~ Matthew 13:24-30 ~
On the surface Jesus’ parable of the Weeds is a straight story about farming. But what kind of farming is this? The practice of not pulling out weeds until harvest time is no way to run a farm. What could only be considered a neglectful way of farming only insures two very undesirable results. First, it contributes to the choking out of good plants. Second, it guarantees a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds to plague next season’s planting. Yet Jesus tells the story, flouting every known principle of agronomy.
Of course, we know it is not just a story about farming methods. We know that Jesus, despite his ignorance of farming, has a theological point to make. But, on the surface, his theological point seems to be just as bad as his bad farming method. As a result, the church has struggled to understand this story for two thousand years.
How does the church live in the world? Or, more to the point how are we as Christians supposed to deal with all the evil all around us? At least, that is how the dilemma is often expressed – So much evil, so many evil people – how is a righteous, pure Christian or church supposed to deal with it. And, of course, the church has tried many different ways. One way is isolation – do everything possible to distance ourselves from any possible worldly influences. Be as completely separate as possible.
Another way is personal isolation – the individual Christian is called to be separate from the world, refraining from all possible “worldly” activities. But more often then not the list of worldly activities is quite arbitrary – drinking, dancing, chewing…going with girls that do – and other “worldly” activities, such as participating in unjust economic practices or structural racism are not even questioned. The list of possible “worldly” activities from which the separated Christian is to abstain is potentially endless.
So, yet another method is to Christianize the world and remove all the evil practices – and those who practice them. Christian moralists from all over the theological spectrum have contemplated this method. And whereas one can point to specific attempts, such as prohibition or the banning of slavery, it has not resulted in eliminating the problem – evil and evil people continue to prevail. And, somehow, we are still left to deal with it and them. What is a good Christian to do?
It is in light of all these attempts by the church that Jesus’ solution seems most inadequate. Basically Jesus says, “Live with it.” Don’t even try to separate the good seed from the bad seed. That will all be taken care of in God’s own timing. In the meantime, just deal with it! True, there is the vindication thing at the end of the story. The weeds are gathered up to be bound in bundles and burned in an eschatological fire at the end of time. And for many Christians over the centuries that is just what they’ve been waiting to hear. The good are vindicated and the evil get what’s coming. Great! But consider for a moment the proportions of this parable. The words of judgment and vindication constitute only two thirds of the final verse. The rest of the parable (six and a third verses) is entirely about living with it all. Indeed, not just dealing with evil, but “forgiving” evil. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what Jesus is saying in this outrageous example of bad farming.
Jesus introduces his parable with yet another reference to the Kingdom: “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to…” And he goes on to say that “good seed” is sowed in the field. The good seed germinates and starts growing. But then something happens, something bad. Jesus says the “enemy” comes and sows weeds. The word Jesus uses for weeds actually refers to a specific kind of weed, darnel, which, interestingly, looks just like a stock of wheat. What does that say about the relationship between Jesus’ kingdom and the kingdom of the world? Well, it seems to me that efforts to get rid of evil by force are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests they will do. Since the troops available to fight the battle (meaning “us”) are either too confused or too busy, all they will accomplish by their frantic pulling out of the weeds is tearing up the good wheat right along with them. Worse yet, since good and evil in this world commonly inhabit not only the same field but indeed the same individual human beings – since there are no unqualified good guys any more than there are any unqualified bad guys – the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.
So the enemy has strewn his bad seed amongst the good seed while everybody was sleeping and then he went away. “So when the plants came up and bore grain,” continues Jesus, “then the weeds appeared as well.” The mystery of goodness grows quite of its own accord but the mystery of iniquity seems, unfortunately, to be doing just as well. The weeds may not be real wheat, but they look just like it. The enemy doesn’t even have to stay around. If the servants can only be enticed to take up arms against the weeds, then the enemy will have succeeded because a real disaster will have taken place. And it almost happens. Coming to the farmer, the servants are totally consumed with dealing with the evil. “Do you want us,” they ask the farmer, “to go out and pull up the weeds?”
“No!” the farmer says to them. “Pull up evil, and you’ll pull up goodness right along with it.” But then comes the most remarkable word in the whole parable: ‘Let’. “Let both of them grow together.” We should pause here to consider this word ‘let’. No, even more, we have to step on the brakes completely. The word in Greek aphete is often translated as “let” or “leave” – perfectly acceptable. But, importantly for our purposes, it is also commonly rendered “to forgive.” Indeed, this very word, apheta, is found in that most famous of prayers, the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
So consider: the malice, the badness, the evil that is manifest in the real world and in the lives of real people is not to be dealt with by attacking or abolishing them; rather, it is to be dealt with only by an aphete, by a letting be, by forgiveness if you will. I know what you’re thinking because it’s what I’m thinking: “How can we let or forgive evil to just exist and wreak havoc on the world?” Indeed, these days you might even be making a list of who those people are. I know I’m tempted to do such. If we let the evil go won’t that just result in more weeds which results in overwhelming all the goodness the kingdom seeks to promote and which results in God’s work getting squashed? Doesn’t that make it real hard for those of us who strive to live by kingdom values, to be the good seed…doesn’t that make it really hard to do God’s work of justice? Well, I guess the answer is “yes.” But that’s the way God has chosen to work, at least according to this parable.
I suppose that’s why we can finally heave a sigh of relief when Jesus comes to the “but-they’ll-get-what’s-coming-to-them-in-the-end” part of the parable. But when you think about it, what good does that do us, here and now? To be sure, Jesus does indeed end on the note of the ultimate triumph of justice. God is in charge, after all, and God will eventually deal with such stuff. But the great bulk of the parable is about living with the mess, in the mess. In the present circumstances of the world (which I should say are the only circumstances in which we find ourselves), the mystery of the kingdom is quite in charge doing its thing in the world.
Granted, this is a hard parable to come to grips with. So unsatisfactory! So messy! And it’s that messiness that I think makes us want to skip right to the very end for the judgment part. We like vindication. We want messes cleaned up. We like justice to prevail and evil defeated. We like the bad people to get what’s coming to them and we, the good people, get our reward. But this, this living with, this letting be, this forgiving evil people – that’s too hard.
In Jesus explanation of this parable he calls the weeds “the children of the evil one.” But let me ask: Is the word ‘evil’ too harsh? If we are all complicit somehow, if we are all compromised, if we are all a mixture of good and evil, do we really want to be using this word ‘evil’? Well, I could say, referring to that list I’ve made in my mind, “yes, ‘evil’ is the right word, for people do evil things; indeed, they are evil (at least more than me).
Let me complicate even more. Is it appropriate to say that the structural racism that permeates our country (and has since its very beginning) is evil? And, if so, since we all participate in that evil system, since we are all complicit to some degree or other, doesn’t that word ‘evil’ apply to us as well. True, there are those who overtly exploit and champion racist ideology and should rightly be judged for that. However, we who seek to listen and respond appropriately to the problem probably should be careful not to throw around charges of ‘evil’ indiscriminately. Argh! This is hard, isn’t it?
The issue of how to deal with institutional racism and the evil it has perpetrated is in the spotlight these days. And for good reason; it needs to be in the spotlight. And since it is such a complex issue people are all over the place on how to deal with it. For instance, of late I’ve encountered significant pushback to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram Kendi’s “antiracism” message, both of which I have referred to in recent sermons and discussions. Much of this pushback is from other progressives and Black racial activists. The issue, it seems, is that making white people feel guilty just for being white only makes them feel, well, guilty and doesn’t help them change. That telling white people to just shut up and listen isn’t conducive to constructive dialogue. True, they say, there are many whites who deny the existence of structural racism and that they are too defensive and do not want to confront the reality of our racist past and the current out workings of that legacy. And it might be quite understandable that those who have been in the trenches for decades resisting and fighting against this racism might just say forget them. If they’re not on board now they are not worth the time and effort.
But much could be said that it really is worth the time and effort to help those people who are in the weeds of racism denial to come around. Maybe we need to find a different word than ‘racist’. It has become such a pejorative, a ‘four-letter-word’ if you will, that just shuts down conversation. Maybe we’ve made the word mean too much. To make the word ‘racist’ apply to both the ideological, overt bigot and the unwitting participant in a racist society might not be helpful for the cause of justice and reconciliation. Some have suggested the word ‘racialized’ as a way to describe our complicity. Maybe less guilt inducing. Well, on this particular Sunday in July 2020 those are my thoughts. Who knows, they may change next week.
However, when it comes down to it, we all, wheat and weeds alike, live in this world together. Jesus calls us to be fully engaged in that world. So, let’s continue to be bad farmers just like Jesus.