“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.