A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (19/07/20): Wheat and Weeds

Wheat and Weeds
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

What is the kingdom of heaven like? What does God’s reign look like? Perhaps this is the most important theme which Jesus’ teaching addresses. From the outset Jesus announces that the kingdom has come very near, and is indeed present in his person, but that merely begs the question, what is it like? And time after time Jesus tries to answer that question. Again and again he presents us with word pictures that try to help us understand the nature and character of God’s reign. Over and over he tells stories that attempt to illuminate for us the kingdom of heaven. In many of these parables Jesus draws on the rural life which his first hearers are familiar with. And a number of these parables picture the kingdom as a field of growing wheat. This is what Jesus wants us to visualise at this point:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good wheat in his field. . .” 
It is a simple enough picture to grasp. Even now a drive into the countryside at different times of the year will reveal to us the development of crops. The year begins with empty fields, bare earth into which seeds are sown. Soon after the first sprouts appear and the ground acquires a hint of bright green against the dark earth. Little by little the fields are filled with maturing plants until the harvest comes and the fully matured crops are brought in. Jesus wants us to visualise the kingdom as a present being somewhere in the middle of that process. The kingdom has been established. In the life and ministry of Jesus himself all that needs to be done to bring about God’s full and final reign has been done. The kingdom will come, as sure as summer follows spring and autumn follows summer. But as yet God’s reign is not fully realised on earth. It is yet to be fulfilled. We are in that time in between. This is the time during which the kingdom will grow, just like seeds planted in a field will grow. We live in the tension, in the now-and-not-yet of the kingdom, between its establishment in and by Jesus and its final fulfillment. We are living through the time between planting and harvest.

Of course a field of wheat just growing doesn’t make much of a story. Watching wheat grow is perhaps an even more tedious activity than watching paint dry. But the growth of the kingdom is not without dramatic tension. Jesus tells us that there is a problem with this field:
“But while everybody was sleeping an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.”
Matthew recalls that when Jesus explained this parable he meant us to understand that field represents the world. Looking at the world it is easy to observe that it isn’t just good seed that is growing there. The world is not as it should be. People are held back from realising their full potential, of coming to life in all its fullness as God intends. The weeds which grow among the wheat are those of economic inequality and exploitation, of prejudice and hostility between people of differing races and languages and religions and outlooks. The world itself is being consumed and degraded by the way in which it is being used and exploited, which leaves the existence of many precarious and might ultimately render the world uninhabitable. The state of the world is now such that at times we might feel that we are hardly able to see any wheat at all for the weeds. In Jesus’ story the fruitful growth of the field is disrupted by the actions of an enemy who sowed weeds amongst the good wheat. It would be too easy to use this parable to push away from ourselves responsibility for the state of the world. But this is not what Jesus intends at this point. What he wants us to be clear about is that the state of the world is not how God ever intended it to be. Inequality, division and hostility and degradation are not part of how God intends the world to be. The field which God sowed was a field of good wheat. That it is now full of weeds is no part of God’s intention, even if it is very hard for us to explain how this state of affairs came about, or for us to accept our share of the responsibility.

Christians have what must be called a revolutionary vision of how the world should and will be. That is what the kingdom of heaven is, it is a vision of the world set right. It is a vision of the world turned upside down, quite literally a revolution. The established social and political order will be transformed into an order which reflects God’s good intention for the world and our place in it. That is the wheat which is growing in the field of weeds. But there is a profound contrast between Christians and revolutionaries in a conventional sense. One element of the story which Jesus’ explanation doesn’t identify is who the slaves represent. That omission is quite deliberate. It creates the opportunity, the demand even, for the followers of Jesus to identify themselves with the slaves of the master who sowed good seeds. Inevitably Jesus’ followers seeing the world as it is, and holding onto a vision of the world as we do, are going to ask, what should we do? Seeing the field of wheat filled with weeds the slaves ask their master what they should do about the weeds:
“Then do you want to go and gather them?” 
This is the impulse of the revolutionary, or even just of the activist. They see the world as it is. They know that something is wrong. And they set about putting it right. There is no denying that it is a vitally important part of Christian discipleship and mission to identify and address the world’s problems. To fail to do so would be to fail in our calling to love our neighbours. But there is a limit to how much we can take into our own hands. There is a limit to our understanding of good and evil in the world which we must acknowledge. We must be humble enough to acknowledge that we cannot be certain where the boundary between fruitful growth and harmful weeds lies. This is the contrast between Christians and revolutionaries and quite a lot of activists who admit no such limits to their understanding. Che Guevara, the Argentinian/Cuban revolutionary, once pointed out that the true motivation of the revolutionary is, despite what you might think, love. He is not wrong. In that way Christians and revolutionaries are alike. They both aspire to a vision of human fulfilment and fruitfulness. But the revolutionary is certain of their understanding and are prepared to use any means necessary to achieve their objectives. They are clear in their own mind about what is wrong of how to get to a field without any weeds. Jesus points us to the consequences of that kind of certainty. The master in Jesus’ story replies to the question of his slaves:
“No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
The problem with the slaves’ plan is that, first it may be difficult to tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds. And second, and more importantly, the roots of the wheat and weeds may be so entangled that it would be impossible to pull up one without the other. If the slaves took that action it may end up doing more harm than good, and the harvest might be a great deal less abundant than it could have been.

Unsurprisingly Jesus’ parable presents us with a picture of God. A picture which might be somewhat lost if we pay too much attention to the way Matthew recalls Jesus’ explanation of his parable. In the explanation which Jesus gives to his disciples attention is directed to the end of the story. Jesus retells the ending of his story in greater detail, but with more conventionally mythological imagery: 
“The Son of Man will send his angels and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and evil doers and they will be thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It is this ending which so often revolutionaries want to take into their own hands. And even Christians in their more frustrated and downhearted moments wish would come about sooner rather than later. It is the violent moment of judgement which revolutionaries hope to bring about and Christians look for in the return of Christ. It is the great assurance which Jesus gives, that in the end all will be made right. All evil and all the causes of evil will be removed from the world, so that everyone and everything good in the world might flourish. But paying over much attention to that moment loses sight of the meaning of the time in between that we’re actually living through, and what it tells us about God. Wheat and weeds grow together because the master refuses to endanger any of the wheat by allowing the weeds to be uprooted. The master wants all of his wheat to have the fullest opportunity to come to maturity. In the face of his field being filled with weeds the master shows a good deal of patience and forbearance:
“Let them both grow until the harvest.”
This is what Jesus wants us to hear about God and about the state of the world. God provides the world the fullest opportunity for love and goodness to grow in the world, even as evil and suffering continue. God is patient with the world. The harvest time will come, it is then that the weeds will be dealt with. The difference between revolutionaries and Christians is not so much a difference between the world they might like to see, but a difference in how they hold onto that vision. The revolutionary is perhaps impatient. The revolutionary wants to see the world put right sooner rather than later, and is prepared to go into the field and start pulling up the weeds. As Christians we hold onto that vision of the world which is the kingdom of heaven, but we do so with faith which demands patience. We trust that God will bring about the kingdom in its fullness. God will remove evil and suffering from the world. But our faith must be patient, because God will not countenance any transformation of the world which destroys any of the good in the world even as it removes evil. Does this make us tolerant of evil? I don’t think so, because everyday we pray: “Your kingdom come.” 

Wheat and Weeds by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0CC iconby iconnc iconsa icon

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