We are halfway through a batch of parables in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week we heard the very first parable, the Parable of the Sower. Next Sunday we get a series of five short parables. This week, it’s the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds.
In our parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to someone sowing wheat in a field. An enemy sneaks in at night to sow weeds in the wheat field. When he sees the weeds sprouting, the wheat farmer has to decide how to respond. He decides against trying to get rid of the weeds right away. He’ll let them grow with the wheat, and only separate the wheat and the weeds at harvest time.
As is so often the case, the disciples don’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about, so they ask Jesus to tell them what it all means. Jesus’ answer is a little unnerving. The separation of wheat and weeds at the harvest is a sign of final judgment. That’s a good way to get our attention!
So what is the lesson for us here? To answer that question, we have to sit with the parable and let its many meanings open up for us.
Start at the simplest level. The parable makes at least two points that seem clear. First, there is such a thing as good and evil, and there will be a final judgment when God separates the people who do good from the people who do evil. When that happens, it’s better to be one of the good people!
Second, God is the one to do the separating of good and evil, and the separation happens only at the end of time. Until then, the good people and the evil people are going to be all mixed together. Even if we think of ourselves as among the good, still we have to put up with the weeds in our lives.
So far, so good. But as I sat with this parable this week, what struck me was how hard it can be to distinguish wheat from weeds, how unstable those categories can be.
In our parable, the farmer decides against gathering the weeds in his field because he doesn’t want accidentally to uproot the wheat at the same time. I assume the problem is that the roots of the wheat and the weeds were all tangled up.
That’s good to remember when we try to judge people, including ourselves. I have never met anyone who was a weed, pure and simple, someone who was just evil. I haven’t met anyone who was perfectly good either and I’m certainly not. Good and evil are all tangled up in all of us. That means we couldn’t possibly separate the good people from the evil people even if we wanted to.
We can take the parable a step farther. I assume farmers can tell the difference between wheat and weeds, even as new sprouts. But I can’t.
I think about my own yard.
Before we moved in, our predecessor had beautiful flowers planted. But she didn’t maintain the yard and garden consistently. There were a lot of weeds. For our first few years in the house, whenever a new plant appeared, we couldn’t be sure whether it was a flower put there on purpose or a weed invading our yard. In a few cases, we’re still not sure what to think.
That’s helpful to remember. When I look at other people, I can pretty safely assume that they are a mix of good and evil, since everyone is. But the challenge goes deeper than that. Sometimes we can’t distinguish good from evil, not in others and not even in ourselves.
The problem is the limits to our wisdom and knowledge. What looks evil might in fact be good, and what looks good might not be. For all of us who are not saints, that’s a call for humility whenever we feel inclined to judge.
We can go one step deeper still.
For this one, I need to start by saying that Carrie grew up in a family of haters, with her father as the chief hater. What her father hated was crab grass. For the first few years we were in our house, Carrie’s father came down nearly every week in the summer, and the two of them would work in our yard. And one of their goals was to get rid of all the crab grass.
It was a big job. They worked for hours, for weeks. But they were eventually successful. They got rid of all the crab grass in our back yard.
But then we had a new problem. In places, we didn’t have much grass at all. Much of our yard was a big dirt patch.
Carrie kept battling. She planted grass seed and watered it virtually every day. And for a year or two, we had a beautiful lawn.
But the work involved was unsustainable. The grass began to die back. I think the problem was not enough sun. But for whatever reason, the planted grass slowly disappeared and the crab grass aggressively reasserted itself. It has once again covered our backyard.
This time we surrendered. We decided that crab grass was grass. What we had thought of as weeds was going to have to be more like wheat.
The same happened in reverse.
A few years ago, we planted an herb garden, including lemon sage. We like the smell of lemon sage, and it’s tasty on baked salmon.
I am happy to say that our lemon sage flourished. The problem was, it kept flourishing. It spread around the entire area of our herb garden. It jumped into our raised bed garden and took over. It’s begun spreading across a little path into our backyard. Now I am worried about our crab grass.
Finally this year, we acknowledged what should have been obvious years ago. In our yard, lemon sage is not a desirable herb. Lemon sage is a brutally invasive weed. This year I have pulled armfuls of the stuff out of the ground. And every time I do anything in our yard, I pull a few more shoots, which just keep coming.
What began as weeds—that’s the crab grass—is now good, as far as we are concerned. And what began as a good plant—the lemon sage—we now see as weeds.
That is true for people, too. People can change. Even if and when we are sure about our moral judgments, we need to remember that.
The Apostle Paul started out as a persecutor of the Church. If anyone qualified as a weed, he did. But Christ changed Paul’s heart, and he became the greatest missionary in Christian history. Think what a mistake it would have been for the earliest Christians to refuse Paul’s help because of the genuinely terrible things he had done. He was a weed who became wheat.
We can’t avoid making judgments entirely. As Christian people, we are called to reject evil and choose the good, with God’s help.
But our parable teaches us not to rush to make judgments, to leave judgment in God’s hands whenever possible, and to remain humble before the mysteries and complexities of good and evil in our lives and in our world.
My prayer for us is that God will give us the patience to wait on the Lord, the wisdom to discern what is right when we need to judge, and the compassion and courage to act only as God would have us to do. And I pray that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan