St. John’s Lutheran Church
23 July 2023 + Lectionary 16a (8 Pentecost)
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
Rev. Josh Evans
As you already know from last week, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “country person.” I don’t know the first thing about farming, I can’t keep a houseplant alive, and – I can’t overstate this enough – I hate camping.
Meanwhile, this week’s parable picks up right where last week’s left off:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field…”
Oh good, another agricultural story.
What I do love, however, is a good revenge story. So maybe there are some promising, even redeeming, qualities here. The farmer goes out to sow good seed, and then, unexpectedly, their enemy comes under the cover of night to sow weeds … leaving a great big mess at harvest time.
“Where did these weeds come from?” the farm workers ask. “An enemy has done this,” the farmer casually replies. “Should we go root them all out?” the workers offer with great eagerness. Or, this part’s not in the text, but I like to imagine: “Should we go plant some weeds in your enemy’s field?” (You know they were thinking it…)
Much to my disappointment, the farmer doesn’t cave to the temptation of revenge, or even a strong-armed, quick-fix solution.
Instead, the farmer urges patience: “Let both of them grow together.”
As if another agricultural parable weren’t enough of a challenge for this city-dweller preacher, now I have to be patient? Not exactly my strongest quality.
That does seem to be the point though, albeit a little bizarre.
From a strictly agricultural standpoint, it does seem a little strange, even for me, to just ignore weeds. In the first place, you run the risk of the unwanted weeds inevitably choking out the good crops. Moreover, it almost guarantees a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds for even the next season’s harvest.
“Maybe Jesus was just not as good a gardener as he was a carpenter,” one commentator quips.
Or maybe, Jesus has something else in mind that really has nothing to do with plants.
The farm workers have a seemingly noble motivation: Something is rotten in their field. It doesn’t belong. And they want to get rid of it.
The problem is, the weeds do such a great job of blending in, the farm workers risk uprooting the good with the bad.
Such an approach also lacks the trust that what the farmer has sown can hold its own.
As the late Episcopal priest and biblical scholar Robert Farrar Capon points out in his stunning commentary on this parable, the enemy specifically comes while everyone else is sleeping.
The farmer hasn’t fallen asleep on the job. On the contrary, the farmer has done everything they can do for the sustenance and survival of their crops during the day; there is nothing more that need be done at night.
Left to itself in the safety of the ground, the seed now does the rest of the job of sprouting and growing on its own. And unlike the previous parable’s myriad threats of hungry birds, scorching sun, and choking thorns, there are no real threats to the seeds here.
All told, never once in this parable is the existence of the wheat threatened by the presence of the weeds.
Unless … in a fit of impatient, self-righteous, vengeance-seeking rage, the farm workers would get their way and be allowed to indiscriminately uproot everything.
Notice, too, that “the enemy” doesn’t stick around after sowing the weeds. Because he doesn’t have to.
As the famous prayer of Desmond Tutu begins, “Goodness is stronger than evil.”
Quite strong in fact … and sometimes to its own detriment, when goodness has a way of getting itself so worked up and caving to the very thing it is trying to overcome.
As Capon again puts it: “[The enemy] simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him. Goodness itself, in other words, if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind.”
Said differently, goodness, without a dose of patience and grace, can mess things up too.
Burning bridges is rarely helpful.
Tempting as it is to get riled up and engage in shouting matches with the “weeds” we want to uproot, that’s not the way of Jesus. There’s enough of that on certain cable news stations.
At best, it leaves us in our silos, surrounded only by the voices that nod and agree with us.
At worst, it leaves us in our silos, surrounded only by the voices that nod and agree with us.
In that space, there is no room for dialogue to be had, work to be done, good fruit to bear, and hearts and minds to be changed.
In short, there is no room for grace.
Like the farm workers who attempt to take matters into their own hands, there’s a danger in making the parables all about us. Whether it leaves us with feelings of shame and judgment over what terrain we are that the seed has fallen on … or whether it leaves us cut off from others or even uprooted ourselves in our own flustered anxiousness.
Meanwhile, God, who casts seeds abundantly and extravagantly, without regard to terrain, also urges us to patience, grace, and forgiveness.
“Let both of them – weeds and wheat – grow together.” It’s an interesting word choice in the parable, mostly lost on English readers, so it’s a good time to remind ourselves we’re reading a text in translation.
Here’s your Greek word of the day: áphete. As in: “Áphete both of them to grow together.”
“Let” or “permit” is one meaning of the word. “Forgive” is another. And, indeed, it’s the same word used in the text of the Lord’s Prayer earlier in Matthew: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
It’s not implausible, as Capon suggests, for an early Christian audience, speaking and hearing the liturgy in Greek, to make the connection:
“On hearing, therefore, that the farmer’s answer to the malice of the enemy was yet another áphete, they might well have grasped the Holy Spirit’s exalted pun immediately: the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the lives of real people is not to be dealt with by attacking or abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells; rather, it is to be dealt with only by … a letting be that is a forgiveness.”
(Maybe we should make Greek lessons a part of our Sunday School curriculum…)
Over and over again, Jesus urges his followers to patience, grace, and forgiveness:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“Love your enemies.”
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
“I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
As in the parable before, this one too reveals something about the nature of God, who is full of mercy and abounding in steadfast love.
And it is an invitation and a challenge to the church:
Be slow to judge and quick to love.
Embody mercy and forgiveness.
Be open to grace.
Be open to change and being changed.
That’s not an excuse to give up in the face of evil and injustice, or to neglect our baptismal calling to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
Quite the opposite: It is a reminder to remember why. To act with intention and to speak deliberately. To proclaim in the midst of evil, hatred, and division that there is another, better way.
What God has planted will sprout and grow, despite all efforts — sometimes including our own — to thwart it.
The kingdom of heaven has come near and is here, and there is nothing that can stop it.