July 20, 2014
- Sixth Sunday After Pentecost.
- Lissa Wray Beal
Genesis 28:10-19, Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-43
After a week such as this, one can only wonder at Jesus’ approach to gardening. We have seen much evidence of the work that “an enemy” has done in our world.
- Civilian planes are blown out of the sky – and the unthinkable is that flight MH17 was shot down intentionally over the skies of Ukraine. By one side or the other. . . in order to garner public opinion and world support
- 5-year old Nathan, and his grandparents, the Liknes’ are no longer sought as “missing.” They are now considered dead and Douglas Garland is charged with murder. A business deal gone deadly wrong, and a quiet bedroom community set amidst fields of canola and wheat wonders where – and if – their remains may be found
- Early Saturday morning, Lorie Bearbull, a loving mother of three children is found stabbed in a back alley in Winnipeg and dies after being rushed to hospital. Her family is devastated, wondering who would do such an evil thing.
In the face of these and other terrible happenings in our world, Jesus’ parable this morning is hard to understand.
The kingdom of heaven – God’s rule – he says is like a field planted with good seed. But while everyone slept, an enemy came and overseeded the field with weeds. Over time, the wheat grows. But so do the weeds. “Where did these weeds come from?” the gardener’s servants ask. “Shouldn’t we pull them out?” they ask.
And the words of the owner are strange. “An enemy has done this.” Well, yes. But there is no other explanation given; no elaboration of how, or why. But his next words are even stranger: “Leave them alone until harvest time. You don’t want to uproot the wheat along with the weeds.”
This does not seem a good gardening strategy! I am a gardener. A few years back I noticed that a section of my garden was being invaded by weeds and grass. I was too busy – or maybe too lazy? – to attend to it right away. Over the years, the weeds took over that patch of garden. And the lovely, good plants that were there? They slowly died. Choked out and unable to compete for moisture and nutrients. The weeds got those.
So Jesus’ words seem counterintuitive here. I’d think maybe some good weed-and-feed. Or some cultivation. Something to give the wheat a fighting chance. But nothing.
No wonder, of all the parables of the kingdom of heaven Jesus gives in this chapter – and remember, we had the parable of the sower last week. And next week we’ll look at two more from this chapter: the mustard seed, and the yeast-in-the dough – of all these parables, it is this one for which the disciples ask an explanation: “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”
So Jesus does: the Sower is the Son of Man: Jesus. The field is the world. Jesus sows good seed: the children of God’s kingdom – those who have come into his kingdom. But amongst these children, an enemy – the devil – sows his own children. And Jesus’ solution? Let both of them be. One day – at the far end of the age – there will be a harvest. Jesus will collect out of his kingdom all that is evil: sin, and all evildoers, and they will be judged. And once all is put right, the children of the kingdom – the righteous – will be freed and shine like the sun.
So we really aren’t talking about gardening, after all. We are talking about the reality of God’s rule in this world. There are those whom God brings into his kingdom – who acknowledge him as Lord of all, and walk in his grace. But there are those who willfully and fully reject that kingdom, and even work against it.
And I wonder: why does this parable leave the weeds in the field until the harvest time? My suspicion is that we’d rather see the weeds – all the evil – out of our world now. But Jesus lets the two live in our world side-by-side.
Judgment will come. But not on our timetable. And Jesus leaves (in this parable) that huge issue of judgment at that. For he wants to focus elsewhere.
And that “elsewhere” starts to become apparent when we engage another question this parable raises: why isn’t the good seed – the children of the kingdom – choked out by the weeds? Isn’t that what we would expect from this gardening metaphor? How is it that the children of God are not choked out by the weeds? Doesn’t evil seem often much stronger (like weeds are!) than good?
And there isn’t even any human help in this parable. No notice taken of community encouragement. No fertilizers. No pesticides. Nothing that helps the good seed keep its ground.
But isn’t that really the point of this parable? If God sows the seed, isn’t that enough? If God is building his kingdom, doesn’t he have the power to sustain it, even in the face of horrible evil? If God through Christ draws people to acknowledge God’s sovereign rule over all – including over our own hearts – isn’t that sovereignty enough? Enough power. Enough encouragement. Enough fertilizer (if you will) to enable the children of God to keep growing. To hold on. And more – to grow and produce fruit.
This is, I think, the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. It grows. . . because of God. Fundamentally, nothing else enables God’s people to flourish in this world. In the face of powerful evil, there is the mystery of God. Building his kingdom, flourishing his people. Even in the face of terrible, and powerful evil, God is more powerful. His ability to bring life cannot be undone.
Now, there is something else I find interesting in this parable. It is that the weeds are just so obvious! No one has to bend over them, wondering if they are seeing weeds, or a new kind of wheat. When I drive out to the school, I pass many farmers’ fields. I’ve noticed this year that there is one field in which scattered throughout it are tufts of thistles. I don’t even have to get out of the car for a closer look. One glance and I know there are intruders in this field.
But is it really that easy to make such identifications?
Let me tell you about one of my favourite movies: The Witness. A 1985 Harrison Ford movie directed by Peter Weir (who makes lovely films, even when – like this one – they explore violence). Weir explores the boundaries of innocence and culpability; of good and evil. In The Witness an Amish boy of 6 or so travels with his mother through Philadelphia. While there, Samuel witnesses a brutal murder – as the murder takes place, the camera zooms in on his eyes and we see there innocence; shock; disbelief. To protect him and his mother Rachel, the detective John Book flees with them back to Amish country. One morning, Samuel finds Book’s loaded gun and plays with it. Thankfully, he is discovered before something terrible happens. That evening, Samuel’s grandfather Eli takes the boy on his lap. The gun is set before them on the table. Eli tells Samuel that the gun is used to kill people. That the Amish are peaceful and don’t take up weapons. Eli asks Samuel, “Would you kill someone?” Samuel replies, “I would only kill the bad man.” “Only the bad man. . . (responds Eli). . . ah, I see. And you would know this bad man? You would look into his heart and know if he is good or bad?” Samuel responds, “I would know by what he does. I have seen it.” And Eli closes the conversation, “And so, you would take the gun into your hand? Then you would take the gun into your heart, and you would become the bad man!”
It is not always that easy to know the wheat from the weeds. And even within the children of God, there can be a fair degree of the enemy’s work. “Wretched man that I am!” says Paul, “that which I don’t want to do, I do, and the very thing I want to do, that I don’t do! . . . Who will save me from the body of this death?!
The fuller reading of scripture helps us to understand that Jesus’ parable speaks to one issue: how God enables his children to grow in an evil world. But it is not meant to fully explain all aspects of the world, or his kingdom-children.
And that, I think, is where the story of Jacob is so helpful to us. Jacob encounters God in a certain place. He sees the vision of God. Hears God reaffirm the promises made to Jacob’s ancestors Abraham, and Isaac. Now the promises are given to Jacob. More, God promises to be with him; to keep him wherever he goes; to provide for him; and to bring him back.
Jacob wakens, and acknowledges that God is in this place! And so he calls it “Bethel,” “house of God.”
Jacob seems pretty spiritual in this chapter. Good. Righteous. But if we look at his larger story, we realize that this man – chosen by God – part of God’s plan to redeem the world – part of a plan to rid the world of weeds in fact! – is not perfect.
Not by any stretch. In the preceding chapters, he has cheated his brother out of his position as first-born, and all the privilege that comes with that. Jacob is a trickster. He has connived with his mother to deceive his father and get the blessing due to his brother Esau. He meets God in this place because he is fleeing for his life from his brother. And when he gets to where he is going? He continues as a trickster, employing shady business practices to best his uncle out of the best of the flocks.
Even in the very next verses of this chapter (which our lectionary strangely leaves out), Jacob is not so laudable. In the face of recognizing that “God is in this place” he makes a bargain with God: if you will be with me; if you will keep me wherever I go; if you will provide for me; if you bring me back. . . then you will be my God.
I think if we were to look at the rest of the story of Jacob, we might in fact wonder if he was one of the weeds that grows against God’s kingdom.
But aren’t we all, at some level, the Jacobs of this world? Mixed with good intentions and bad choices. Kindness and anger. Blessing, and bane.
Our identification as the “good seed” of Jesus’ parable does not depend on those things. If it did, then none of us would be labelled the good seed that Jesus sows. For we are all flawed by sin and too often look more like weeds than good seed.
What makes us good seed – the righteous – is that we have had the same experience as Jacob. God met him as he meets us, and claims us. Despite our character. Despite our bargaining with God. Something changed for Jacob at Bethel, and that something was that God committed himself to Jacob, promising that he was now –and forever would be – Jacob’s God. It is God, and his work that makes us his children in the world.
When we follow Jacob after Bethel – after his encounter with God, we discover that he did not change immediately. He was still a trickster, and a conniver. But being claimed by God and brought into his kingdom, God’s power begins to work on him. Slowly, event by event, Jacob begins to change. When he returns after many years to Bethel, he is an individual who has grown and matured. Become more the person God envisioned him to be. Still not perfect, perhaps, but growing and producing fruit.
Why? Because God had claimed him. Met him. And made Jacob God’s own. And as Jacob began to walk in that new relationship, his life began to change.
That is who we are as God’s good seed sown into the world. We are his. And it is his power that changes us from tricksters to faithful people.
So perhaps like Jacob, we need to be reminded of the place where we encountered God. Or perhaps today, God wants you to encounter him for the first time!
Mark that moment; that place. Then – through the years – even in a world that is filled with hurt and evil – see how you change. Not based on your own efforts to be good! – what a route to failure!
But based on the reality of a living God who plants you in his kingdom. Who provides for your needs. Who waters and feeds you through word and sacrament. And whose power enables you to live and flourish in the midst of a world filled with sin.