Something has gone wrong. There are weeds among the wheat. The field had been sowed with good seed, but when the wheat comes up, weeds appear as well. The wheat is threatened, the crop might fail. And the slaves of the householder are the ones who face real consequences, the ones who will go hungry if the crop fails. They’re upset. Anxious. Angry. And they want to do something about it. Isn’t that how we react when things go wrong?
Something has gone terribly wrong in our world too. This beautiful life-giving planet is threatened by climate change. We thought we were building a just society, but we realize it is riddled with racism. Our health is threatened and our way of life has been infected with a virus. We are anxious, and frustrated, maybe even angry.
In the world of Matthew’s community, the ones for whom Matthew is writing this gospel near the end of the first century AD, things have taken a turn for the worse. This is a Jewish community living in the aftermath of the first Jewish-Roman War. Families are divided into revolutionaries and collaborators. Matthew’s community is under siege because they follow Jesus as Messiah. They face constant threat from within and without, 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?
Jacob’s world has fallen apart in our first reading from Genesis. Jacob and Esau were the twin sons of Isaac. Jacob is a schemer. He tricks Esau, the elder, out of his inheritance, trading it for a bowl of stew. Then he cheats Esau out of his aging father’s blessing by impersonating his brother and taking advantage of his father’s blindness. Esau, understandably, is furious and he resolves to kill Jacob, and so in today’s reading, 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 the weeds. When they heard the parable of the wheat and weeds, they knew what it was all about. They knew just whom the parable was talking about. And they were ready for judgement. Bring it on, bring on the fire and the weeping and the 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 judgement. 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 ample evidence. When weeds appear among the wheat, when things go wrong, we want to assign blame, to say that this person is wheat and that person a weed. And that’s a problem. First, because the temptation to self-identify as wheat is way too strong. Second, because the risk of damage is way too high. The insight of the parable is that the wheat and the weeds are all tangled up. Below the surface, where we can’t see, there are tangled roots. Which is why Jesus says “Let them both grow together.”
Now, that’s hard for us to hear, and it puts us in a difficult place. Because it is up to us to strive for justice, to work for God’s kingdom. But it’s not up to us to divide the world into good and bad people. Judgement is God’s business, not ours. We have to live in this tension.
The slaves in the parable want to get rid of the weeds, they want to do something. That’s us, right? When we see a problem we want to fix it. But there are problems in this world that we can’t fix. There is evil that we are powerless to eradicate, and sometimes our attempts will do more harm than good. Why? Because we can’t always tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds. Because sometimes – because often – the wheat and weed is all tangled up, tangled up in the same person. Because sometimes that person is me.
The Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned and spent 8 years in a Soviet forced labour camp. He knew what it was to be oppressed. Reflecting on human nature and the problem of good and evil, he wrote:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
And so the counsel of this parable is that when our world is threatened and our hearts are anxious, we have to hold off on our natural human tendency to blame and destroy. Instead we are called to be discerning, and patient, and above all, to trust God, to leave the wheat and weeds in God’s hands and to trust that God sees, God cares and that God will deal with it, better than we can.
That’s not to say that we become passive, and it is not to say that we stop striving for justice. There is work for us to do. Learning to trust God is work, it doesn’t always come easily. And discerning where the weeds are in our own life is no easy task either. 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 while judgement is in God’s hands, even for God, judgement is not the final word.
As we come to the end of this 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 one more 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 sees someone who can be a blessing to all the peoples of the world. And slowly, step-by-step, over the next thirty years, that is what Jacob becomes.
The story of Jacob is a story of redemption, a long, drawn out story of 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 teach us everything about the kingdom of God. The parable of the wheat and weeds has an important lesson for us to be sure, but beyond the world of this particular parable, there is grace. What grace adds to the parable is the amazing notion that God is the God of both wheat and weeds, and that in her love she can reach out to the weeds and actually transform them into wheat.
Judgement, yes. But also Redemption and Grace.
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, Creative Commons