I learned more about weeds than I ever wanted to know as a boy in Iowa. Walking through the soybean feels to cut out the weeds was my summer job from age 13. A wise farmer once taught me that all weeds were not the same and could not be destroyed in the same way. A cockle burr had shallow but widespread roots and had to be pulled out to get all the roots. If you hacked it off at the ground level with a hoe it would be back in a week. A milkweed had a very long tap root that could not be pulled out. If you did try to pull it up, three separate sprouts would be back in a week. Milkweeds had to be hacked off with a hoe and would “bleed” and die as the sap ran out. If you didn’t handle the weeds right, hours of backbreaking work in the sun would be completely wasted.
Jesus knew his weeds as well. The meaning of Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds becomes clearer when we look at the specific kind of weed he talks about. Tares are “bearded darnel, mentioned only in Matt. 13:25-30. It is the Lolium temulentum, a species of rye-grass, the seeds of which are a strong soporific poison. It bears the closest resemblance to wheat till the ear appears, and only then the difference is discovered. It grows plentifully in Syria and Palestine.” The problem with taking our hoe to the evil weeds of the world is that good and evil sometimes look so much alike. It only becomes clear later.
I am reading a wonder fictional series on the Civil War by Owen Parry, who has a tremendous feel for how good and evil grow up together. In Faded Coat of Blue, Parry’s main character, Abel Jones, is a staunch Methodist determined to do the right thing in the midst of a murder investigation. He agonizes with himself over using a soldier’s weakness for whiskey to get information for his investigation. Can a Methodist who has taken the temperance pledge use demon whiskey when the stakes are solving a murder? Jones decides the man will get drunk anyway and buys him whiskey to get the information. Then he tries to make up for this deed by doing something kindhearted. He sees a small newspaper boy shivering on a cold street corner. He goes to the tailor and buys the boy a new leather coat and gives it to him. The boy is thrilled, but the next day Jones sees that the boy’s coat is gone and has been replaced by a black eye. Instead of helping the boy he had made him a target for street bullies. In trying to do right we face the challenges of moral shortcuts that seem to lead us closer towards our goal, yet even our deeds that wear our Sunday best can have unintended tragic consequences.
America is finding out that rooting out the evil of terrorism is not as simple as pulling out these rogue tare-ists from amidst the wheat of Iraqis who want freedom and democracy. Getting rid of terrorists also destroys the wheat. I find it very difficult to do the moral mathematics of how many lives sacrificed make a war worthwhile. Can we really say how many dead soldiers make this a battle worth fighting? Is 3000 too many? What about 10,000? We can’t even count the Iraqi dead. Our moral thinking is flawed if we think we can ever come up with a number of lives lost that justifies a war or policy decision. We must raise important moral questions from the pulpit about this war, whether we or our congregations are for or against this war. We must challenge liberals to do more than be anti-war and anti-Bush and to have the same vigor about solutions that go into anger at Bush. We must challenge conservatives against wrapping our faith in a flag, so that criticism against misconduct is stifled. If we ignore war profiteering and lies about weapons of mass destruction, even if we think the cause is just, we have done too much damage to the wheat to root out the tares. If we are concerned about the beauty of the “amber waves of grain,” we must have full accounting for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the growing evidence of human rights abuses. We cannot fight a war for freedom and democracy and ignore the most basic aspects of human rights and dignity at the same time. You need not preach with as much heat as I am generating now, but to preach the Gospel we must at least put uncomfortable questions on the table. Now let me step back from a pulpit too high and move on to other thoughts.
The psychologist Carl Jung would have approved of the parable of the wheat and tares. Jung explored the nature of the unconscious “shadow” that lives in each soul. The shadow gets filled with all the things that we repress because we don’t want to know them. It is the garbage can of the soul where we try to toss out our unexamined greed, narcissistic selfishness and all the other seven deadly sins of which we can never seem to rid ourselves. Out of site this garbage rots and pollutes and unconsciously drives our actions. We think we have rid ourselves of our trash, yet it controls us behind the scenes of our conscious thought. Jung believed that we needed to learn to recycle our trash. By acknowledging our garbage and knowing it is always there, we are better able to understand ourselves, to grow and to act with true compassion towards ourselves and others. Just as we are learning to recycle and compost so trash isn’t such a big problem, examining our shadow side is healthier than trying to pitch our sins into the hefty bag. Perhaps this trash and recycling metaphor is a modern translation of wheat and tares. Whether we are talking about weeds or garbage, it is a caution that our quest for purity can lead to wrong ends when we ignore what is within our own souls.