8 Pentecost, Proper 11 – July 23, 2023
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

         We live in a world where judgment and criticism are a way of life. A day never passes when we do not make a negative comment about something someone else has done. We criticize people for the way they dress, for the way they talk, and for the things they do.

But in today’s gospel story, we hear Jesus tell a parable about wheat and weeds, good and evil, and ultimately judgment.  The slaves of a landowner notice that there are weeds growing in with the wheat crops.  You may know that the weed which is commonly called ‘Bearded Darnel,’ is a type of grass that initially looks just like wheat. However, unlike wheat, the seed of this weed is poisonous.  They mimic the look and color of nourishing grain, but they’re fake, and their seeds can cause illness and even death if consumed in large quantities.  The landowner states that an enemy has come in and maliciously sown this weed into the wheat crops.

We can easily imagine two farmers who have developed a rivalry. Perhaps one of them had better luck in his crop runs last season. Instead of congratulating him, his neighbor lets envy and resentment smolder. When seedtime comes, he goes in at night and sows weed seed where the successful farmer has just sown good seed in his field. An impatient farmer would probably order his field hands to get out there as soon as the weeds begin to sprout. But the farmer Jesus has in mind is experienced with this sort of thing. He patiently explains that there is too much danger of pulling up the good grain along with the weeds, and their profit will be lost. If they wait until harvest time it will be easier to identify the weeds for what they are, and they can be pulled up and bundled, and thrown into a fire. Then they can safely harvest the good grain and take it to the threshing floor.

When we look at this explanation there is a temptation immediately to try to identify the good grain with people we like and respect, and the weeds with people we dislike and distrust. It’s just not that simple. Remember, the weeds closely resemble the good grain. As was the case with Samuel trying to choose which of Jesse’s sons should be anointed as Saul’s successor, we can’t always tell the true character of another person just by looking. “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16:7)

Jesus insists on patience, humility, and restraint when it comes to patrolling the borders of his precious field.  He asks us, even as we acknowledge the pernicious reality of evil, to accept his timing instead of ours when it comes to destroying it.  Why?  Because he knows, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it so clearly, that the business of discernment is much harder than we think it is: “Turn us loose with a machete and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare.”

In other words, there is no way we can police the wheat field without damaging the wheat.  There is no way we can rid ourselves of everything bad without distorting everything good.  When we rush ahead of God and start yanking weeds left and right, we do terrible harm to ourselves and to the field.  Our sincerity devolves into arrogance.  Our love devolves into judgment.  Our holiness devolves into hypocrisy.  And the field suffers.

There is a line in the movie, “A River Runs Through It,”…The narrator was quoting his father when he said “I only know two things for certain in this life. First, there is a God, and second, I’m not him.” That’s why it is so unfair of us to make judgments about peoples’ lives. We’re not God. We don’t know the baggage they carry. We don’t know the scars upon their hearts. All we know is what we see on the outside, and according to the gardener in the parable, that’s not enough information to start pulling weeds.

Could it be that even in the weeds – even in the weediest people we know – could it be that God has sown some wheat? Could it also be true that, in time, God will carry out God’s weeding process in their lives, so that good wheat will begin to grow where only weeds were once visible?

Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Please be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet.’ ? You know, like I know, that even in our own lives there are more weeds than we care to admit. Our secret weeds of which we are ashamed and embarrassed. Oh, we keep those weeds well-hidden so that no one will see us and judge us, but we know that they are there,  and so does God.

Life is a process where God, by God’s amazing grace, thins out the weeds and makes us wheat once again. God never gives up on us…ever! God would never say “Oh, that garden has gone to the weeds, so I think I will just ignore it and let it die.”

And that’s the first lesson we learn about the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds: The kingdom of God is a mixed bag, in which it’s not always clear which is the wheat and which are the weeds. We’d do well not to try to judge one from the other.

And the second lesson to learn is that, when it comes to human nature, not one of us is ever completely a saint or a sinner, but a combination of both. One of my favorite theologians, Mr. Rogers, used to say: “Have you ever noticed that the very same people who are bad sometimes are the very same people who are good sometimes?” Which reminds me of a little piece of wisdom I’ve shared before entitled, “Two Wolves.” It goes like this:

“An old Cherokee once told his grandson about a fight that was going on inside of him. He said it was between two wolves. One was evil: Anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, gossip, resentment, and false pride. The other was good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf do you think will win?’ The old Cherokee replied, ‘The one I feed.’” (Anonymous)

Evil is real, but it is not ultimate. It never has the last word.  Our preoccupation with the weeds shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing the wonderful conclusion of the parable: how indeed the harvest does happen; an abundance of wheat is gathered in, enough to make landowner and farm hands rejoice together. The weeds in the field have no power to stop the realization of this bounty. The seed was good, and it bore, through adversity, a fruitful harvest. And so the parable ends on a note of brilliant triumph about that harvest: “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”   Amen.