Jesus 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.” ’ (Matt 13:24-30)
Thanks to my father, I’ve always been intrigued with gardening. I don’t like gardening; I’m not even particularly good at it; but I’m intrigued by it. From the time I was very young, my father graciously allowed me access to the kitchen garden which he lovingly tended – letting me wield the 3-pronged cultivator or hold the hose when it was time to water – but more often he got me to root out the weeds that invaded relentlessly year after year. Most of the time it was a pretty safe job – there was really no mistaking the feathery tops of the carrots from the distinctive purslane (he called it portulaca) with its radiating arms that lay flat to the ground and spread like wildfire. Not all weeds are as clearly identifiable, however, and of course I learned that the hard way – and that was the day I took matters into my own hands when he was at work and tore out a whole row of just-sprouted beets, I think it was, and carefully left behind the almost identical weeds that had been growing happily in among them. So – as I learned early in life, weeding is a tricky business. It’s easy to make mistakes.
Jesus speaks to us today about the tension between good and evil through the parable of the weeds and the wheat. It’s a peculiar parable because like most stories of this genre, it goes in a surprising direction. The slaves in the story appear more than eager to get into the field and uproot the weeds, to protect the good from the bad. They see the problem and are eager to remedy it. But the landowner counsels something very different – something counter-intuitive to the average gardener – telling them that by barging into the field now to root out the weeds, they may actually be doing more harm than good.
We might be tempted to take from this that God is telling us to ignore problems, to ignore evil; that we should just turn a blind eye and trust that things will work out all right in the long run – but I don’t think that’s it. The point is, rather, that rooting out evil is a tricky and complicated business, and not a simple black and white kind of enterprise. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how this tension is playing out in various countries around the world right now, as people of certain ethnicity or faith are being singled out and subjected to exclusionary or even life-threatening discrimination. The thing is, these attitudes and practices come from a place of presumed superiority and privilege, and I think we might all agree that humankind can ill afford the narrow-gauge thinking that puts up walls instead of building bridges.
In the parable, the landowner wisely suggests that in rooting out a bit of darkness we may just find that we have sacrificed a lot of light in the process….and perhaps that’s not a good trade-off….because we aren’t called to create more problems than we solve, nor do we have the luxury of holding people who are different than we are in suspicion or contempt, because heaven knows, we cannot see as God sees, or know as God knows. And so, I think the Good News of the parable is that God loves goodness more than God hates evil; and what matters is that we don’t sacrifice goodness in the service of other ideals.
In our parable, the master says, “Let the weeds grow. Until they have had time to mature, you can’t be sure whether one is a weed or a stalk of wheat.” By way of elaboration, the purslane in my father’s garden, it turns out, (and if Mr. Google’s information can be trusted) is an edible green with an amazing variety of phytonutrients; had we known that when I was a kid, it might have ended up on our dinner table and not in the compost heap. I think there’s a message in there somewhere about assumptions and seeing things through one lens, and one lens only; and one person’s weed is another person’s salad!
God’s priority for us is always to find and nurture the good in ourselves, in others, and in the world. Jesus lived this principle in his life – in his openness to the social outcasts of his day, in his affirmation of tax collectors like Zaccheus, and in his words of comfort to the penitent thief who hung dying beside him on Calvary. Jesus had a remarkable capacity to see past the tangle of weeds in their lives and decided instead to nurture the grains of wheat he knew were there, just waiting to burst into life. He calls us to do likewise because heaven knows, weeding is a tricky business.
Thanks be to God.
The Venerable Nancy Adams