“Wheat Field with Cypresses” by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Public Domain.
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
24 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.27 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?'28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?'29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 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.'"
36 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." 37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
As many of you know, my family and I moved last fall to a 10-acre homestead in Starksboro to live closer to the land, grower bigger gardens, and keep more animals. Because we moved in the fall, we missed most of the growing season at our place, so this spring, we’ve spent a lot of time deciphering the landscape and figuring out where previous owners might have planted plants. We were smart not to mow certain areas right away because lupine popped up in one place, and a small, forgotten bed of other perennials in another. But even now, Leah and I are still training our eyes. Some perennials that we might want to keep can look like weeds before they flower. Right now, our yard is spotted with the occasional bit of tall weeds that Leah insists is Phlox, to the point that it’s becoming a running joke. We call any bit of tall weeds we find on the land Phlox and joke about not cutting it down, just in case.
Overall, our gardens are doing well, and being attentive to the land has been a helpful reprieve from the anxiety of the pandemic. Others are also turning to their gardens during the pandemic, and spend a little extra time in the dirt. Some are even starting a garden for the first time this year. There are countless articles written these days about growing membership in community gardens, how garden supply stores are running short on inventory, and how many folks are expanding their gardens this year because of food insecurity brought about by the pandemic. Of course, one of the regular tasks of gardening is weeding.
Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the “Wheat and Tares” or “Wheat and Weeds.” And it falls in a really interesting part of the gospel of Matthew. In this section, which begins in the middle of chapter 11 and runs to the end of chapter 13, Jesus tells several parables to those that have gathered around to hear his message. We can imagine that Jesus is speaking in a rural setting because most of these parables are agrarian stories – stories about farming and gardening, planting and harvesting, fishing, and catching. Several of these stories are also told humorously, using irony, exaggeration, and unlikely scenarios to convey a message.
But this section is also a little tricky because of the surrounding context dealing with John the Baptist. At the beginning of chapter 11, John the Baptist’s disciples visit Jesus to ask him a question. If you remember, John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John is living the vocal and ascetic life of a prophet, in the tradition of Israel’s great prophets, in the wilderness near the Jordan River. John had gathered a following, and people from all over the region ventured into the wilderness to hear his firebrand message. He openly condemned the corruption of the ruling political families in the country and blamed religious authorities for making life impossible for the people they were supposed to be shepherding. In a cleansing ritual, he baptized those who came to him, marking a return to God through corporate confession of sins. He even spoke about a coming messiah, a leader that would be just and holy.
John wasn’t very subtle, though. Calling leaders names, pointing out their corruption, and advocating for a different administration to an ever-growing group of followers got John in hot water. When his disciples come to ask Jesus a question, John is in prison.
With John in prison, many of his disciples began following Jesus, which added size and legitimacy to Jesus' cause. And we can see some continuity between Jesus and John. They both denounce corruption and abuses of power and work to give voice to the oppressed. Even John’s favorite insult, “You brood of vipers,” which he uses in chapter three, is adopted by Jesus in chapter twelve and twenty-three.
But Jesus has to be careful now. The forerunner of his message is in prison. This movement is growing, but it contains followers who are angry that their former leader has been arrested. And mixed in the crowds that come to hear him are religious authorities. To put it plainly, Jesus is under surveillance by powerful people. He has a message to tell, but if he is too confrontational, he could rouse a violent revolt, or end up like John, who immediately after this section, is executed.
So, Jesus spreads his message by telling stories. These are stories that his rural audience would have related to, and some would have understood the underlying message. But by spreading his message through parables, Jesus made it difficult for religious and political leaders to accuse him of treason or sedition.
Take today’s parable. A field of wheat is planted. But sometime during the night, the devil sneaks over the wall and sows the field with weeds. As the wheat grows, so do the weeds. The Greek word for weeds here, zizania, is the word for darnel or false wheat, a type of Eurasian rye grass. Ancient writers outside of the Bible have described it as looking like wheat before the ear appears, and it shares the same production zone as wheat.
The humor of the story lies in the devil’s actions. If you garden and go away for a week during the summer to return to a garden brimming with your plants and a new batch of knee-high weeds, you might jokingly remark, “who put all these weeds here!” Perhaps outside the devil, no one goes to the trouble to so weed seed in a neighbor’s field.
But we also notice that the devil isn’t the concern in our story. “What should be done with the field?” This is the question. Some want to cultivate the field. But doing so will only endanger the wheat by disrupting the root systems. We also know today something about darnel that our ancestors only observed. Wheatfields that also contained darnel had fewer insects. Darnel is often infected by an endophytic fungus that produces a natural insecticide. Having darnel present in a wheat field can actually protect the crop. The story ends with the landowner telling his workers to leave it be. The harvesters will sort it out when the time comes.
The explanation Matthew’s Jesus offers his disciples is interesting. Likely, Jesus’ movement is growing, and his followers, many of which think that he is a type of guerilla leader, want to make their move on the corrupt political leaders, their Roman occupiers, and heavy-handed religious leaders. An armed rebellion is on their mind. But Jesus is challenging their sense of method and timing. Moving right now with violence will cost a lot of good, innocent life. The good will be torn out with the bad, and then there will be nothing left to harvest, and thus, no celebration.
So, what do we have here? Jesus has just spoken to a mixed crowd. Present are some of Jesus’ original followers, John’s followers who are angry at his arrest, oppressed peasant farmers, and spies for religious and political leaders. The rebellion is growing, and some may want to move now, maybe even to break John out of prison. And Jesus looks out on the crowd, knowing he is being watched, and he communicates the strategic message, “Not yet.”
It would have been interesting to be there, to hear this humorous story in a crowd on edge. I wonder if we could watch the mood change as chuckles turned into the realization of what Jesus was really saying. “Don’t turn to violence. Innocent people will die too. Then we will lose the harvest we are fighting so hard for.” Did his words defuse the crowd? Did his humorous story disarm them, maybe literally? Did it change their understanding of violence, and the costs that come with it? Is this where Jesus’ followers began thinking of a different way, a nonviolent way of making lasting change?
There are so many ways we could think through this story and what it might mean for us. There’s something in this story about making premature judgments and being patient, not pulling those plants before we know what they are, or burning bridges with friends of family too early. Maybe we can consider this story as one about difference. The wheat and darnel and both given life under the sun and nurtured by the ground and rain. Michael Pasquarello writes this beautiful reflection, conceiving of a world where
The created goodness and dignity of all humankind is ultimately deeper and more enduring than our political, intellectual, cultural, and social differences. Rather than seeing the mission of the church as ‘fixing’ itself or ‘cleaning up’ the world according to our passionately held agendas, we are free to proclaim and live the good news of God’s reign for the sake of a messy world that appears for many to be a hopeless cause.
Or, we might just remark at the power of stories. Jesus calmed a crowd with this one. He managed to keep the authorities away a little longer too. What stories do you have, family stories, life experience stories whose sum is more than their parts? Is there a story the illustrates an inner kindness or strength? What about a story of resiliency or overcoming grief or a story that speaks to justice or equality? Would you even be willing to share one of those stories? We could undoubtedly draw on these stories now.
If you have a story to share, write it up, and send it to the united church of Hinesburg email, firstname.lastname@example.org, with the headline, “Parable.”
This week, may you reflect on the stories of your life, and what they’ve taught you about faith community, love, goodness, work, resilience, and justice. And may you hold onto these stories. They are more powerful than we can ever imagine.
“Saint Christopher and Saint John the Baptist” Jorg Glockendon, ca. 1480-1490. Wood cut and hand-colored. Public Domain.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 New Revised Standard Version
[Jesus continued speaking to the crowd, saying] 16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
25 At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’"
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Today’s gospel passage is a fascinating one that has something to do with criticism and confidence, doubt, and conviction. A little background helps us understand what’s happening here.
If you remember, there is a character in the gospels called John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. He was a cousin of Jesus, and at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John is living a vocal and ascetic life in the wilderness near the Jordan River. In Matthew’s third chapter, John is described wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Modern analogies are awkward for a person like John. Still, we might imagine him as a vegan who actively campaigns for animal rights or an off the grid environmentalist who chains himself to bulldozers. John was thoroughly committed to his cause, which had something to do with a return to God through corporate repentance of sins, ritual washing, and pious living. People from the regions came to John in the wilderness to hear his message.
The image we get from our gospels is that John was not a very “subtle” orator. He was highly critical of religious and political leaders calling them names and pointing out areas of corruption. He is deeply concerned for the impoverished and marginalized in Israel because they suffer most under bad leaders. But John is not all doom and gloom. He imagines and proclaims a coming leader that will be just and compassionate, a leader that will shepherd the people of Israel and lift up the let-down.
Calling leaders names, pointing out their corruption, and advocating for a different administration to an ever-growing group of followers go John in hot water. By chapter 11, John is in prison. At the beginning of our chapter, Jesus sends out his closest disciples to extend the reach of his ministry. They go about Judea and Galilee healing the ill, helping the troubled, and proclaiming an alternative way of life that stressed compassion, an end of oppression, and a closeness with God. While in prison, John hears about the work of Jesus, specifically that the movement is growing, so he sends some friends to find out more. In verse 2, they approach Jesus, asking, “Are you the Messiah, the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus’ answers,
“Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The answer is direct and tangible. Actual people are being transformed in physical, social, and spiritual ways because of Jesus and his followers. Change is really happening. This is the message that John’s friends take back.
As they leave, Jesus addresses a gathering crowd regarding John’s message and affirms a connection to his imprisoned cousin. After offering a commendation that feels a little like a preemptive eulogy, Jesus tells a strange little parable about children in the market place.
“This generation is like children who sit in the marketplace. They call out to one another, saying, “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song for us, but you didn’t mourn.”
The parable imagines children musicians gathered in a market place playing songs for one another. We might think of a bustling city center where street performers play for crowds. Sometimes we’ve stopped and listened, even throwing a few dollars in the till, while other times, we’ve walked past, off on the next errand. But the street musicians in Jesus’ parable are doing something a little different. The joyful music they played was for a wedding. The sad music they sang was for a funeral. Weddings and funerals are taking place in the streets, but no one is stopping. These reverent markers of life and death, joy and sorrow, go unnoticed or unwanted by the crowds.
“You see,” Jesus continues, and I am paraphrasing a little here, “John lived a godly, Spartan, self-disciplined lifestyle and called others to do the same, and people called him a ‘demon.’ I settled into our culture, eating and drinking, and folks say, ‘look a glutton and a drunkard who keeps bad company.’ But the wisdom in all this will be proved right by our actions.”
Jesus understands his mission and John’s as one and the same, even though their styles were very different. John is the bug-eating wilderness prophet, while Jesus does much of his work over grand meals with shady company. John wears scratchy shirts on purpose, while Jesus wears expensive perfume. John addresses his audience as a “brood of vipers,” while Jesus opens his most famous speech with a blessing. And while the two are wildly different in style, the reception is the same. Rejection. John is too strict, pious, and demanding. Jesus is too inclusive, compassionate, and worldly. Whatever John and Jesus are, they are too much.
Today's passage is the first time that Jesus addresses mounting criticism in the gospel. And it’s helpful for us to see the way he handles it. First, he acknowledges that there will always be critics. This hasn’t changed, even after two-thousand years. Much of our media is built on criticism. One of the few remaining things I miss about living in Boston is sports talk radio and how the hosts could still find ways to pick apart the Red Sox even if they had just won by ten runs or spend two hours criticizing the New England Patriots play calling after a Super Bowl win. It was entertaining to listen to in a silly, obnoxious sort of way. Likewise, politicians in this country can actually do their jobs really well and still face rabid criticism from the other side.
Alluding to those that walk by as the wedding march or funeral dirge is performed, Jesus also points out that the sources of criticism are complex. The music wasn’t bad; people were preoccupied or not interested. I know that I am most critical of others after I’ve had a rough day. In those moments, my words or actions are really spreading around the misery and not about being analytical. I’ve also noticed that I become overly critical when I binged on too many news stories in the day. Last year the comedian Patton Oswalt described how a family member was experiencing “Fox News Poisoning.” When the family member had the news channel on all day in the background, steeping in awful stories of human nature, non-stop criticism, and vitriolic tribal language, he was a big jerk. Conversely, Oswalt could tell when the television had not been on that day because his family member was the person he remembered, kinder, and compassionate.
While Jesus acknowledges that there will always be critics, he doesn’t blow off criticism in total. “Wisdom is vindicated by her actions,” Jesus says. The actions and outcomes of his work matter. What he does and how he goes about it matter. And he is willing to make changes when his actions do not line up with his mission. In a few weeks, we get an interesting passage where Jesus talks about the importance of good speech and then calls a Canaanite woman and ethnic slur. The Canaanite woman calls him on it, and in doing so, changes Jesus.
Feedback is our friend if we can hear it and allow it to sit with us for a while without getting defensive. Sometimes, once the energy of receiving criticism disperses, there is something helpful.
There’s maybe one more insight that the Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz mentions when reviewing how this passage has been read and interpreted throughout the centuries. Many have written about having similar experiences as Jesus, being unjustly criticized or rejected. But Luz was unable to find a single sermon, devotion, or theological treatise where the writer related to “this generation.” For Jesus, “this generation” has become so callused to life that it critiques style at the expense of content, all the while passing by truly momentous life events like the start of a family or the death of a community member. There’s a heaviness to this insight, perhaps a historical blind spot in our reflections on faith.
I wonder where we would go if we pulled on this thread a little. Can we read a good news story without feeling cynical these days? Can we be inspired by the stories of people working for social justice, prison reform, or a better healthcare system if they are from a different political party, race, or ethnicity? What metaphorical and literal weddings and funerals have we missed because our criticisms of family members, friends, and neighbors, broke relationships? Finally, are the criticisms we levy against churches, communities, states, and nations thoughtful analysis spoken to make life and community better, or do they come from projecting our own inner sadness, loss, or hatred on others? The thoughtful follower of Jesus will be self-reflective enough to examine the sources of criticism when they well up and resist breaking others because of our own brokenness.
We are all pandemic-ing together, and after several months of anxiety, altered schedules, and constant change, work-life and family life can get a little strained. I pray that your people are gracious with you this week, and I pray that you can be gracious with your people, knowing that our God is always gracious and loving.