossed “zizania” seeds -- which is “darnel” (or tares), an annual grass with long, slender bristles, which mimics the look of young wheat sprouts -- among the wheat, & went away… These un-named enemies of the householder creep through the streets on pussy-cat’s feet, in & out again, leaving not a trace. No one noticed the weeds growing among the wheat until the crop had matured.
If everyone in the story was asleep, and no one saw this enemy, what evidence do we have that it happened this way? Since neither the farmer nor the field workers were aware of it, it may be a “cover story”. It may be “fake news” … a distraction.
What the evidence itself would show is that zizania/weeds were found growing among the rows of wheat. Once that became apparent, the servants of the householder came to him, and said: “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?”
Notice: The owner had sowed the seed himself!
Actually, we were told that at the start -- “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.” The one who does the sowing (in this parable) is the owner of the field. It’s like Dick Bloom planting the asparagus that he later harvested from his own fields. Or Tom Cook planting the apple trees from which he later would harvest fruit for apple cider. The Owner (in Jesus’ parable) did the work, made the investment, bought the seed and planted it himself!
While this may be natural among our Alpena County farmers, this would be quite a departure from the custom in Jesus’ day in which the landlord would typically hire workers and let their tenant farmers, indentured servants, day-laborers and slaves do the work. But not so in the Kingdom of Heaven! According to Jesus, the Lord (the Owner) does the labor right alongside them all. (Wow! I hadn’t noticed. Did you?)
The second thing I noticed, as these servants approached their Master (probably with a bit of fear & trembling), was the subtle suggestion that the problem with finding weeds in the field was due to something that the Master had failed to do: poor quality control. “Did you not sow good seed in your field?”
Blame the manufacturer; blame the vendor, or the supplier; blame the purchaser, or the owner himself for not getting top-quality, certified “weed-free” seed in the first place. If any of that could be proven, well, it lets the workers off the hook, doesn’t it!
On the other hand, if the Master was not at fault, and the seed he had purchased and sown was not contaminated with zizania/ weed, then the problem must have been with THEM.
The field workers had not properly prepared the soil to eliminate the weed-seeds from the former year’s harvest. Or, THEY had not adequately tended to the weeding early on, such that now --“when the plants came up and bore grain”
(that is, things were getting mature! By now, it’s fairly late in the growing season) -- the weeds were well advanced and inter-twined. By the time of the discovery, things were too far gone.
If blame is to be placed, and it does not attach to the good seed… nor to the good Master… well then, it must rest on those sleeping servants, those inattentive stewards, those lazy workers.
When they brought the matter to their Master’s attention, they may have had some fear and trembling, because they felt that the weeds were THEIR fault. They figured that they would have to do something about it, even at this late date.
But the Master has an entirely different solution in mind. He surprises them by saying: “An enemy has done this.” It’s not his fault, and it’s not their fault… it’s somebody else’s fault. We know nothing of the identity of this “enemy”, nor even if they exist. The enemy is un-named.
The enemy is unseen, and (unlike most times when enemies are blamed for trouble) no retaliation is planned. I think it was simply an easy way out of the quagmire of trying to “fix the blame.” Go ahead and blame an enemy! Now, they could get on with fixing the problem!
The servants said to him: “Do you want us to go and gather them?”
I suspect they meant to go gather “the enemies,” since that’s what the Landlord has just spoken about. We would say: “Round up the usual suspects.” Such is the perennial temptation: to find an enemy to blame, because it draws the householder and the servants (the owner and the laborers) together in a common enterprise. It is often easier to point to an external enemy to blame (and to spend ones’ time, energy, & resources fighting that enemy) than it is to look within and fix the problems that are at hand… closer to home.
“Do you want us to go and gather them?” To this, the Master says: “No.” That’s another surprise in Jesus’ parable. Most landlords in Jesus’ day in the ancient Middle East would not let their enemies go unmolested. To do so would mean that they’d lose face. They’d be afraid that people would then “walk all over them.” Retaliation, prompt and harsh, was the norm: an eye-for-an-eye, life-for-life, pay them back in kind!
But this Master (who represents the Kingdom of Heaven), says NO. No retaliation against the enemy who has done this thing. And, he goes on to say: There’ll be no gathering of the weeds, either, “lest in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both grow together, until the harvest, at which time I will tell the reapers to first collect the weeds, bind them in bundles to be used as fuel for the fire, and then harvest the wheat into my barn.” It’s not a problem.
Not a problem? The field is infested with weeds, but the owner says, “Let them be.”? Let both of them grow up together? (Jesus, this is no way to run a farm!)
Let’s admit it: we are compulsive separators -- weeds from the wheat, good from bad, right from wrong. The very name “Pharisee” (in Hebrew, ufarsin) derives from the verb “to separate.” But in the Kingdom of God, unlike in the religion of Israel (and unlike a lot of churches, I’m afraid, who take upon themselves the role of “separators”) both the good and the bad are allowed to grow side-by-side! That’s a radical idea.
And because it is so radical, so counter-cultural, I suspect this story really came from Jesus, after all, not from Matthew. The weeds have been mixed-in alongside the wheat since the very beginning, and they seem not be interfering too badly with the growing of the wheat.
Grain is already being borne on the stalks, so the danger to the crop must be minimal.
The story ends (as I said earlier) with a “win-win” all around. The workers are not blamed by the Owner for the existence of the weeds. The immediate direct action they propose -- to go out and gather the enemies… or gather the weeds, however you choose to read it -- is taken off the table. No recrimination; no retaliation. They can relax. All will be well.
In other words, for the time being, “doing nothing” is the preferred response to the existence of whatever evil they have uncovered. Within the time-frame in which the servants must work, it’s okay for them to sleep and rise, and just let things follow their natural course. To whatever plausible proposal they would make to deal with the menace as they understood it, the Master says: “No, let it be so for now.” Slow down. Calm down. Be patient. We’ll fix the problem in due course. Relax.
So long as they (and we) can live with the inconvenience and disarray of some weeds growing among the wheat, the story will have a happy ending. Especially if the action we propose would make more of a mess than the problem already is, just let it be! The farmer realized that their heavy-handed response to the problem was going to be more of a menace than anything else! “In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them!” Today we call that “collateral damage” -- unintended consequences of our too quick reaction.
If the Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to be compared to this farmer, to this master… who works his own field alongside the others… who provides them all with good seed & the space for it to grow… who has no anxiety as regards his enemies, and who refuses to take a pre-emptive strike against the weeds that beset his field… who simply “suffers” the set-backs instead of resisting them… and is more interested in fixing problems than in “fixing the blame“… It sure would be a different way to run a farm!
It would be a new way of thinking altogether. I think it’s the Gospel Way, the Christian Way… The story of this farmer shows forbearance & forgiveness, persistence & non-resistance, collaboration and creative thinking. It’s a “win-win” situation all around. That’s Jesus’ picture of heaven.
Let’s make a point of choosing to get along with those who oppose us. We’re in this thing together. Let’s make it work. Amen.