Something has gone wrong. In the world of the parable, the problem is in the wheat field. The field had been sowed with good seed, but when the wheat comes up weeds appear as well. The wheat is put at risk. The whole crop might fail. And the slaves of the householder, the ones who might go hungry if the crop failed, they’re upset. Angry. Frustrated. Afraid. That’s how we react when things go wrong.
In the world of Matthew’s community, the ones for whom Matthew is writing this gospel in the latter years of the first century AD, things have gone terribly wrong. This is a Jewish community living in the aftermath of first Jewish-Roman War during which the Romans decimated the Jewish nation and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Families and communities were divided into revolutionaries and collaborators, and they were divided into those like Matthew’s community who wanted to rebuild Jewish religious practices around the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, and others like the Pharisees who eventually succeeded in establishing rabbinic Judaism as the successor to Temple worship. It was a time of division and chaos. Matthew’s community faced constant threat from within and without. They were a community under siege, ejected from the synagogues, betrayed by their own members, subject to imprisonment and constantly battling to preach the gospel of Jesus in the face of competing religious teachings and practices. Is this what the kingdom of God is like? Is this what God intended? Why has everything gone so terribly wrong?
Things have gone terribly wrong for Jacob in our first reading from Genesis. Jacob and Esau were the twin sons of Isaac. First Jacob tricks Esau, the elder, out of his inheritance by taking advantage of Esau’s hunger and trading his birthright for a bowl of stew. Then, Jacob, with his mother Rachel’s help, cheats Esau out of his aging father’s blessing by impersonating his brother and taking advantage of his father’s blindness. Esau is furious and plans to murder Jacob, and so Jacob is on the run, fleeing for his life with nothing but the clothes on his back. Something has gone terribly wrong. But at least in this story, we know what the problem is. The problem is Jacob, the cheat, the thief. Jacob is a weed.
It’s easy for us to label Jacob that way. Just as it was easy for Matthew’s community to label those who betrayed them and made them suffer as weeds. They knew who the parable of the wheat and weeds was talking about. And they were ready for judgement. Bring it on, bring on the fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew’s gospel is an angry gospel at times, and it’s good for us to understand why. There are those whose suffering is so great that they have every right to cry out for justice. And there will be judgement. Judgement, when it’s in God’s hands, is a good thing. It means that how we live matters and it means that God is going to set things right. In order to restore this world, in order to bring us to where God wants us to be, in order for God’s kingdom to be fully realized, all causes of sin will have to be destroyed.
But when we take judgement into our own hands, we can do a lot of harm. History provides us with evidence of that. In my experience, when weeds appear among the wheat, when things go wrong, though it is often tempting, it is almost impossible to say that this person is wheat and that person a weed. First of all, the temptation to self-identify as wheat is too strong. And further, the risk of making a damaging judgement is too high. The insight of the parable is that the wheat and the weeds are a lot more tangled up than that, that below the surface where we can’t see, there are tangled roots. Which is why Jesus says “Let them both grow together.” It’s not up to us to divide the world into good and bad people. Judgement is God’s business, not ours. And even for God, judgement is not the final word.
Let’s go back to the world of the parable. The slaves are looking forward to a great crop of wheat. But when the wheat comes up so do the weeds, threatening the crop. Something has gone wrong. You thought you had a great relationship, but now there are serious problems. You thought your community was healthy, but now conflict and division appear. You thought your workplace was a supportive environment but you just got stabbed in the back. You thought you’d get a great crop of wheat but now it is overrun with weeds. The slaves are angry, frustrated, fearful. And like us, when something goes wrong the first question they cry out is “Why?” Where did these weeds come from? The Master responds, “an enemy has done this.”
The weeds are not what the Master intended. The weeds are not of his doing. God doesn’t put weeds in with our wheat. God does not want us to suffer. We may not understand why there are weeds, or who or what this enemy is that’s responsible, but we can be assured that God wants the best for us. Weeds are not intended as a learning experience or a test or a punishment. God sows good seeds.
And so reassured that this wasn’t the Master’s doing, the slaves then ask a second question. “What should we do about the weeds? Do you want us to go and gather them?” When we see a problem we want to fix it. When something goes wrong we want to make it right. When we see a weed we want to pull it out. But sometimes we can’t. And that’s frustrating. It makes us feel powerless. “No,” says the Master, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let them both grow.”
That’s hard to hear. But there are things about this world that we can’t fix. There are problems in my life that I can’t fix. There is evil that we are powerless to eradicate. In fact, sometimes our attempts to deal with evil do more harm than good. Why? Because we can’t always tell the difference between wheat and weeds. There is ambiguity, there are things we don’t see or can’t understand. Because sometimes – because often - the wheat and weed is all tangled up, tangled up in the same person. Because sometimes that person is me.
And so the counsel of this parable is to be discerning, and to be patient and that sometimes we have to leave the wheat and weeds in God’s hands. We are being asked to trust God, to trust that God sees, God cares, and God will deal with it, and deal with it better than we can.
That’s not to say that we become passive. There is always work for us too. Learning to trust God is part of that work. And another place we can start is by asking where the weeds are in our own life. What threatens the good wheat that we want to grow in our field? Is there something we can do about it? Can we invite God to help us?
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a hard parable, a parable about good and evil, and it’s about judgement. But as we come to the end of the parable, there is still something that seems to be missing. Fortunately, that missing piece shows up in the story of Jacob that we read from Genesis this morning.
Jacob is a weed, remember? Esau has vowed to uproot the weed, to murder his brother Jacob. Jacob flees, and runs as far as he can, and when the sun goes down he simply lies down, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a rock for his pillow.
And he has a dream in which he sees a stairway resting on the earth with its top reaching to heaven, and angels ascending and descending. And Yahweh himself appears, and he speaks to Jacob. He repeats for Jacob the three great promises made to his ancestors, to Abraham and Isaac: the promises of land, offspring and blessing. And then Yahweh makes Jacob another promise. To the one who is alone and endangered and going into exile, Yahweh promises “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land”.
You see, God doesn’t just care about the wheat. God also cares about the weed, Jacob. God sees something in Jacob that Esau certainly could not see. Despite Jacob’s weediness, despite all his faults, God sees the person that he created Jacob to be. In Jacob, in that lying, manipulating swindler, God saw someone who could be a blessing to all the peoples of the world. And that, slowly, step-by-step, over the next thirty years, that is what Jacob becomes.
The story of Jacob is a story of grace and redemption. Our God is not just a God of judgement. Our God is a God of mercy and redemption and grace. The weed is transformed into wheat. That’s the possibility that was missing from the parable.
No single parable can tell us everything about the kingdom of God. The parable of wheat and weeds has much to teach us, but beyond the world of this particular parable, there is grace. What grace adds is the amazing notion that God is the God of both wheat and weeds, and that in his love he can reach out to the weeds and actually transform them into wheat. And that makes all the difference.
Homily: Yr A Proper 16, July 23 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 28.10-19a, Ps 139, Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
Image by Marfis75 on Flickr