Matthew 13:16-30; 36-43
July 20, 2014
Our need for certainty is insatiable. Human beings. All of us. We have such a deep-seeded need for certainty. We want to know what is right and wrong, good and bad. We want to know we are doing the right thing, making the right decision. We really want to know that we are a good person. We want to know who the bad people are.
I’m painfully aware of this in the realm of parenting. I think in our best moments we can all agree that it is not always clear what the best way to parent is. There’s a lot of grey area…a lot depends on the child, the personalities of the parents, the context. All too often, we know, there is no perfect way – no perfect choice or perfect path.
But Oh Boy! Just spend a little time on the internet reading interactions between parents who are sure they have it right, and are sure you are ruining your child if you are doing it wrong. It’s ugly. We can’t stand complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty – especially when it’s something as important as parenting. It almost feels like the less clear something is, the more clarity we claim.
Well, in this parable we do have some clarity – at least at the beginning and end. At the beginning we know that the farmer plants only good seeds and an enemy brings the bad ones. At the end we know the reapers sort out the good wheat from the bad weeds, putting the wheat safely in the barn and burning the weeds up entirely.
And Matthew, human that he is, gives us a “clear” understanding of what that all means.
Jesus is the farmer – he’s pretty clearly good. The good seed are the good people. The enemy is the devil. The weeds are the bad people. And at the end of time, when Jesus comes again, the angels will sort out the good from the bad – leaving the good people safely in the world and the bad people burning while being forced to listen to weeping and gnashing of teeth on their i-pods. That’s pretty straightforward. Pretty black and white.
But notice: these things – these really clear things – are out of our control…in Matthew’s thinking anyway. These are things that basically happen outside the human realm, at the beginning of time and at the end of time. He says that the evil one introduced the weeds – whoever the evil one is. There’s nothing we can do about this. Good seeds didn’t make bad choices, thus turning into weeds.
And the future, when wheat and weeds will be sorted out, is also outside our control. Matthew and his community believed Jesus was coming again. The author believed he was coming soon, to judge between the good and the bad. But he also knew that there was nothing people could do to affect that coming – to hasten it. It would happen when it happened. And only when Jesus returned would things be once again clear.
In the meantime….in the meantime. The question for Matthew was always about the meantime. Matthew and his community thought Jesus should have come by now, and so they were stuck in this odd time – stuck trying to figure out the messy world in which they lived. And this parable, for Matthew, is a meantime parable.
Jesus’ parable turns on the weeds that appear in the good field of wheat. The workers are distressed by this, and want to take care of the problem immediately by pulling them out and getting rid of them. What the wise farmer knows is that this particular weed that is popping up among the crop looks an awful lot like wheat. You can’t know for sure, and, as he tells the workers, “In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them”. The time when you can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad is muddled; and the muddled middle is exactly where the author found himself.
While there might be a time in some future end times when all will become clear, the farmer is telling us we can’t really tell the difference, so sometimes it’s best to just not do anything at all.
We can’t control whether there is evil in the world, and we can’t force Jesus to come again to reveal all truth. In the meantime, we are where we are – weeds and wheat tangled together, sometimes indistinguishable from one another. It is, for Matthew, the state of humanity…the state of the world. We have wheat and weeds, and we can’t always tell the difference. Or, more accurately I would argue, they are both both. In other words, wheat can at times have the properties of weeds, and weeds can have the properties of wheat. What we have is weedy wheat and wheaty weeds. That’s why you can’t pull out one without pulling out the other.
In the meantime, between the origins of the universe and the end of time, clarity disappears. And humans…well, we don’t like that. In fact there is a great irony in this passage – one the author did not intend. It actually makes me smile and wish that I could be friends with the author of Matthew. In this great parable about clarity being unavailable to us most of the time, Matthew provides a neat, tidy, clear interpretation of the parable for his readers.
You see, the explanation Jesus gives the disciples is, we can pretty well determine, not really Jesus’ explanation. It’s the author’s. Parables, Jesus has already assured his disciples, are not meant to be clear…they are meant to confound – to be hard to figure out. But Matthew can’t resist taking a parable and making a perfect one-to-one analogy. Field = world. Farmer = Jesus. Reapers = angels. Etc.
And I, of course, stand before you as living irony as well. It’s why I want to be Matthew’s friend. I can’t help but try and figure out what this means. I can’t help but try and figure out what the whole bible means. This parable sends us down a little bit of a rabbit hole that way. And in doing so, it proves its own point. In trying to find a definitive meaning, we’ve already missed it. But, this is a rabbit hole I just can stomach going down…I suspect that might have something to do with my job J.
We don’t like ambiguity. In fact, often we try to pretend it’s not true. We happily pull things out of the ground we are sure are weeds…even when we can’t tell the difference…and willfully ignore all the wheat we’re pulling out in the process. Just ask Gail Greenwald how hard it is to tell a weed from a valuable plant. She’s working on the landscaping at the library, and it turns out there can really be quite a few different opinions about what actually constitutes a weed.
We just don’t have to look far for examples of this rooting out the weeds problem. There’s plenty of hatred in this world, and hatred itself is predicated on the idea that I am good and you are bad. I’m talking about hatred…real hatred. Not just disliking someone, but Israeli – Palestinian hatred. ISIS – US hatred. Each believes they have a claim to the truth – to the moral high ground. And so each seeks the complete destruction of the other.
We can see this in ourselves as well. We try to get clarity about ourselves, and in doing so we oversimplify the complex human beings we are. We try to figure out what in us is good and what is bad. And we try to slice out all the bad stuff. But often we find that in slicing out what we think is bad, we lose some of what makes us human…what makes us who we are and what we are meant to be. Anger must be bad, right – so we repress any inkling of anger we feel, and in the process, out goes anger at injustice; out goes the passion to address injustices in our world.
Some of the best things about us as individuals can become our great downfall. And some of those things we think are so ugly, and we hide them out of shame, are revealed later to be the leaven of compassion and creativity. That muddled mix of weedy wheat and wheaty weeds, that whole mix is what makes us who we are. And maybe this parable is telling us we shouldn’t work so hard to be something we’re not.
In fact, the parable indicates that, at least sometimes, we should do nothing. This is not our strong suit either. We are fixers…even when there is really, truly, no solution, we try to fix anyway – often making things worse.
Now, this passage is but one in a giant collection of passages we call our scriptures. This parable doesn’t answer all questions. It is cautionary, but not absolute. We know the gospel message is not “Oh, the world is so complex so just throw up your hands, sit back on the couch and relax.” We do have to act in the midst of the complexity. For one thing, we know that inaction is often itself action – an affirmation of the status quo. We do have to seek justice, love others, embrace the enemy. What those look like will never be as clear as we would like it to be, but we are called to this nonetheless – and sometimes that does mean action.
But we are cautioned here that action is not always the best thing.
In the context of our complex world, here are my take aways from this parable. First, it’s a “take a breath” parable. When you think someone is not parenting correctly and needs to be told so, take a breath. We do need to make decisions. We do, at times, need to call people out and name the truth of injustice. We certainly need to stop abuse when it’s happening. But each time, when we think we’ve got it right, and we’re ready to take action, we should take a breath – probably a couple of breaths – and wonder if maybe this is one of those times when the best action is no action at all.
Was Sadaam Hussain bad? Yes. Was he horrific? Yes. Would people be better off without him? Yes. He was pretty clearly a weed. And we thought we knew exactly how to pull him up in order to let the wheat thrive. But we didn’t stop to breathe. We didn’t stop to ask ourselves if our method of extraction would take down a heck of a lot of wheat with the weed. We didn’t stop to ask ourselves about the complexities – was there anything good about him or his rule that would be lost in the slash and burn? We knew right from wrong…and he was wrong. So we started yanking up the weeds, and now the field is full of carnage.
Second, I think this is a parable about humility. It’s a reminder that we ourselves are rarely all wheat or all weed. And in that lies the all-too-important reminder that everyone is a glorious mix of wheat and weed.
That national discussion about the kids at the border seems to turn on figuring out whether they are wheat or weeds. Either the kids are completely innocent victims, or they are conniving, scheming foreigners who know just the right thing to say to game the system. We need them to be all one or the other so that we can be perfectly clear on what the right solution is. But that kind of thinking tends to lead to the wrong solution…or at least one that lacks the nuance the situation demands.
Weedy wheat and wheaty weeds. It’s hard to tell the difference – at least in the world as it stands now. Matthew tries to offer clarity even as he struggles with how to live in a world of ambiguity. We look for clarity where there is none. So, we take a breath. We resist the temptation to always try to fix things that can’t be fixed. And when we do act, we do so with some combination of courage, conviction and humility. We make our best guess remembering the wisdom of the farmer; In gathering the weeds we might uproot the wheat as well. So when we head out to farm the fields of the world we need to weed very, very carefully. Amen.