Pentecost 7 Proper 11: Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, July 23, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Humans like order. We’ve spent a good part of human history attempting to order the world. We don’t like chaos. It is the rare human that can live in an unruly world. Part of religion’s function is to order chaos—to give people standards in which to form or conform one’s behavior. Lists of rules and ethical precepts are a determining factor in which religion one chooses to follow. Judaism is grounded in such rule following. The Pharisees primary job was to keep Torah. Jesus was not only a great prophet and teacher, he was an ethicist. We, as followers of Jesus, believe we understand to some degree how to be ethical Christians. Scripture, tradition, and reason guide our decision making in the Episcopal Church. We might not say the word “ethics” that often, but we do understand our morals to be grounded in the lessons we learn from Jesus. In the ordering of our Christian lives, we’ve reduced the chaos down to something more manageable. We’ve separated the Christians from the non-Christians. We’ve even categorized the various Christian denominations. We are quite adept at defining ourselves and separating one another.
So, its really no surprise that upon reading the parable of the wheat and the weeds, we are somewhat concerned by the farmer’s decision not to separate the weeds out but to allow them to grow together. The typical expectation to this sort of agricultural behavior would be that madness would ensue. We know what amber waves of grain look like and they are not choked full of weeds. Jesus seems to be challenging that notion with his not-so-beautiful-to-behold brown patch of wheat and weeds. The master’s decision to allow wheat and weeds to grow together is perfectly inconsistent with everything we know about horticulture—surely I am not the only one with a gallon of Round-Up in my shed. You’re supposed to weed your garden or the weeds will take over and choke out whatever you were attempting to grow. The message being that weeds are more powerful and influential than wheat so somebody better do something about them or chaos will ensue.
Somebody better do something and if nobody does anything then maybe I better step up. The master’s slaves step up. They go and report the problem and offer to be part of the solution by getting rid of the weeds. Up to this point, this story makes sense. First century Israelites of Jesus’ day would have been following along, able to relate, and interested to see what direction Jesus was going. Even today’s listeners would be pretty engaged with this story though we might question why an enemy would sow a field with weeds and not poison the crop. We get the story, its moving in a direction that makes sense for us. And then, out of nowhere, an unexpected twist. We expect the master to send the servants back into the field to weed it, and instead he decides to let the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest and then they would be separated.
Jesus likes to use parables with an unexpected twist. His stories always defy the reasonable, expected, and understood thinking and purpose of the common world. For Jesus, parables should challenge us , leave us scratching our heads and trying to figure out the motives and actions of the story. The more we ponder and engage with a parable, the more beauty and wisdom it will provide. Jesus uses parables to reshape ethical thinking—he is trying to give us a standard of ethics based on relationships rather than rules. Jesus’ original audience was raised on 613 laws called Torah. Torah was the basis of all ethical thought and behavior even if keeping Torah came at the cost of other people. The Pharisees, who are in this crowd listening, prioritized Torah or law over people and Jesus uses parables as a teaching tool and corrective on how to live as an ethical being beyond simply following Torah.
When we hear the parables today, we are not served by them if we are not challenged or confused. Granted, we do not keep Torah, but that does not preclude any ethical lesson we too might benefit from. To simply accept the message of the parable on face value or to reduce it to a single meaning corrupts the ethical teaching of Jesus. To listen to this parable and to hear that all evil doers, weeds, get thrown “into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” and that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom” is to get caught up in an ethic of judgment and condemnation. Hearing that message in the parable doesn’t necessarily challenge us. We expect evil doers to be condemned. We expect the righteous to be rewarded. There is nothing challenging in the judgment of saint and sinner, right and wrong, morally corrupt and morally good. We expect that—even if we don’t like it. If this is not the point of challenge and parables always challenge us as ethical beings, we must look for a deeper truth hidden in this story. I would propose that the deeper truth, the challenging aspect and ethical teaching of this story is in the detail regarding who gets to do the judging.
The slaves come to the master and offer to separate the wheat and the weeds, gathering up the latter to, presumably, discard. However, the master not only tells them no and that they will wait for the harvest, he also tells them that it is the reapers who have the responsibility of gathering and separating wheat from weed. In the telling of the parable this distinction is made without defining who the reapers are though they seem to be differentiated from the slaves who did the planting. In Jesus’ explanation of the parable, the reapers are identified as angels—divine beings who will be responsible for gathering and separating, judging and condemning. The implication being that you and I, humans that we are, have no action in this parable other than to grow. We grow alongside other wheat and weeds our roots entwined, shooting forth from the same earth, and reaching toward the same light. That is who you and I are in this parable and the ethical implications of that means that we are not called or given the responsibility of judgment and condemnation of other weeds and wheat.
In thinking about the crowd listening to Jesus tell this story, one wonders if it was directed to the Pharisees in attendance; to all those who put rules above relationships. We may no longer follow Torah, but we can be pharisaic in our approach to living–judging and condemning those we disagree with or believe to live a life apart from the way we understand and affirm. In so doing, we have fallen into a broken need to order our world, separate ourselves from those we deem unseemly. The hard truth is that we find it somewhat disagreeable to live in the chaos of a world in which we are all afforded equal opportunities and say. Instead, we attempt to separate those who we deem worthy and those whom we do not. We reap when we should only grow because by separating the wheat and the weeds we feel more secure in our own development. When the weeds are allowed to grow amongst us, it threatens our sense of security, our self-confidence, and our faithfulness. But this is exactly what Jesus is telling us to do.
We are responsible for growing in less than ideal conditions, our lives entangled with other weeds and wheat, finding a way of being in relationship with one another—crook and scoundrel, villain and victim, good and true. Our roots are wrapped so tightly around one another that even if we can tell which is wheat and which is weed we do irreparable harm to ourselves and others in the attempt at separating them. We are not only connected in this world, we are rooted together. We are not called to harvest judgment that only God and his angels can deliver. We are only called to grow faithfully in this world of wheat and weeds.