Proper 11 A
The Rev. Valerie A. Hart
July 18, 1999
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat
The lectionary readings are now in the midst of a group of parables about the kingdom of heaven. Last week we read the parable of the sower who sowed grain on the path, the rocks, the weeds and the good land. This week we read the parable of the weeds strewn among the good seed. Next week there will be a series of short parables about the kingdom.
One of the things that all the scholars agree on is that Jesus taught in parables. This was a common form of teaching among Rabbis of his time. Since they were teaching in an oral culture, that is a culture that was not based primarily on written word for only a select few were literate, the teachings had to be easy to remember and pass on to others. If we are writing down a teaching, it can be a complex theological statement, but if we are trying to remember something, it needs to be in an easily memorable form, such as a poem, a song, or a story. Think about what you remember from sermons you have heard. Almost everyone says that what they are most likely to remember are the stories. So, Jesus, speaking to an audience of everyday people spoke in stories, or parables. The word for parable can also can mean puzzle. So the parables are short, memorable stories that leave the person with a puzzle.
Jesus was content to leave his teaching in this unpolished form and trust his followers to wrestle with these puzzles as they remembered them. As far as we know Jesus never recorded anything in writing. He trusted that the stories would be remembered and that in the process of wrestling with the parables, the puzzles, a transformation would occur.
The parables then, are designed to get us thinking. They are like a Zen Koan that takes us out of our usual way of seeing things and leads us toward inner transformation. The one thing that all the parables have in common, is that they go against “common sense”. What sower scatters seeds all over the place? Who lets the weeds grow up with the wheat? Who sells all he has to buy one pearl? Who pays workers who have worked for one hour the same amount as those who have worked all day? Parables make us rethink things, cause us to wrestle with the meaning, lead us to new understanding and transformation.
Given this introduction, let us wrestle with the parable of the weeds among the wheat. Here we have a land owner, in fact evidently a rich land owner for he has servants, who goes out and does his own sowing of the wheat. There’s our first odd thing. Next, during the night an enemy comes along and sows weeds in the field. Now there is a dirty trick worthy of the twentieth century - going over to a competitor’s field and sowing weeds. When the wheat and weeds both sprout the servants come and ask the master whether he sowed good seeds. Wouldn’t you expect it to be the owner of the field who was concerned and would question the servants. If I owned a field that sprouted both grain and weeds I would be out there grilling the ones I hired to do the planting, but here it is turned around again. The servants are the ones who are concerned, the owner says to let them grow up together. The owner is not bent out of shape by this, he is not letting the enemy get him upset, he simple says to wait until the harvest and it will all get sorted out. You see, he will harvest the grain and bundle up the weeds to use as fuel for his fire (bundled weeds were one of the primary fuels at that time in that area). Neither will go to waste.
What are we to do with this parable? How shall we wrestle with it. Now this is one of the parables that has an interpretation in the Bible. It is an allegorical interpretation, that is making a one to one correspondence between aspects of the story and their interpretation. Rabbi’s did not speak in allegories, but the Hellenistic, or Greek, teachers of the time used allegories extensively. Very rarely do Biblical scholars agree on anything, but they all agree that it is extremely unlikely that Jesus actually made the interpretation recorded in Matthew. So, let’s put that interpretation aside for a while and look at the parable alone and within the context of other parables.
If you remember last week, we looked at the parable of the sower and in that interpretation the seeds were the word of God or the word of the kingdom. The sower than could be either God, Christ, or the followers of Christ who share the Word with the world. In that parable the weeds are the cares of the world and the lure of wealth that choke out the word. If we were to use that interpretation when looking at this current parable, what would we find? It would suggest that the word of God is sown in the field, but that the enemy comes and sows weeds or distractions. In our lives then, the word of God has been sown, but also all kinds of other things are sown into our minds.
What are the weeds that grow up? Well we each have slightly different versions, but mine include anger, resentment, hurt, and that rational mind that sometimes asserts itself with questions and doubts. Living in the end of the 20th century, I was taught to trust the rational mind. That the only things that are true are things that can be proved by the rational scientific method. That is one of those seeds that is deeply planted in me, and every so often asserts itself. And then there are the seeds of desire and consumerism that are regularly sowed into our minds by the media today. The idea that there is not enough to go around, or that we always need more. Those are weeds that sprout abundantly today. There are weeds of self doubt, weeds of fear, weeds of thinking that we aren’t good enough. All kinds of messages that we get from parents and movies, and advertisements. Messages that say we should look thin and young, messages that say we will know happiness if we live the lifestyle of greed and lust shown in the movies and TV. Messages that say we need to worry about the future, like the ads for life insurance that play on our fears that our families will be helpless without us.
Where is God in all these message? What about the message of the Word, which says that God is abundance, abundance of love? What of the seeds of caring and trust that have been sown in our hearts? These seeds grow up among the weeds. Sometimes it seems as if the weeds will choke out the grain, but this parable suggests that it is OK for the grain and the weeds to grow together, that we can trust that God will be able to sort it all out in the end. Perhaps if we try to rip out of ourselves these thoughts that I have indentified with weeds, we will only damage the tender shoot of grain that is God’s word.
I have seen this happen, that people get so upset by the thoughts and ideas that come into their minds that they attempt to rip them out and are therefore constantly in a state of inner struggle and pain. The joy and love of the word of God gets drowned out in the struggle to be perfect. On the other hand, if we accept that there will be weeds sown in us, and if we do not particularly nurture the weeds, but neither do we violently rip them out, we will find the grain growing stronger all the time. And who knows, maybe God will be able to use those weeds to build a fire with.
This idea that one should not try to too quickly or too violently to change everything at once is expressed in an Indian story. There once was a prince who was being attached by someone who wanted to take over his thrown (a coup attempt.) The prince fled the palace for the forest, where he found people who were willing to fight with him to retrieve the thrown. The prince than took his men and attacked the capital city and were easily repelled. That night, dejected and hungry he put on the disguise of a beggar.
A woman brought him into her home, took a ladle full of rice that was cooking on the fire and put it in a bowl for him. He was so hungry that he took his spoon and scooped up a large mouthful from the center of the bowl and burned his mouth.
The woman said, “You are just like the prince.”
Worried that she had seen through his disguise he asked what she meant.
She responded, “When you eat rice you need to start on the outside edges of the bowl where it has begun to cool off and then gradually work your way to the middle. By the time you get there, the center will also be cool.”
“How is the prince like that?” he asked.
“The prince has been trying to attack the center of the kingdom. If he starts at the edges where there are fewer defenses and works his way gradually closer to the capital, by the time he gets there the defense of the capital will have been weakened.”
Greatly inspired, the prince thanked the woman and changed his strategy, eventually regaining the kingdom.
So, one way of understanding this parable, is that it is a call for us to be gentle with ourselves. Accept the fact that we are not perfect, that we indeed have many weeds growing in us, and trust that God will be able to sort it all out in the end.
But what about the interpretation that is presented by Matthew. In that one the seed becomes the children of the kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one. If we are to take the children to be people we run into a problem, because it suggests that there are people who are not sown by God, that are not created by God. But our theology is that God is the creator of the whole world and all that is in it.
We do not follow a Gnostic belief system that there are some of us who come from the God of light and others who are not from God. So we need to see that the concept of children of the kingdom is more likely to mean the ideas, the concepts, the actions, the beliefs that are of the kingdom, and the children of the evil one represents that which is not of God.
It states that at the end of the age the Son of Man will send his angels and that they will collect all causes of sin and all evildoers. The causes of sin are the seeds, the ideas that have been planted that lead us toward sin, that lead us to miss the mark. Who are the evildoers? Are they the ones who planted the weeds in the first place? Are they the ones who have encouraged the growth of the weeds? It is not really clear. But these will be thrown in the furnace, burned for heat as the weeds are burned. Not as punishment, but just as a response to what they are useful for.
The final question is who will be weeping and gnashing teeth? It is in the passive voice, and it is not clear who is weeping and gnashing teeth. Who would weep over weeds being burned. Only the creator, the one who created the weeds along with the wheat, only the one who loves all of creation, only the son who calls all creation to God, only such a God of love would weep and gnash teeth that there were some weeds that needed to be burned.