Sermon by the Rev. Dudley C. Rose, Associate Dean for Ministry Studies and Lecturer on Ministry, Harvard Divinity School; Affiliated Minister in the Memorial Church, July 19, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
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
Let us pray:
Through the written word, and the spoken word,
may we know your Living Word
Some of you will recall that Matthew tells this story in two parts. There is the part we heard this morning. A landowner plants a field with wheat seeds. But then a neighbor sneaks in under the cover of darkness and spreads weed seeds among the wheat seeds. The seeds of both then germinate. The field is spoiled. The weeds and wheat are intermingled. Left alone, the weeds will crowd out the wheat, and the field will not produce the intended abundance.
In the part we did not hear today, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples as an allegory for the end times. When the world ends, the Son of Man will come and separate the good from the bad, at the harvest, as it were.
These two parts are distinct. Specifically, the first part is far less about the end times than the allegorical explanation is. The original story was meant to address the human condition. In the original story the conundrum is hand. The original story points to the situation of existence that has persisted ever since Eden.
Our world is a field sown with wheat and weeds. Existence is an exasperating mixture of good and bad. For my part, I tend to agree with the owner’s workers. I want to tear out the weeds that are ruining the field. But this concoction of good and evil in human existence is tenacious. Get rid of the weeds, and they come right back. Remember when God grew so exasperated with humans that God flooded the whole of creation to start over. Immediately afterwards, before the earth was hardly dry, things go off the rails. Noah gets drunk, passes out, and exposes himself, and then the narrative is unclear about what happens next. But the upshot is clear. Noah’s youngest son is cursed. The weeds are back.
When the servants come to the landowner and ask what they are to do about the weeds, the parable wants us to hear, how are we to proceed in this battle of good versus evil? Ought we not destroy the evil and purify the field? In a way I should be prepared for the owner’s answer, but I never really am.
The landowner in the parable takes a restrained approach. He says, wait. Let things develop. If you uproot the weeds, you will do more harm than good. My first reaction is to hate this answer. It sounds so passive. It feels so submissive. The weeds need to be pulled up by the roots. The landowner’s approach is maddening. How can he just sit back and glibly accept that the weeds will be with us always? I get it. I know the landowner is right, but I resist his answer.
Some commentators have tried to soften our feelings about the parable’s preference for inaction. They note that weed plant in the story, Zizania, is clearly hard to distinguish from the wheat until the plants are full-grown and bear fruit is uncertain. By their lights, the parable says, do not be so sure of yourself. You may go into the field and pull out what you think to be weeds, but you may in fact be pulling out wheat.
This line of reasoning is nonsense. The word appears in all the literature only in this parable, and we have no idea what Zizania looks like. To say we can’t tell the weeds and the wheat apart in this parable is a fiction, and it sounds to me too much like a Biblical version of “there are good people on both sides.” To be sure, Jesus often challenges our certainty and our self-righteousness. But that is not what this parable means to say. In this story the workers, the landowner and we all know which plants are weeds and which are wheat.
Jesus means to challenge us exactly at the point of our greatest resistance.
The gardeners among you know that pulling weeds, even when there are but a few, is delicate business. It is all too easy to destroy the plants you are trying to save. All the more, when the field is overrun by weeds. In this story the weeds abound, and the parable cautions that any sweeping eradication of the weeds will cause more harm than good. I hate this answer. All the parties in this story can identify the weeds and the wheat. For my part, I have no doubt where at least some of the evil is in this world. It is obvious, don’t you think? Look at our times. Look at our politicians. Look at the cancers of racism and white supremacy and nativism. Is it difficult to differentiate the weeds from the wheat? No, I don’t think so. What are to do, then? Are we to refrain from making moral judgments? May we not identify and act against evil and for justice? Are we consigned to passivity lest we do more harm than good?
We are right to believe in moral action. We cannot just stand by in the face of great injustice and wickedness.
The parable positions the landowner at the edge of the wheat field. The landowner rightly understands the limits on his ability to root out evil, limits born not so much of his inability to discern evil but born of his realization that trying to snuff out evil would fail. More than that, the landowner knows that trying to angrily destroy all the weeds, would inevitably cause more devastation, not less. And the landowner knows that to escalate the feud between himself and his neighbor would simply make himself a more mean, spiteful, and self-righteous human being. Jesus challenges us to answer this question: Is it possible encourage the wheat and deter the weeds without causing havoc. Can we improve the field of the human condition without destroying it? Can we even make ourselves better in the process?
The parable leaves open an avenue. Jesus does not explicitly take it up here, but as Jesus tells the parable this other avenue can hardly be far from his or his disciples’ minds. The whole of Jesus’ message in the Gospel of Matthew is built on the foundation of the Sermon on the Mount. For three full chapters, beginning just after Jesus calls his disciples, Jesus pours out a veritable fountain of attitudes and strategies, not about how to recklessly destroy evil, but about how to build up the beloved community. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers. Let your light shine. Seek reconciliation with your brothers and sisters. Love your enemies. Be careful in judging others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not deceive yourself. Be a doer as well as a hearer.
On the solid footing of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus builds the edifice of the Gospel.
Jesus himself, we recall, was cautious about recklessly uprooting evil. He himself had been the object of such attempts at the hands of the authorities who found his message love and healing dangerous, these same authorities who had declared the poor and the sick and the outcasts and the strangers and the foreigners and the weak to be weeds to be uprooted and destroyed. Jesus was keenly aware that those at the margins were most often seen as the weeds in his society. It should not be lost on us that there have been and are still many in our world who, believing they know the mind of God, have sought to rid the world of weeds. The horrors they have promulgated and still do are unspeakable. Their actions should forever remove the weed-pulling, purification option from our toolbox.
The Apostle Paul writing earlier than Matthew and not long after Jesus’ death sounds a similar refrain. In letter after letter—in Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians—Paul says again and again, build up the community, build up rather than tear down, build up the body of Christ, build up in love for one another. Were he to paraphrase this morning’s parable, he might have said, “Build up the field of wheat field; don’t just tear out the weeds.”
It is what makes me so admire the work of Melissa Bartholomew, who was recently hired at the Divinity School as the Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. She describes her work for justice as nurturing the connections among us. She speaks often of healing the spaces where differences divide and of staying grounded in love and grace. She is unflinching in her work for justice and against injustice, and always her beginning point is healing and reconciliation. She offers an invitation to hard and raw work. She lets no one off the hook. But always, her work is all about building up the wheat. That is, her work is about transforming and healing the human condition.
I find hope in her work. I find hope in the Black Lives Matter movement. I find hope in the many initiatives working toward diversity, inclusion and belonging. I find hope that there are people who believe that something apparently so weak as love is more powerful than hate. I find hope that even in these bitter times there are so many choosing to build up the field of wheat. For is it not in doing this that we come closest to having in us the mind that was in Christ Jesus? Amen.