I’m very familiar with weeds; they are the thing that I grow best!
In fact, I don’t have much experience with gardening or farming, nor do I have a great track record for growing things; cooking them, shopping for them, eating them, these are all another matter; but growing them is not my strong suit.
This is part of why I was so grateful for the commentators I read in preparation for today’s service each had a solid grounding in agriculture, and could make sense of this parable, often referred to as “The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds,” or of “The Wheat and the Tares,” if you used the old-school language when you were growing up.
And they all pointed to truth embedded in the Gospel today: Jesus is a brilliant pastor, or Jesus may be a horrible farmer, or Jesus just might be both.
We hear all the time that Jesus was raised “The Son of a Carpenter,” though that’s really a King James-y way of saying that he was Joseph’s son, and Joseph was a handyman, so he was probably a handyman; anyway, Jesus is a handyman, and of the guys he recruits for his entourage, the ones we have a pretty clear bead on are fishermen (Simon Peter & Andrew, and James, and John, the sons of Zebadee); we also know that Matthew was a tax collector; we don’t know anything of Bartholomew, other than his friends would have called him “Bart” if they were around today; James was either a brother or cousin of Jesus, and was likely pretty handy himself; Philip, Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot we pretty much only have names to go on; and I have serious doubts that we will ever know what Thomas did for a living…
All of this is to say that we’re pretty sure NONE of the gentlemen we have spoken of today, including our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ, had a solid, working understanding of how to be a farmer. And here’s how we know this: Jesus is describing a genuinely crazy method of planting, cultivating, and harvesting wheat in today’s Gospel.
Darnel, sometimes called cockle, or false wheat (or Tares, if you were raised on a King James farm) is a kind of ryegrass that looks almost identical to wheat right up until the ear appears, which is black when ripe, instead of brown, as in the case of ripe wheat.
Darnel is seriously bad news for anyone raising wheat; it saps energy and water from good wheat, and has absolutely no productive purpose, ever: and the real kicker is that a fungus can grow on it, which can make you feel like you have been poisoned with drunkenness, and possibly die.
This is NOT just “some weeds” that got mixed in with the good seed; this stuff is not to be trifled with. Another problem with it is that like any weed, the darnels’ roots get all intertwined with the roots of the wheat also growing there, so when you try to pull out the weeds, you can end up pulling out a bunch of good wheat, too.
So having a field sown with tares along with good wheat is a nightmare for a farmer in any age, including the Gospel times, like we’re talking about today.
You can almost hear the people listening to Jesus get the shivers when they hear him talking about it… “Did you hear about that Jesus guy, Rose? He was talking about someone who mixed up a bunch of darnel seeds along with the wheat, and sowing it all at the same time! Can you imagine the nightmare??”
That’s what makes this parable so powerful for Jesus; the people listening to him would have an instant, emotional reaction to the image he’s presenting.
But then Jesus takes a left turn; Jesus’ plan for dealing with weeds has nothing in common with an actual farmers’ process for dealing with persistent weeds like the darnel Jesus is describing in today’s Gospel.
In the Gospel today, the householder’s slaves come to him and tell him, “Look, we have a problem. There’s not just some tares in the field, there’s tons of tares in the field. Did you not sow good seed?”
As an aside, it’s worth noting how uncomfortable we can feel when we encounter the word “slaves” in the Gospel stories; and I’m grateful that it’s uncomfortable; given our nation’s shameful history with slavery, “slave” should never be a comfortable word for us.
Anyway, the householder tells his slaves that an enemy has sown the darnel along with the wheat. One would expect some darnel in with a wheat field, but this bumper crop of poisonous garbage was sown by an enemy.
That’s strange enough, but even stranger is how the householder wants the slaves to handle it; usually, there would be some darnel, and the field workers would pull it up.
But this householder wants them to leave it; the reapers will sort it out, and they will harvest the false wheat first, and bundle it to be burned, before harvesting and threshing the wheat.
Having never brought in a harvest of wheat, nor threshed said wheat on a threshing floor, it was not apparent to me at first how odd this plan by the householder was. Usually, you’d have the reapers pull everything up, keep the wheat, drop the darnel, and then gather the darnel up later to burn or make chicken feed from. None of this is the standard operating procedure, which would have been known by everyone who was standing there that day.
This is why I say Jesus is either a terrible farmer, or a brilliant preacher, or perhaps both: it’s obvious that if he’s really talking about farming, he’s a little off his rocker (and so a terrible farmer); but if he’s not talking about farming, but really talking about something altogether different, then he’s preaching brilliantly, because his illustration is immediately clear, and connects with his audience in a visceral way.
Later, in private, the Disciples ask Jesus, “What in the heck were you talking about back there?” (at least I hope that’s how they asked it.)
And notice that understanding doesn’t come magically, when you are spiritual enough to really “get it;” the one teacher, Jesus, holds court, and it’s only when Jesus explains what he means that understanding comes.
Jesus then lays out the whole thing, in logical order: the Son of Man, the Human One, sows the seed, and the good seed gets harvested at the end of the age, and the bad weeds will be bound up and burned.
It appears simple enough, but the details are where the real flavor is.
In the age to come, Jesus says, which is one of the ways Jesus refers to the Kingdom of God, the Son of Man will send his angels, who will bring in the harvest, and separate the weeds from the wheat, and throw the weeds into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (one of Matthew’s favorite phrases).
One of the interesting things is how many details are left unexplained in Jesus’s account of the parable: we don’t hear anything about the sleepers, or the slaves themselves (who exit stage right after they ask their questions); we also don’t hear why the enemy went to such extravagant lengths to foil the harvest; one wonders why someone would sow darnel, rather than just burn the fields, or cut down the wheat.
But Jesus isn’t teaching us how to farm; he’s teaching us how to be disciples, and he’s teaching us how to be the church.
In the age to come, in the Kingdom of God, there will be a time when there will only be wheat, when the church is fully stocked with believers, and as with all the descriptions of the Kingdom of God, we can start making that Kingdom a reality on earth right here, right now.
But the Kingdom of God is both a reality we are working toward, and something that happens in the future, we’re headed there, but we’re not there yet; we can see it in the distance, like the Emerald City in Oz, but we have to get through these fields of poppies first.
And so now, the church, as we find it, has both wheat and weeds in it; after all, it’s made up of people, and people are flawed, every one of us.
So there will be people in the church who are really just weeds, people who are there because of habit and not faith, or because it can help them advance in political life, or because it’s the thing to do; as we pray in one of our Eucharistic prayers, we sometimes come to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.
There will be weeds mixed in with the wheat, Jesus tells us, and it’s almost impossible to tell which are which until the time comes to gather the harvest. And Jesus says unequivocally: there will be wheat, and there will be weeds, and we humans are to LEAVE IT ALONE.
The angels will come at the end of the age and separate the wheat from the weeds; it’s not our job to take care of that, and we’re not going to be especially good at it anyway; we will pull up too much wheat if we try to weed ourselves, and Jesus doesn’t want any of the wheat to be ruined.
And the other problem with our trying to weed, is that unlike an actual wheat field, the weeds and the wheat in the church are always changing. In the field, a weed is a weed, and wheat is wheat, and they can’t change who or what they are. In the church, anyone can become a weeds, and come to the community by force of habit, and not really put the work in as a disciple.
But in the church, anyone can also become wheat, and find a true home, and a true calling as a disciple, and work to live their calling in the world, spreading the Gospel and making the Kingdom of God real, now.
That’s the most important reason to let Jesus do the weeding: today’s weeds are tomorrow’s wheat, and if we pull up a weed now, it’ll never have the opportunity to become the wheat that it can become. Jesus is setting a vision for his Church today: a place that weeds and wheat live together, working to make the Kingdom of God a reality.
The Church Jesus describes today is a place where everyone is welcome, and where we work continually to make more wheat, to spread the Gospel farther, to learn the disciplines of the faith, and to live that faith in community.
But how? How do we transform weeds into wheat?
By living our faith: through praying and worshiping as a community, through studying the Bible, through learning the history of the church, through serving in Christ’s name in the world, through living as a community together, in silence, in conversation, in feeding and being fed.
And when we live our faith, when we build that relationship with Christ, and teach others to live the life of faith we live together, we help them transform themselves into wheat with Christ, and we welcome the Kingdom of God on earth.
It’s not easy, this transformation; for individuals, it means radically reorienting the way you’ve lived your life, and living for Christ, alive inside you; and for our communities, it means being in the weeds ALL THE TIME, constantly working to life our lives more fully with Christ, and working to help others to the same, which some will do, and others will choose not to.
But it’s the only way to make disciples; it’s the only way to build the church; and it’s the only way to live our calling in Christ.
If we were really honest, we might admit to ourselves that we’re really prefer to be the ones doing the judging, and not the ones being transformed; sounds like a better gig, and sounds a lot easier. But Jesus does the judging, no matter how much we’d prefer to do it ourselves; frankly, we have enough on our plates, and we’re not great at that job anyway.
Jesus has taken that off of our plates, and thank God he did; our vocations are full enough as it is: working to spread the Good News of Life in Christ to the ends of the earth, making disciples, that is, making wheat, of others and ourselves.
So we have our instructions: make the church a welcoming place for all the weeds in the world, so that they can become wheat (and so WE can continue to become wheat ourselves), and make God’s Reign known on earth now.
We do this through living our faith, through welcoming others into our community, through saying our prayers, through sharing food as a community, and in so doing, we don’t need to separate the weeds from the wheat, because when we do our part well, there aren’t any weeds left in the field.
Let it be so, in Christ’s name.