Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
When I was a young adult, my family lived in New Hampshire. I don’t know how many of you have spent any time in New England, but the seasons of the year are a little bit different there than they are here. There is summer, which is beautiful with all the green trees and warm, but usually not terribly hot, weather. Then there is autumn, which we greeted with joy as the temperatures cooled off and the leaves of the trees turned brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows. Then there is winter, where the temperatures got even colder and, if we were lucky, we would have lots of snow to play around in. But we didn’t have spring: we had mud season. The temperatures would still be chilly, not warm enough for bright flowering azaleas and trees. But the ground would start thawing out and the snow would start melting, and everything was kind of just blah: gray and muddy. The mud was everywhere. Towards the end of mud season, though, the weather would start warming up and the grass would become green. And then, one day we would wake up and look outside into our front yard, and there would be a field of bright yellow flowers to greet us. Those beautiful bright yellow flowers were dandelions. My father would grumble about them because they were weeds. Our next-door neighbor, who had a perfectly manicured front lawn, would grumble about how the wind would blow the dandelion spores into his front yard, and then he would have to go out there with weed killer to get rid of the dandelions. But for my mother and me, that sea of yellow flowers was so beautiful after the many weeks of mud and bare trees, that we would not let my father do anything to kill them off. Society may consider dandelions to be weeds, but for my mother and me, they were life: resurrection after death.
One person’s weeds are another person’s wheat. That would be an apt introduction to today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat. This parable is a difficult one for us to hear, because it talks about divisions among people. Once we hear it, then it is tempting for us to say that we, however you define we, are the wheat and everyone who doesn’t think like we do are the weeds. But here’s the thing: those people that we are tempted to name as weeds, whoever “those people” are, are probably sitting over there saying that they are the wheat and we are the weeds. It is so easy for us, as sinful human beings, and as Americans who live in a very polarized society, to say the group that we are part of is the right one and the other one is the wrong one. In some ways, we are like the slaves of the householder who were anxious to pull up the weeds: we want only those people who seem to be good to live full lives, and we want to consign those who seem to be bad to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But, here’s the thing: if you look at pictures of the weeds that Jesus is describing in this parable, which are called tares, they look absolutely identical to the wheat. The slaves of the householder may have been able to tell the difference when looking closely, but more likely than not, they truly would have pulled up the wheat along with the weeds if they had gone out when they first spotted the weeds.
So, who are the people in your life who you think are weeds that should be uprooted? We all fall into this trap. Just the other night I was visiting with a friend and we were discussing political things, and we were casting judgment on certain politicians and wishing that God would hurry up and consign them to the outer darkness. But as frustrated as I am when things don’t go the way I think they should in politics, it is wrong of me to wish harm on any human being. Much as it pains me to admit it sometimes, even people that I disagree with are human beings, created in the image of God, and they are God’s children, too. And it is not up to me to determine whether or not a person is a weed or is wheat: that is God’s responsibility, and God’s responsibility alone.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s series of books that start with The Hobbit and that continue on with a trilogy collectively called The Lord of the Rings, there is a character named Gollum. Gollum started out as a hobbit-like creature, but when he found a magic ring, the powers of that ring corrupted him and led him to murder. His desire for the ring consumed him so much that he changed from a hobbit into a very ugly and disturbing creature. In the movie version of this story, Gandalf the wizard and Frodo the hobbit discover that Gollum is following them in order to get the ring back from them. And Frodo says that it’s a pity that Bilbo, Frodo’s uncle, hadn’t killed Gollum when he had the chance to. And in reply, Gandalf says, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” And in the end, Gollum, as awful a creature as he is, does play a role in the ultimate destruction of this evil ring.
As I said last week when we were discussing the parable of the sower, parables can have many interpretations and many ways of being lived out. But I think that the main point of the story of the weeds among the wheat is this: as a church, we will see many people that we don’t understand. We will not understand why they do the things they do: both people inside the church and outside of the church. We will want to condemn them. We will want to judge them. We will want to be the ones to cast them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But that is not our job. God is the one who, in the end, will do the sorting. And it is God, and God alone, who will determine our fate. And because we do not know whether we will be the wheat or the weeds, we should be humble, and we should be very cautious in how we speak about others. Our purpose as Christ’s church is to keep on participating in God’s mission, and telling the world about God’s love for us through Jesus Christ. And we let God be God, and we let God figure out who belongs where.
That is not to say that we passively let evil be evil and run roughshod over everything. As Christians, we can call out sinful behavior for what it is and still pray for the people who commit it—and that includes ourselves. As Christians, we believe that each one of us is sinful—that’s why we have confession every week. It is to acknowledge the fact that, even though we like to think we are good people, we still do bad things and we still forget to do good things. Confession keeps us humble and helps to remind us that, if God were not merciful, God could come in and uproot us like weeds. But the good news is that God is merciful, that God loves us, sins and all, and that God wants to reconcile all of humankind to Godself through Jesus.
So, what do we do? How do we fulfill our purpose and take part in God’s mission for the world? Matthew Skinner, professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, suggests that we start by hanging out with and getting to know the same people that Jesus did. These are the people who are on the margins of our society: those who are poor, those who are sick, those who are homeless, those who are immigrants, and so on, and find out what they need. And then, when we find out what the needs in our community are, we use the talents and the blessings that God has given us to help those people groups. When legislation comes up that affects the poor and those on the margins, we write to our government representatives in favor of legislation that will help them. We give of our possessions so that those who don’t have much can have enough to eat and to wear. Remembering that God has shown us great mercy, we act with mercy toward others, recognizing that we are all human beings and that we have no idea who are really the weeds and who are really the wheat. And we trust that God will sort it all out as necessary.
I received the monthly newsletter from Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster recently, and I want to tell you this story that the senior pastor used in his column. “Folklore tells of a bishop that was asked to attend a meeting at a deeply troubled and conflicted congregation. The brothers and sisters in Christ of the congregation could hardly bear being in the room with one another. The pastor looked like he had been with the revolutionary soldiers at Valley Forge all winter. As soon as the bishop opened her mouth to begin to speak, the vitriolic and violent yelling began from every corner of the room. Those speaking did not center on issues. Instead, they went right after the character of the bishop herself—even though she was not part of the conflict. It did not appear as if the anger would ever stop rolling off the tongues of the Christians in the room. Yet, after about 10 minutes of rage, there was an ever so slight pause in the warfare. In that moment of silence, the bishop is reported to have said, ‘You know, I have a mother too.’ Silence followed. During the silence, first, the people tried to figure out what she meant. Then, it dawned on them what she said. The bishop was claiming to be a human being just as were they, and insisting, as a fellow human being, that she be honored as such.” This story sums up a primary meaning of the parable of the wheat and the weeds very nicely. We are all human beings. Even when we violently disagree with one another, we dare not dehumanize the other person. Because, in the end, we really don’t know who the wheat is and who the weeds are. Only God does. So let’s be okay with being dandelions—beautiful flowers to some, and weeds to others. And let God figure out who is who. Amen.