He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
What is the Bible really about?
That’s a worthy question. And, plenty of people have tried their best to summarize the Holy Scriptures nicely so that it can fit onto a bumper sticker or in a Tweet.
“God is Love.”
“God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt.”
That sort of stuff.
They’re all fine and they’re all true.
But compartmentalizing the Bible into a fragment is always and forever a fool’s errand. It is a fool’s errand because whenever we lift it up, we are beckoned and transported to the strange new world of the Bible.
We with Abraham in Haran. We hear a call that commands him to go.
We are with Moses in the wilderness. For forty years he has been living among the sheep, doing penance for his crime in Egypt. When suddenly there comes a call from a burning bush: “Moses! Moses!”
And we are there with the crowds, lifted on tiptoe struggling to hear what we can from this Messiah man, the one who has come to save the world. And what does he say?
“Listen: the kingdom is like a farmer who sowed only the best seeds in his field. And one night, the farmer’s enemy came and scattered weeds among all the good seeds. So much so that when the plants came up and bore grain, the weeds were all over the place. The servants of the farmer come and say to him, “Where the H-E-double hockey sticks did all these weeds come from?” And the farmer says, “They are from my enemy.” So the servants, dedicated as they are, they ask if they should go out into the fields to remove all the weeds. A no doubt practical response to the dilemma at hand. But the farmer says, “No; for in gathering up all the weeds you’ll destroy all my wheat. Let both of them grow until the harvest. And then we’ll figure it out.”
So, standing among the crowds, peaking over one another’s shoulders we think to ourselves, “Well dang o dang, that guy really is the Messiah! He speaks so clearly and elegantly about what his kingdom is all about. Let’s follow him.”
But before we have a chance to leave it all behind, someone nearby leans toward us and says, “Hey, I’d think twice before following that so-called Messiah. Did you really hear what he just said? ‘Let the weeds grow with the wheat’ thats the worst farming advice I’ve ever heard. What kind of king can this Jesus be if he doesn’t even know how to manage a garden?”
And, we realize, this stranger in the crowd has a point. The practice of not pulling out the weeds until the harvest is no way to run a farm. Such a lackadaisical approach to the agricultural conundrum only guarantees the choking out of all the good plants in addition to creating a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds that will plague the field for generations.
Are we sure this is the Lord we want to worship?
Perhaps Jesus was just not as good of a farmer as he was a carpenter. After all, his advice about not building a house on sand is spot on. But his ideas about running a farm leave a lot to be desired.
In any case, this is one of the story he told to his disciples about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The good seeds sown all across the property, the ones that will one day grow to bear grain, are those whose lives are the flowering of what has been sown but the Son of Man. Think of someone who embodies everything about what it means to be a good person, to be a good Christian. Someone who always goes out of their way to check on the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead. Someone who is logged in for online worship every week. Someone who gives 10% of their income back to God.
All that stuff.
They are the good seeds scattered everywhere.
And up until this point, all is well. But, like all good stories, well can turn to hell right quick.
The farmer’s enemy shows up in the middle of the night, while everyone is asleep, and sows weeds among the wheat.
Notice two things: First, everyone is in bed. They’ve already done their job as far as the crop is concerned. The work of the good seed is not threatened, but only inconvenienced, by the arrival of the enemy’s weeds.
Which leads to the second thing: If the enemy really wanted to mess things up for the farmer, why not do something a little more effective, a little more dramatic? The enemy could’ve lit the field on fire, or flooded it with water, or dug up all the good seeds to plant them in the enemy’s own field.
Instead, the enemy merely tosses in the seeds of weeds to make the job of the farmer a little harder.
Sadly, whenever we read this story or hear about it in church, we do so in such a way that it results in people like us making claims about how certain people need to be destroyed, removed, and obliterated, in order to shore up the kingdom.
Which is to say, we believe we have to use every tool at our disposal to stop the devil from showing up and dropping weeds into all the perfect things we have going on in our lives.
But, that’s not what Jesus does with this parable.
As I already noted, the weeds will not interfere with the growth of the wheat. The weeds are not a danger to the good seeds development but rather an inconvenience to the farmer and his servants.
And that’s what the parable is really all about.
The servants, those working for the farmer, the ones entrusted with the work in the field, the ones who wear things like this on Sunday mornings, are the ones who have the bright idea to take some immediate action against the undesirables in the field.
“Come on Jesus, I know you keep talking about the grand scope of your kingdom, but have you really thought about what might happen if you let all the riffraff in? Why don’t you let us go out in the world and get rid of all those weeds that keep ruining things for the rest of us?
The farmer, though, seems to have a radically different strategy: Let it be.
“That’s irresponsible!” We think to ourselves or have the gall to mention aloud. “Let it be? That’s a hippy Beatles driven response to the world! Surely Jesus would give us something better to do!”
And yet, throughout history, it’s precisely when we’ve taken those kind of actions into our hands, that the very worst of humanity has come to the surface.
Or, let me put it another way: The seeds sown here in the parable (ZIZANIA in Greek) is an annual grass weed that look an awful lot like wheat when it grows. Which is to say, it’s very difficult to tell them apart, let alone take one out without taking out the other.
The end of the parable, the farmer’s insistence that the servants cannot take out the weeds without damaging the wheat is a profound and challenging word for those of us convinced that we are responsible for fixing the world’s problems, that we can truly make the world a better place.
The desire for making the world a better place almost always makes the world worse.
For, all of our programs (and at time pogroms) designed to get rid of evil are doomed to do exactly what the farmer suggests will happen.
Because the servants, whoever they might be, are either too busy or confused or self righteous to recognize any real difference between good and evil and all they will ever accomplish is tearing out the wheat with the weeds.
What we good and well-meaning folk often forget, as good and as well-meaning as we think we are, is that there is no one who is categorically good just as there is no one who is categorically evil.
In a very real way we are all pretty messed up.
Or, to use Paul’s words, “For I know nothing good dwells within me, I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
I remember helping a church reinvent itself a number of years ago when I was in college. We wanted to create a list of beliefs and expectations for those who would join us. And, at first, it was simple stuff like, “We believe in the triune God” and “We confess Jesus as Lord.” But then it quickly turned to things like, “No hatred allowed” and “liars will be asked to leave” and “members must be present at least 3/4 of the Sundays in a year.”
Which, by the end, meant that no one was worthy of the church.
To connect it back to the parable, the only result of a truly dedicated campaign to rid the world of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.
Does that mean we should just kick back, and let the world fall to pieces? The parable doesn’t imply that resistance to evil is wrong, only that its not effective in terms of salvation. We can introduce all sorts of programs to solve all the problems on earth. We can advocate for just wars, and capital punishment, and bigger and fuller jails of dirty rotten scoundrels.
But, as Christians, we can’t assume that any of those thing will “make the world a better place.”
We can take up the sword all we want, but we cannot forget that those who live by the sword die by the sword.
Just as with the parable of the Sower, the kingdom comes along automatically, despite the presence of weeds among the wheat. The weeds may not be real wheat, but if the servants go to the trouble of removing the less desirables, a truly horrific scene can unfold.
It was a new nation of so-called good people that brutally tortured, enslaved, and murdered entire generations of people all in the name of manifest destiny.
It was a democratically elected leader of the most advanced nation in the world, at the time, who ultimately brought about the execution of 6 million Jews.
I could go on and on.
And yet, behind the servants’ question is the question we all wrestle with, “What are we supposed to do?”
Looking out at the tragedies of the world we can’t help but wonder what we could possibly ever do to change anything in a meaningful way.
We can help ourselves from wondering, in spite of all the evidence of the past, that maybe the world would be better if we got rid of all the weeds.
“No,” Jesus says through the farmer, “Pull up evil and you’ll pull up goodness right along with it.”
And then comes the most remarkable and bewildering word in the whole parable: APHETE them to grow together. In our English translations it says, “Let both of them grow” but in Greek the word is APHETE and its the same word for forgiveness. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer we say every week. APHES us our trespasses as we APHEMEN those who trespass against us.
It is here, in the light of the farmer’s strange and divine forgiveness that the parable truly hits home: the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the real lives of real people is not to be dealt with by abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells.
It can only be dealt with, with forgiveness – a recognition that even the best of us aren’t as great as we think we are.
But what if people keep screwing things up?
What is the enemy comes back the next year and sows even more weeds among the wheat?
Well, at least according to the farmer in Jesus’ parable, the enemy is free to come back and drop his weeds. And, on the basis of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God has announced the exact same thing.
No enemy, not the devil, not you, not me, and not anybody else, is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
If that sounds unbelievably radical, it is!
But remember, Jesus on the cross, in the moments immediately prior to his death, he doesn’t threaten his enemies, he forgives them.
APHES one more time.
That might not sit well with those of us suffering under the weight of the world, or those of us troubled by what we see on TV every night, but according to the mystery that is God’s kingdom, it is already here, sown, sprouting, and bearing fruit. And all the weeds of this world can’t do a thing about it.
We are hooked, downright addicted, to assuming that its all up to us. Give us just a small taste of the power that comes with making decisions about what is good and right and true and we’ll never be able to kick the habit. We delight in believing that we are the ones who get to settle scores here and now and yet, in the end, none of us could possibly make it in Jesus’ kingdom unless forgiveness reigns supreme.
Forgiveness, APHES, it’s no way to run a farm, but it’s the only way to run the kingdom. Amen.