Preached on July 23, 2017
I learned more about weeds than I ever wanted to know growing up in Iowa. I walked the soybean fields pulling weeds as my summer job from age 13. A wise farmer 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 to get all the roots. If you hacked it off at the ground level, 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, three separate sprouts would be back. Milkweeds had to be hacked off and would die as the sap ran out. If you didn’t handle the weeds right, you wasted hours of backbreaking work in the sun. So in the summer, I had dreams-nightmares! – about weeds-“Jack and-the-bean-stock” type weeds, that you would have to climb to take out. Even television had herbicide commercials that were like 30 second mini-horror flicks.
Jesus knows his weeds. I appreciate that. Last week’s lesson on the Parable of the Sower acknowledged that if your seeds fall into the midst of the weeds, the dense tangle will choke out your crop yield. That’s what I had to deal with when I returned from vacation. My garden plot was overrun with weeds, and it took hours to clear the rows. The tomatoes were easy since they had a head start, and the radishes can hold their own with any weeds. The toughest part was the carrots. The feathery tops are so delicate, and I found I had to leave some weeds mixed in the rows, because the delicate roots would come right out with the weeds I pulled. Which brings us into Jesus metaphor in today’s passage.
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… are 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.”
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. Roman law made it illegal to sow tares in a field of an enemy, which means someone did it.
Of course, this is outrageous, but here is a slightly different real life parable. In my research, I came across an article about the top six invasive plant species in North America, and the all have one thing in common. They were imported from their native environment for ornamental purposes. Purple loosestrife, Norway maples, English Ivy that climbs buildings and destroy masonry. The infamous Kudzu in the South, was introduced at the Philadelphia centennial expedition for ornamental purposes. In the 1930s, the Soil Conservation service planted a million acres of kudzu to reduce soil erosion on deforested lands. But kudzu can grow up to a foot a day at peak season, reaching 60 feet long, and it kills other trees and plants by smothering them with the great weight of the vines. This is a reality in many human problems, we thought it was a good idea at the time. We are challenged to acknowledge our own complicity with the problem.
This parable invites us to wrestle with one of the basic human malfunctions that we re-enact over and again. Here is the cycle: 1) We identify a problem. It may be as large as Shite/Sunni conflict in the Syria and the Middle East, how do we provide real security against terrorists without labeling entire populations of people as evil, or a simple problems like the house is a mess. 2) I did not cause this problem, and it is not my fault because I am basically a decent, good and competent person. The same is true for my party, ideology, my side of the family. We are not at fault because we are good. 3) It is therefore obviously someone else’s fault. They should fix it. Find a scapegoat. 4) If the problem persists, get rid of the people who are perceived as causing it. Fire them, ban them, divorce them, ostracize them, change the zoning laws, lock them in jail, or kill them. Then make bombs and kill even more them.
Some variation of this process is at the core of most human conflict: from marriage and families, to bad workplace environments, politics, and wars of nations and peoples. If I were to make to construct a theology of original sin, this would be at the core. The human tendency to say:
I am right and you are wrong, we have the truth and you do not, we are the pure and you are impure, you are not us, you are our enemy, we will get rid of you, and then we can live in peace and our problems will be solved.
This sinful process is not very original, most sin and conflict is distinctly unoriginal. Maybe Cain murdering Abel was an original story, and then came Abraham and Sarah throwing out Hagar and Ishmael, Egyptians enslaving Hebrews, Hebrews conquering the ‘promised” land of Canaan, Rome conquering Israel, crucifying Jesus, Christendom rising, claiming Rome as its capital and then crushing other religions. This process of blame, scapegoating, labeling people as “the other” and then eliminating them is very unoriginal.
Here is something that would be original-figuring out how to live together. That would involve things like listening, dialog, soul searching, forgiveness, confession and reconciliation, trust-building, affirmation of differences and diversity, and the realization that we often do participate in some measure to the problem. I know-that sounds like a lot of hard work, and self-examination makes all of us uncomfortable. It is not nearly as satisfying as finding someone else to blame. Weeding out our enemies will not solve our problems. Any gardener knows this is a fantasy, because you can never really eliminate weeds. They always come back next year. This is why we have organic community gardens. We found out Monsanto was not our friend. We like birds and bees and drinking water, so we don’t just pour chemicals on stuff to get rid of weeds.
Let me be a gardener again for a moment. I am not comfortable letting weeds take over my garden. I still spend a great deal of time pulling weeds. Jesus noted in the previous parable that weeds can choke out the seeds we want to grow. So I want room for the good, what is going to grow and feed me in the Fall. I’m not sacrificing my tomatoes for button weeds and crab grass. In the world, I do not want evil and injustice to take over.
This parable of the wheat and weeds causes me to think before I start ripping stuff out the ground to save what I think is important. Underneath the ground, in a place we cannot see, the roots are all grown together. If I pull too quickly, there goes my carrots. Our human roots are perhaps even more interconnected under the surface of the daily news and ordinary life than my carrots and beets are with the weeds. The message is to think and assess before you pull that weed, stop before you blame, don’t go down that long road that cycles into conflict and even violence.
Remember, weeds are in the eye of the beholder. A weed might be a plant in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of my gardening neighbors has a plot covered in various grasses and wild flowers that looks like complete disorder to me. I thought they had abandoned the plot and wondered if I could handle another one. Think of all the tomatoes I could plant! However, I was informed that the gardener uses many of the wildflowers and grasses in herbal remedies and teas, and that the weeds were the harvest. Now, that is not a garden I am interested in growing, but maybe someday I will benefit from a medication that someone discovered in a garden of weeds and wildflowers. So his weed patch is a living parable to me. I think Jesus would have made it into a parable that we should reflect and discover before we dismiss our neighbor.