Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 19, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 Commentary
The “Parable of the Weeds” is part of a cluster of parables that has to do with God’s kingdom (and the Year A Lectionary is dealing with these various parables one at a time). It is also one of several that has to do with seeds and agriculture. Over and again Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of God is never quite what you might expect.
The Parable of the Sower made clear that although the “seed” of God’s Word is powerful enough to change the world, it is at the same time oddly vulnerable, too. It can be snatched away by birds, burned up by the sun, choked by thorns. The parables of the Mustard Seed and Yeast indicate that the kingdom is far smaller and more subtle than you might guess. The kingdom is the single most powerful and important reality in the world, but it does not have the flash, glitz, or razzle-dazzle you ordinarily associate with mighty movements of history.
Much of that is shocking. Apparently God would rather work behind the scenes. Apparently changing people’s hearts is a quiet and gracious business more than a noisy and forceful affair. What’s more, the growth and spread of this kingdom is going to extend throughout the world but it may never exist in a pure state. To make that point Jesus tells a parable. A farmer carefully plants an entire field of wheat. His furrows were pin-straight, his wheat seed was of the finest quality. He did it all right and went to bed that night content that he had done everything he could to ensure a bumper crop some months down the road.
But while he took his well-earned rest, an enemy came in and, with equal care, planted weed seed in the same furrows. Worse, the weeds he planted were something called “darnel,” which looks almost identical to wheat. But if you don’t separate the darnel from the wheat before grinding, the resulting flour will be inedible. So once the wheat starts to grow, the farmer’s hired hands notice the presence of the weeds, and what’s more, they see it growing almost as uniformly as the wheat itself. This was no accident, no stray spores that drifted in on the breeze one day. This was an act of agricultural terrorism!
In a huff the servants ask the master farmer if he wants them to go and start plucking out these dastardly weeds. It was the logical thing to do. The last thing you wanted was for the darnel to go to seed because then even next season you’d still have a field full of weed seeds. But contrary to all agrarian good sense, the farmer tells the hired hands to leave it be. They’d sort it all out later at the harvest. If Jesus’ listeners knew anything about farming (and presumably a lot of Jesus’ audience did know about such things), then the shock of this story is the idea that any farmer would do nothing about such a situation. At least not right away.
But that’s probably a clue that this story is not about agriculture but instead it’s about theology. (The Bible is not The Farm Journal magazine: do not consult it for best agricultural practices!!). Overall, it is not too difficult to figure that out. Nevertheless, the disciples later come to Jesus to ask, “Could you spell things out for us a wee bit more?” Jesus obliges, but you can almost detect a little weariness in the rather dry way that Jesus connects all the dots for them in verses 37-43.
Have you ever told someone a joke that this other person just didn’t get? If so, then you know that your then trying to explain the joke pretty much takes all the fun out of it! Indeed, have you ever seen someone burst out laughing once you finished explaining a joke? Generally what happens is the other person responds to your explanation not with a laugh but by saying, “Oh, now I get it. Heh-heh. Very funny.”
But that was not the reaction you were looking for when you told your joke in the first place! So also in Matthew 13: there’s something a little dry about Jesus’ having to spell things out so simply for the disciples. The punch of the original story gets lost a bit. In fact, if you read only the parable, then in the end you are left wondering just what it might mean to let the wheat and the weeds co-exist and grow together for now. You ponder how and why pulling up the weeds would threaten also the wheat. And if you see that the wheat stands for the true members of the kingdom and the weeds for imposters, you end up wondering how you should behave when forced to grow right alongside of nettlesome folks.
That’s what happens if you read just the parable. But once you get finished reading the explanation, you are tempted to forget some of that and instead start rubbing your hands together because you feel so satisfied to know that all those annoying, “weedy” folks will get their comeuppance in the end. Suddenly you start to wonder less what it means to be wheat in the midst of weeds and start to focus more on that coming day when the roll is called up yonder and the weeds get burned at long last. After all, Jesus’ closing image of the righteous shining like the sun is stirring (all the more so when set to music in that well-known piece from the oratorio Elijah). It turns your thoughts away from the field and to the future.
But I want to suggest that although we accept and must understand our Lord’s explanation for his own parable, we need to be cautious about not missing the punch of the parable itself. Because the parable is not so much about all wrongs getting righted by and by but is more about our lives right now. At bottom this parable is about patience. This parable is not first of all about what will happen to the weeds at the last day but about how the wheat has to react during all the time that leads up to that final sorting out.
The farmer in the parable seems to believe that the weeds themselves won’t threaten the wheat–the two are capable of growing together. The weeds do not threaten the wheat but instead the threat comes from how we react to the weeds. The danger is not being in the presence of sin but trying to root out all the sin we see. But that means that the real challenge presented to the church by Matthew 13 is finding the strength to resist the temptation to take matters into our own hands and start yanking up every sinful thing we see every time we see it. As Robert Farrar Capon points out, when in verse 30 the master tells the servants just to “let” things be, the Greek word used there is the same word used in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere for “forgiveness.”
Those who have ears to hear . . .
Sometimes Jesus can startle us with the simplest of things. In Matthew 13:38, for instance, when Jesus spells out the parable to his befuddled disciples, he tells them that the “field” in question in this parable is ho kosmos. Most Bibles translate that as “the world,” and that’s accurate. And yet “cosmos” in both English and Greek can also stand for not just the earth but the whole of the universe, the whole of God’s creation. Apparently the scope of where the Son of Man is going to sow his good seed—and, alas, the scope of where the evil one will sow his counter-seed—is not limited but affects everyone. Maybe this is why, after the gospel began to be proclaimed, the Apostle Paul will say in Colossians 1 that the gospel has been proclaimed “to every creature under heaven.” In that same passage, Paul makes clear that Jesus and his gospel affected and applied to not just local concerns but to what Paul again and again describes as ta panta or, loosely translated, to “the whole kit-n-caboodle”! In other words, even this simple parable is not small and local. These words are literally cosmic in their sweep!
In my neck of the Reformed woods, an English professor named Stanley Wiersma used to delight folks with his Garrison Keillor-like musings on life in Iowa and in the churches of Iowa in particular, all written under the nom de plume of Sietze Bunning. In one of his more indelible portraits in the book Purpaleanie and other Permutations, we meet a man named “Benny” in a poem titled “Excommunication.” Benny Ploegster is an alcoholic who regularly attended church. For three years Benny had been under discipline: first a silent censure, then a more public censure that initially left his name out of the matter. Later it was announced publicly that it was indeed Benny who was under scrutiny. Three years is a long time to work with someone, and so finally Benny’s persistent struggle with the bottle led the church (and God, too, apparently) to run out of patience. So a deadline was set, and when Benny was unable to meet that deadline by cleaning up his act and repenting of his wicked, boozy ways, a date was set for the public excommunication.
Benny attended his excommunication.
He even stood in the midst of the congregation while the pastor solemnly read the standard form that designated Benny a “Gentile and a publican” with whom the church was to have no further association. Benny stood there and heard it all. As Wiersma put it, “It was not in protest, although the dominie [pastor] thought so, and it was not in stupidity, although the congregation thought so, that Benny stood up for excommunication and until he died of cirrhosis he attended as regularly as before. He did not partake of communion. Like Jacob wrestling with God and saying, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ our Benny was wrestling with us and with God. Though he lacked Jacob’s talent for articulation, his standing said as explicitly as its verbal equivalent: I will not be cut off as though I do not exist. I am God’s child, all right, God’s naughty child, but still God’s child: Benny. And what of us who attended church regularly out of custom and superstition and without much desire and without any questioning that we had a right to be there? What of us who had never wrestled like Benny? Though he did not intend it, by standing up to be excommunicated, was Benny excommunicating us? The church is gone now, the lumber used for a cattle shed, but in memory the place where Benny stood is forever holy ground. Was Benny excommunicating me?”
Sietze Bunning, Purpaleanie and other Permutations. Middleburg, Iowa: The Middleburg Press, 1978, pp. 55-57.
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