July 23, 2017
William G. Carter
Last week, we heard Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a sower who throws seed all over the place.” The sower is generous, casting about the seed without restriction or preparation. Some of the seed grows, some does not. So here is the next parable of the kingdom:
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.’”
With all the summer rain and a full schedule, it has been a while since I’ve been on the riding mower. So on Friday afternoon, I took my turn to mow the yard. The dew had burned off, the grass was dry. I fired up the Briggs and Stratton, lowered the blade, and took it for a spin. The job took about 45 minutes and it was done.
Yet as I circled the front yard for the first time, I realized my lawn is full of weeds. Now I knew there were a few. A weed-and-feed expedition earlier in the spring eliminated most of the dandelions. It seems other undesirables have invaded our plot of land.
That’s a big deal in the suburbs. Everybody wants a perfect yard. A perfect yard represents a perfect home. Some neighbors spend a lot of money to have professional chemists spray their soil. Most of these consumers want a guarantee that they will remain weed-free. That’s what they are paying for, after all. You know as well as I, if there is a guarantee, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
One man I know tried a number of lawn services, to no avail. Being a tightly controlled sort, the weeds greatly upset him. So one year, in a scorched earth attempt, he killed all the vegetation on his lawn. He wiped it all out, grass included. Then he trucked in a lot of top soil and spread it around. With the best Scotts Premium tall fescue he could buy, he reseeded the entire yard. Guess what? The grass came up. It was beautiful. And then the weeds came back. They had to send him to a padded room for a short vacation.
Where do the weeds come from? It’s the recurring question in lawn care and life. If Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a gardener who throws around a lot of seed,” his very next episode is about the reality of weeds.
There are weeds in every field. Weeds in every family: even if the kids are raised with safety and good nutrition and the grandparents are healthy, somebody gets sick, somebody else goes off the rails, and somehow there is always a crazy uncle. It would be nice to think every family is perfect, but we know better. There are weeds.
There are weeds in every business. The enterprise is created, the product identified, the factory built, the workers are trained. And then a machine breaks down, or one of the workers sneaks out a product under his shirt, or somebody in the financial department is caught cooking the books. Weeds!
There are weeds in every church. We don’t want to believe that, but it’s true. Good people respond to the casting about of the seed of the Gospel. They congregate, they sing, they worship, they declare their love for Jesus and one another. Suddenly a bit of gossip invades like a pestilence. Or a weak soul is tempted by all that goodness. Or something sinister happens in the dark shadows of the choir room. Weeds.
It’s difficult to deal with the reality of weeds. When a young adult went looking for his first house, he found a possible home in a nearby village, took a tour, and came back laughing. “I crossed it off the list immediately,” he said. “The owner had paved over the front yard.” That’s one response to the weeds, I suppose.
Somebody told me about a middle aged minister of a church. They said he was “seasoned;” I think they mean “worn out.” He said he was going to start a new church. There would be a steeple, a sanctuary, and one pew large enough for only one person: him. “That’s the kind of church I want,” he said. “Just me and God, nobody else.” No weeds in the garden.
In the parable that we’ve heard, the servants come to the owner of the house and ask, “Should we pull up the weeds?” It’s a reasonable question. The landowner is the Sower who has cast about “the good seed.” It was pure and perfect as he threw it about. But then something happened, some kind of corruption crept in.
It’s easy to ascribe that to an enemy, to some unseen villain who sneaks in late at night and taints a perfect crop. Now, I know – that’s ridiculous in real life. My next door neighbor throws broken tree branches back into my yard, but I don’t believe she would ever sneak over and blow dandelion seeds in our direction. Well, she might – but I don’t perceive her as “an enemy.”
So I wonder if the landowner is overstating the case. There are some weak-hearted Christians who think the devil is as powerful as God, but that’s nonsense. God made the world. God made the squirrels and the pine cones and the sea turtles and the silver mountains. Then God called it all of it “good.” There’s no devil with that kind of power. The devil is a liar; he’s never as important as he says he is.
But there is corruption. God's good creation is mysteriously tainted. The Psalmist knew that; we recited Psalm 12 today. Remember the final verse: “On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.” Maybe you came to church to forget about that, but church is about reality. And the reality is there are some weeds in the wheat. The parable says, “When the wheat bears its grain, that’s when the weeds become obvious.”
And the question is what do we do about that? If there is good and there is evil, some want to pluck out the evil. Pull the weeds. That is an understandable response.
Every once in a while, you hear about somebody who wants to purify the world, or at least their corner of it. They will go in there and separate the weeds from the wheat, the tainted from the pure, the evil from the good, the goats from the sheep, the left from the right. They are on a crusade to restore things to the way they were intended to be. We might even hear somebody come along and say, “I’m going to drain the swamp.”
Well, how is that working out? It doesn’t work out so well if the swamp is already inside of you. It is impossible to clean up the world if your own hands are dirty. And do you know why that is? Because the enticements of corruption are always greater than the purity who think they are good.
Nevertheless, every once in a while, someone will try to start pulling the weeds. A church leader may look around, see some empty seats, and say, “We are carrying some people on the membership list who do not come, do not participate, or do not give. It’s time to clear the roll.” Now this is usually said with the best of intentions. But if there’s a problem with the initiative, it’s the presumption that “I alone” – or “we alone” – can call ourselves pure, and point to “they” who are not. With all pastoral authority, I say get off it.
Every so often in my pastoral work, I come across a dear soul who wishes to divide the world into two categories: “Christian” and “Everybody else.” And they are absolutely convinced that they know what “Christian” means. There is usually a checklist of a lot of observable behaviors, like “don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t chew, or date the girls that do.” Why do we have to reduce the Christian faith to observable behaviors? Should we ever make decisions based on mercy? Forgiveness? Love? A second chance?
And then, the dear soul might say, “We shouldn’t put that person on a committee because he’s not Christian.” Or because “she’s not Christian enough.” You know what that is? It’s a desire to pull the weeds, to keep the field pure, to present the church to Christ spotless and without blemish.
It sounds so right, but it can go so wrong. Because for one thing, all of us are a work in progress. It is not harvest time yet. And for another thing, who made any of us the arbiter of who is Christian and who is not? Who gets to decide who belongs to God and who does not? Who has enough purity to weed the garden?
According to the New Testament, it is Jesus Christ alone who will present the church spotless and without blemish. And do you know how he can do it? Because he has forgiven every sin. So Jesus is the one who says, “Leave the weeds alone. Don’t touch them. Don’t uproot the good wheat by presuming you can identify and extract a weed.”
One of the intriguing details of this parable is that the “weeds” actually have a proper name. In Greek, they are called “zizania” What’s zizania? It is a plant that looks just like wheat, probably what contemporary botanists call “darnel.” The point is when zizania grows alongside wheat, you can’t tell the difference. You cannot distinguish. You cannot differentiate.
So one of the points of the parable is “do not judge, lest you be judged.” Our own vision is not clear. Our own clarity is more obscured than we realize. And maybe, at least for the time being, there are a few weeds in our own garden. And maybe God still has to do some work in us.
See, this is how I know that Jesus is a Calvinist. For all his righteousness and clarity, John Calvin would never finally conclude that he himself was righteous or clear. He would say that everybody, no matter how pure they believe themselves to be, that everybody bears the seed of corruption. Even our best efforts can be tainted by self-interest and twisted out of shape by evil.
So if you think you might be pulling up the weeds, you could end up destroying the wheat, the good crop of wheat. This is why we need a Savior, somebody who sees clearly and ultimately will do the final sorting. The day will come, says Christ, when the fisherman’s net has caught all kinds of fish, and the good will be separated from the bad. The day will come, he says, when the sheep will be separated from the goats, all on the basis of whether or not they learned to show compassion and care.
So Jesus says, “Leave it alone.” When it’s harvest time, better hands than ours will handle it.
Is he saying, “leave it alone”? Well, in a sense, yes. But Jesus never says we should acquiesce to “the evils that we deplore.” Faithful Christian discipleship always works for good. It works for God’s good, and it works for the the public good. We must never be naïve and declare “everything is beautiful.” Neither must we give in to the evil and say with cyncism, “There’s nothing we can do.”
Ten years ago, columnist David Brooks interviewed a young politician named Barack Obama. It was a genial conversation, and Brooks discerned that Mr. Obama read a lot of books. Suddenly Brooks asked out of the blue, “Have you ever read the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr?”
Obama sat up straight and said, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” Brooks said, “What do you take away from him?”
With a rush of words, Obama said, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard. We cannot swing from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
So I was thinking about all of this while I was mowing my heavily weed-filled lawn. It gave me a lot to think about. It was a hot day, so when I was finished, I asked Jesus if he wanted to join me for a cup of cold water. We sat down on my front porch and had a little chat.
He looked at the front yard and said, “It looks pretty good. Your wife will be proud of you.” I said, “Thanks, Lord. It’s a job that needed to get done.”
We sat for a minute. I took a sip of that delicious cup of water. Then I got up the courage to ask, “But what about the weeds? There are so many weeds. Even if I had the energy or the inclination, I could never get rid of the weeds.”
He smiled and said, “Leave them alone.”
I started to say, “But the weeds…” He interrupted me to say, “It’s my field.”