Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. Matthew 13:40, NRSV
There’s a long flower bed under the bow window in our kitchen, facing the street in front of our house. I enjoy it in the spring, when daffodils predominate. From a distance right now, it’s a green, summery blur. Up close, I can differentiate between shrubs and weeds – usually. I am not a gardener, but most weeds offer some clue in the form of raggedy edges or accelerated growth or stubborn attachment at the root, allowing me to recognize them.
This week’s gospel lesson offers a more complicated scenario. Jesus taught in quotidian parables, and this agrarian example has a hero and a villain. The planter has done a good thing, planting wheat seeds, but the enemy has come on the scene while everybody sleeps to sow weeds in the midst. Although the workers offer to get busy weeding, the planter will wait patiently to protect the good wheat and allow it to grow to its full maturity. Then the weeds and the wheat can be sorted.
There’s an approach to this text that says the wheat and the weeds looked alike until fully mature, thus the need to wait instead of ripping things up, and there’s another that uses the parable to build a timeline awaiting Armageddon. (I am not kidding; you can find a graphic timeline if you do a Google image search for “wheat weeds bible.”) In Matthew 13, Jesus has been teaching from a boat, to get some distance from the crowd. At the end of the day, he retreats to a house, where the disciples have to ask him for an explanation. Although Jesus in the missing verses of this passage assures the disciples they understand him, unlike the crowd, Matthew’s one-for-one gloss reduces a parable to an allegory as if the gospel writer is not so sure about the reader’s comprehension, either.
I wrote, in 2011, “God does not exclude prematurely, because God doesn’t want to uproot what is still coming to fruition. God waits for the harvest. Maybe we’re all both wheat and weeds. Maybe we’ll be be gathered in and sorted out as individuals and as churches, not discarded ‘here one group and there the other’ but instead given a chance to come to terms with the ways we’ve been both wheat and weeds, so closely intertwined that we can’t always tell the difference ourselves.” (From In the Weeds – July, 2011.)
That personal approach to the text spoke to the congregation I served then. In 2020, it’s the collective that speaks to me. Sometimes it is hard to sort out what is good from what is evil without destroying what is good. If that isn’t an image for this moment! In the congregations you serve, people of deep faith, people who love each other and would care for each other and members of the community in times of need, might also disagree passionately about issues that we cannot ignore right now. The seed sown by the enemy, from one perspective, might be QAnon posts or White House talking points about mask-wearing, while from another the evil seeds are the guidelines recommended by the CDC or a Democratic governor. When we read it that way, we may be tempted to follow Matthew down the allegorical path.
I believe we can tell this story as holistic, speaking to all people and for all people. I am not recommending we embrace “both sides-ism,” but rather that we acknowledge the raggedy edges of our own stubborn attachments and lift up the faith values that hold us together. Our shared reckoning with the difference between good and evil in this moment is hard, but it holds our saving hope. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a sower who waited patiently and watched the green, summery blur grow into its fullness. May we be as patient with each other’s growth, in this fraught moment.