Wheat and Weeds Together (July 11 – 17)

Sunday, July 17, 2011
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Weekly Theme
Wheat and Weeds Together

Weekly Prayer
O God of Jacob, you speak in the light of day and in the dark of night when our sleeping is filled with dreams of heaven and earth. May Jacob’s vision remind us to be open and watchful, ready to discover your presence in our midst. Amen.

Weekly Reading
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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.'”

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!”

All readings for the Week
Genesis 28:10-19a with Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 or
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19 or Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Focus Questions

1. Are there conflicts and divisions within your community, and “elements” that need to be “removed”?

2. Have you ever imagined God’s love as “fire”?

3. How do you respond to the image of God burning away all that “deadens humanity”?

4. Do you wonder what you’re supposed to do about the “evildoers” in the world? Does this parable help?

5. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the odds against you, like the weeds in this field of wheat?

by Kate Huey

Many of the same questions that trouble us also troubled the earliest Christians, including the community Matthew addresses here, in his Gospel. Matthew often uses language of judgment, decision and division, sometimes producing terrifying scenes of condemnation, as Thomas Long describes it, “stark, uncompromising, unequivocal pictures of good and bad spiced up with plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In response to our ancestors’ struggle with the presence of evil in their midst (not so much why it was there, but what to do about it), Matthew provides pictures and promises to help them endure and persist, even if their little church, and the big world beyond it, seemed infected and flawed by “bad seed,” the “weeds” sown by a power at odds with God’s vision for the world.

Once again, Jesus is teaching the gathered crowd in parables, as good Wisdom teachers did in that day (actually, they teach that way in every day). Later, in private, he explains the parable to his closest disciples, evidently leaving the crowd to wrestle on their own with his words, even as we do today, at the end of a sermon or Bible study. Matthew provides the kind of explanation of the parable that is thought to be more often the voice of the early church seeking “the” meaning of the parable. Barbara Brown Taylor reads parables not as direct answers to direct questions that we all have and want answered (clearly and specifically). Instead, she says, they deliver “their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious….Left alone, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding.” Parables are mysterious, and as we said last week, as soon as we “know” what a parable means, we’re probably mistaken. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of a parable, we’re probably getting a little closer to the heart of its meaning.

Once again, like last week’s lectionary reading, our passage contains a parable with images of sowing seeds. Last week’s sower liberally spread seeds on every kind of ground, with mixed results. This week’s sower presumably uses good ground, but also gets mixed results because of the actions of an enemy. There’s tension and conflict in this week’s story, active not passive resistance to the work of God the sower. Perhaps those early Christians had a stronger sense of their own powerlessness, feeling small and vulnerable (but definitely good) in opposition to the powerful but (clearly) wicked forces around them.

In any case, the parable doesn’t address the reason for the enemy’s actions. Instead, the focus is on the church’s response. The parable could be heard on two levels, our local and our wider realities, that is, the church and the world. What to do about “less committed,” “less faithful,” perhaps even “trouble-making” members of the church? God forbid that we have sinners in our midst! Never mind all those stories of Jesus eating with sinners, or his words about not judging one another: a religious community, after all, should work for perfection and purity. But Fred Craddock says there’s a tension between the compulsion to purge imperfection and the “obligation to accept, forgive, and restore….the task of judging between good and evil belongs not to us but to Christ.”

What do we do about weeds in the church?

Barbara Brown Taylor describes the frustration of “good” church members who recognize “weeds” in the midst of the church, which ought to be a refuge from the tainted world: “If God really is in charge, then why isn’t the world a beautiful sea of waving grain? Or at least the church–couldn’t the church, at least, be a neat field of superior wheat?” Then as now, “however the weeds get there, most of us have got them–not only in our yards but also in our lives: thorny people who were not part of the plan, who are not welcome, sucking up sunlight and water that were meant for good plants, not weeds.” Doesn’t this set up an either/or, Us and Them situation, where some of us are “wheat” and others are “weeds”? Who can tell the difference, and who can presume to pull the weeds without harming the tender wheat?

Religious communities, that’s who…at least we often presume to do just that, according to Richard Swanson: “Even communities that affirm the radical otherness of God, that claim that God is above and beyond all human distinctions, even such communities assume that, if we must divide Us from Them, God is properly on our side of the dividing line. Carefully developed theologies, balanced and nuanced and properly in awe of the majesty of God, retire to the other room when Us/Them divisions are being made.” Oh, sure, he writes, these theologies “will return to the discussion after the dirty work is done,” and it will be clear that the “Them” in the story will be at fault for the terrible things that have happened to “Us.” How often has religion been used to justify violent efforts (“the dirty work”) to eliminate perceived “weeds”? 

It’s not easy being wheat

Kermit the Frog may have claimed that “It’s not easy being green,” but Barbara Brown Taylor observes that it’s not easy being wheat, either, and having to compete with the weeds for fertile soil. How many people have thought they were doing the right thing, even if they use “hostile means” to rid the church of troublesome weeds, when they’re really doing the same thing that the slaves wanted to do? But, Taylor says, “the Boss said no.” Is it possible that the mystery of the parable has something to do with God’s timing, and our inability to judge or, for that matter, our unwillingness to trust in God’s own judgment? God’s judgment, of course, is always better for someone else than it is for us. Still, there is evil and wrongdoing, and surely we’re supposed to do something. Taylor says that “what the Boss seems to know is that the best and only real solution to evil is to bear good fruit. Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to mind our own business, so to speak–our business being the reconciliation of the world through the practice of unshielded love. If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest….”

The mixed field may be the church or it may be the world, but in either case, as one of my teachers long ago often said, “Thank God God judges us”–that in the end we won’t be the ones who judge ourselves or one another. Still, there is another way to look at this mix of good and evil, and that’s to look within ourselves, as several writers suggest. Thomas Long writes, “It is easy for Christians to look through the church windows at the world and to think of ourselves as God’s special insiders, the ones who will ‘shine like the sun’ in the end. We can relish with smug self-satisfaction the thought of worldly types being rounded up at the great finale, collected like weeds and burned up in the everlasting fire. However, we are, ourselves, a mixture of good and evil. Sometimes we are faithful, and sometimes we are not….” Jesus’ parable speaks of the burning of the weeds, as was customary in that time when weeds provided fuel for the fires (a good thing). It’s Matthew’s way to read fiery judgment into the story, terrifying us even centuries later. But couldn’t we see that fire as a purifying of all, Thomas Long writes, that “deadens humanity or corrupts God’s world. Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will, thank the Lord, be burned up in the fires of God’s everlasting love.” These are strangely, vividly reassuring words, strengthening words, sustaining words for us today just as they were for the very first Christians struggling to survive against the odds.

A “wave full of life and light”

Barbara Brown Taylor illuminates the difference between a parable and its explanation: “A parable washes over you like a wave full of life and light, but an explanation–well, an explanation lets you know where you stand. It gives you something to work with, a tool with which to improve yourself and the condition of the world in general….” (You can read her beautiful sermon on this text in “The Seeds of Heaven.”) But how then do we improve the condition of the world? That “practice of unshielded love” may be the key. It’s hard to be a faithful Christian, yet we remember that Jesus told us to love our enemies, and he observed, Holly Hearon writes, that “God sends both sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. If God shows such generosity of spirit, can [we] do any less?” The question is, can generosity of spirit change the world?

For Further Reflection

Jerome, 4th century bishop
The words the Lord spoke – “Lest gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them”–leave room for repentance. We are advised not to be quick in cutting off a fellow believer….”

Thomas Long, 21st century
The simple fact that the church always has its share of hypocrites does not make the gospel hypocritical, nor does it destroy the integrity of God.

Georgia Harkness, 20th century
The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.
Mother Teresa, 20th century
If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

Blaise Pascal, 17th century
There are only two kinds of [people]: the righteous who believe they are sinners, the sinners who believe they are righteous.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a source for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

You’re welcome to reprint this resource and use in your congregation’s Bible-study groups.

Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.