The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11A)
July 19, 2020
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion, we beseech thee, upon our infirmities, and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, mercifully give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Today we have another agricultural parable from Matthew’s gospel along with its allegorical interpretation. Again our passage is pasted together by the editors of the lectionary with the bit in the middle removed. Whereas last week, when we heard the parable of the sower, that section contained information on the interpretation of parables in general, this time that middle bit contains further parables, which we will hear next week. In contrast with last week, the emphasis in today’s story is on the harvest, and the strategy behind it, rather than on either the act of sowing the seeds or the abundance of the crop.
Plunging directly into the parable, known generally as the parable of the wheat and the tares, we learn,
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.
Immediately we see that see that the story contains a protagonist and his enemy. The notion of good and evil, a protagonist and an antagonist exists within the text itself. It is clearly a more complex situation than merely describing the work of the simple sower scattering seeds. It is a setting in which the complexities of human relationships and the subtleties of human decision making come into play.
And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’
The crop may have been ruined by this nameless, faceless “enemy.” What are we to do? Do we weed the field now? It is a logical enough question. We weed the garden constantly throughout the summer: first the goosegrass, and eventually the horse mint and goldenrod. My wife, and many others even find it kind of therapeutic, although weeding on the scale proposed by the servant in the story is back-breaking work. The farmer has a decision to make.
The man replies:
No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.
According to the great scholar of the parables, Joachim Jeremias, his thinking is guided by sound agricultural principles on several counts. The weeds may have been be a poisonous plant called bearded darnel. It is “closely related botanically to the bearded wheat” they were growing “and in the early stages of growth [resembles] it.”(1) The roots of the two plants have become intertwined and would be hard, if not impossible, to pull out the weeds out without pulling up the wheat. They will sort it our at harvest time, he decides. This is the logic behind his wait and see strategy. He ensures that the weeds are bound into bundles and saved for burning, not merely as different waste management strategy to composting, but because the weeds, too, were needed in this economy as fuel for domestic and other fires.(2) Both plants will be used and the harvest is best accomplished by waiting to see which plant is which, separating them, and using them optimally.
The story focusses mostly on the exchange between the servant and the man about the best way to proceed with tending and ultimately harvesting the crop. The malevolent intention of the enemy who came and sowed those weeds is clearly stated, but the end result is not altered. Both the wheat and the weeds are harvested and used. The farmer seems to take the situation in stride and comes up with a plan that results in the greatest benefit to the workings of the farm.
The farmer shows that he is adaptable to the situation with which he is presented. He also shows a willingness to be patient. He will not make a premature judgement regarding which plant is a weed and which is the wheat. Both Jeremias and the commentator F. W. Albright suggest that this was part of the message to the community that received the parable.(3 This is the time for patience, the harvest is not come, our human capacity of judgement is limited because we are in the thick of growing season. We must act wisely and strategically in this age and remember that, perhaps, the totality of the harvest has value, even if the uses to which different products are put are different from each other.
If, as the narrator states, the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to the situation described in the story, then what have we learnt about the Kingdom? There are those who tend the kingdom, and those who oppose it. The kingdom is something that grows up over time and is constituted of different elements that become intertwined; and in the thick of the activity and work of the kingdom it is sometimes difficult to sort out what is what. In the midst of this processive activity we are not afforded the complete picture of what it will look like in the end. There is, however, an end. There is a harvest, there are consequences to what we have done while the field is growing, and everything in the kingdom has its uses. There are some powerful ideas for us to hear and absorb as we, ourselves, live in the midst of this growing season of our lives, in the rough and tumble of our existence as the Kingdom of Heaven continues to unfold around us.
Albright and others have observed, however, that we need to remember that the parables addressed specific concerns in the life of the community to which Jesus initially addressed them.(4) The eternal spiritual lessons I have drawn from the text, are not likely the ones foremost in the minds of those first generations of listeners. For example, I have been quite generous and kind about the weeds, pointing out their usefulness to the farmer and his community, even as they are consumed by fire. No, that first generation, although they were clearly to take seriously the message about patience and judgement, were concerned with the question of the harvest and judgement at the end. Jesus and others preached clearly that the end times would come in the present age. It was not going to be long before God reconciled all in all and would bring on the eschaton. They were deeply concerned, for the sake of their own souls, with how the divine harvest would resolve itself. Who was to be counted worthy of salvation? How would that be decided?
This is clearly emphasised in the interpretation of the passage supplied by Matthew. The first part provides “a little lexicon of allegorical interpretations,” as Jeremias puts it, for interpreting the story.(5) I still stand by what I said last week and would argue that this is probably the work of a later preacher, rather than Jesus. The next part, however, the words referring to the end times are, perhaps, something different:
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
These were the real concerns of those who first heard Jesus preach and of those in the next several decades who were drawn to the emerging Church. These are words of reassurance to those who have risked everything to follow Jesus. We have heard over and over that life in the Body of Christ can be costly and difficult. Membership in these ranks was counter-cultural, against the grain of society’s values and norms. They believed in crazy things like the blessedness of the humble and meek, and of peacemakers. They believed that by loving their neighbour they were loving God and that life was supposed to consist of this work. To hear that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” is comfort to a beleaguered community.
Today, I might first emphasise the need for patience and restrained judgement; that generally, except possibly in the most extreme of cases, we do not know when we look into a crowd who is wheat and who is a weed. When we get back regularly and without fear and trepidation onto the subway when this pandemic is finally over, and look into the faces of strangers, we see that our roots are intertwined with theirs and that the moment for judgement has not yet come. There is always time for amendment of life, for revelation to strike us; and while a stalk of bearded darnel will not morph into a stem and spike of wheat, perhaps we can make such a change before our harvest.
Today, however, it is also important for me to emphasise the reassurance given in that little apocalypse. Choosing the path of following Jesus and walking in his footsteps, really walking in his footsteps, is just as counter-cultural and dangerous as it was two thousand years ago. Our age of greed and self-interest, in which we see people every day putting their notions of personal freedom before the good of others is one in which standing up for the values of the Kingdom of God is not easy.
I want to tell each and every one of you, therefore, that you are cherished and loved by God. You are tended and watered in God’s field. You, the righteous, the humble righteous followers of the gospel, who often forget how much you are loved, you “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of [your] Father.” At the same time, we can hope that those others will see the error of their ways and turn before it is too late. Those who practice domination, control, and coercion, who believe themselves better than others, who believe themselves righteous are warned that they will not have to wait until the age to come to know and feel the danger and consequences of such actions.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a process that is unfolding even now. It is like the world we know, like the actions and interactions we undertake every day. It is like the natural workings of the world that, even now “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” The parables we have heard, and will keep hearing over the coming weeks, give us an idea, an impression of God’s hopes and desires for us, what we are to expect from the workings of our God, and show us that we can have hope that as God’s purpose unfolds we will be swept up into the workings of love and made one with God in Christ.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 18 July 2020
(2) Jeremias 1966, 177.
(3) Jeremias 1966, 66-67; F. W. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew, The Anchor Bible, 26 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), cxliii.
(4) Albright 1971, cxxxii
(5) Jeremias 1966, 66.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume