Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wheat and Weeds Parable

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

---Albus Dumbledore

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Again, we have a parable presented by Jesus. Moments later, we hear “what it means”, allegedly from Jesus himself. I illustrated in this story why the Gospel writers put their understanding of Jesus’ parables in the voice of Jesus, and expressed my skepticism that the master storyteller would immediately tell those who had just listened the one and only way that his story should be understood, thus stripping the parable of the need for any real thought.

If I was leading a group Bible study, I would spend some time discussing the parable before reading what the Gospel writer believes the story to mean. But since the lectionary puts it all together, I’ll do things in reverse:

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen! (Matthew 13:36-43)

In hearing the Gospel writer’s interpretation of the parable, it is good for us to remember two things:

  1. This comes out of Roman occupation and oppression: the putting to death of Christians and Jews, and what would be the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple
  2. There was a major conflict and break with temple leadership: each group blamed the other for the Romans crackdown.

It must have literally felt as if the early Christians were being choked by weeds from all sides. No wonder that they understood the parable in terms of “us vs. them”. Hearing that God will one day right this wrong and reward the righteous were the words needed to live each day, and to keep people from giving up all hope.

Now, we turn back to the parable:

  1. We are told that “good seed was sown” A reminder that creation was (and is) good.
  2. We are told that “an enemy” came and sowed weeds: a reminder that evil is real and in the world.

We assume that wheat and weeds represent two types of people: good people and bad people. This fits the early Christians understanding, as a persecuted people. However, if it is the only understanding, it means that this parable has no good news other than for one who is oppressed (and is useless to the majority of today’s Christians, except as a warning about abusing power). Isn’t it possible for there to be more meaning in this parable?

What if wheat and weeds were to be understood as two sides of everyone: the capability to do great good, and great evil---the ability to love, and the ability to hate, the ability for peace, and the ability for violence?

Understanding it this way leaves us with a choice.

We can decide that “the reapers” will discern each individual as to whether or not they are more like wheat or more like weeds, and will be dealt with accordingly. This leaves us with a fear-based view of the world: in the end you get judged good or evil, so beware. Sadly, most people with this view end up living their lives in a way that tries to avoid "doing something bad" at all costs (not a pretty way to live).

Or, we can decide that in the life to come--when the kingdom of God becomes a reality--our evil tendencies (which are gathered first) will be bound and burned, leaving only our goodness to be gathered by God. This leads us to a life-giving outlook on life in the world (and, in my opinion, is a much better understanding of things).

Now, the critical question of every parable is “so what”. What does this mean for the hearer: what are we called to do?

If we are what has been sown, then it is our hope and responsibility to grow in goodness. We are called to embrace our good possibilities, and to resist the things that harm each other and the world. Furthermore, we are called to primarily see the goodness found in others, instead of focusing on everyone’s mistakes and failures.

But is that all we are called to do in this story?

One of the brilliant things about good parables is that just as there are multiple truths, there are multiple possibilities as for what should be done. Finding them often hinges on ability to rethink who we are in the parable.

In addition to being what is sown, I believe we also called to be the ones caring for what has been sown.

We are the workers tending the garden. It is not our responsibility to be ripping up weeds: evaluating people of their worth to God, deciding if they are good or evil. Instead, we are called to nurture the seedlings by tending to their needs and providing the environment for healthy growth.

It only takes a short look at the world to see how critical one’s environment is towards influencing decision making and behavior. When people get treated like weeds, and see themselves as such, it’s not hard to explain a great deal of their actions.

In this parable, God challenges us all to be invested in each other: treating all as “good seed”. To see, understand, and act on our charge to help everyone grow in love and goodness.

Thanks be to God.

(Based on a sermon given at All Saints’ Littleton on July 17, 2011)

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