The Weeds and the Wheat

The lectionary portions from Matthew 13 have been bothering me.  Most especially when we try to take the some-and-not-others emphasis that is so profoundly expressed in the glosses of the parables, and assert it upon our world.  So here's a counterproposal from last Sunday.  It's not a sermon -- it has too much of law in it to be proclamation.  But perhaps it may be taken as a prescription for a certain kind of malady.

Why should we take Matthew's explanations at their word?  On the other hand, why not?  Are the darnels evil?  Is God's victory found in their destruction -- that the kingdom of the heavens shall be pure?  That only the good and desirable in this life shall enter?

Then boy, are we in trouble!

So: an enemy of the farmer has sown darnels among his grain.  Has, as the Vulgate says, overseeded his plot, such that the entire field is sown twice: once with grain, by the farmer, and once with darnel-seed by his enemy.  Yet the seeds all receive the same nurture.  God sends the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.  The farmer's enemy does not tend them, or raise them, or in point of fact bear any relation to them at all.  He did not even create the seed, nor does he act as though on behest of the darnels -- as though they told him, "plant us in the farmer's field."  And yet the darnel is toxic, if you eat it, and so it is very dangerous to confuse the darnel and the grain.  But, in spite of this fact, their heavenly father lavishes good upon them, and the farmer -- for the sake of the grain -- elects not to uproot the darnels until the harvest.  But the generosity of the farmer stops at harvest time: "Let the weeds be separated out, and gathered together and burned."  And you, my friend, had better listen!

Here we quarrel among the saved.  Here we take Saint Augustine at his word, that the church is a thorough melange of the good and the bad, and since we cannot perform judgment in the field, we defer it to God.  At this age, the wheat and the darnel are indistinguishable.  Oh, but to be sure, we watch for those among us who might grow into darnels.  And we warn them most sternly of the fire that awaits them.  But then, have we actually deferred judgment to God?  Might we not, instead, be uprooting plants that produce perfectly edible grain?

Would you know a darnel if you saw it?  How about in the mirror?  Which are you, and how do you know?  The answer is, of course, that we don't know.  But we do know something that Matthew's audience did not -- we know that we gentiles have no natural right to be growing in God's promised land, in the Israel of God.  We are wild, uncultivated -- and probably not very good to eat.  Paul is a bit more optimistic than Matthew -- he calls us oleasters instead of comparing us to darnels.  We produce olives, and we do so vigorously -- but not very good ones.  Crabapple trees.  Chokecherries.  You wouldn't want us growing in your orchard.  Only God plants such a bush, and delights in it.

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  What we are, we remain -- uncultivated, wild, unpleasant by nature -- but the Father has grafted us into His cultivation through the Son, and we are sustained by the Spirit. 
"For as many as are led by the spirit of God, these are children of God. Indeed, you did not receive a spirit of servitude, back into fear, but rather you received a spirit of adoption, in which we cry, “Abba!” (“Father!”) The same spirit testifies with our spirit that we are children of God. And if we are children, then inheritors – those who inherit from God, and those who inherit jointly with Christ – since we have suffered jointly so that we might also be glorified jointly.

Indeed, I account the sufferings of the present time unworthy by comparison with the glory that is coming to be revealed to us. For the creation's anticipation awaits the revelation of the children of God. For the creation was subject to fruitlessness, not voluntarily, but because of the one who so placed it, in the expectation that the same creation will be freed from servitude to corruption, freed into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Indeed, we know that the whole creation groans and experiences labor together, even up to the present. More than this, we who have the same first-fruits of the spirit groan together among ourselves, awaiting adoption, the delivery of our body. For we were saved by means of expectation; but expectation does not see its object – for who expects what they see? But if we expect what we do not see, we await it with endurance."
So do not quarrel among the saved.  Do not boast for yourself, as though you knew that you belonged to God's cultivated field by your own created nature.  We are debtors, not to our flesh, but to the Spirit -- to the living God who has gathered us in, and goes on gathering.  Who cherishes and delights in the chokecherry, the crabapple, the oleaster -- and yes, even the darnel -- as good creation.  A weed is merely a plant out of place -- but God is a God who makes space for all things in heaven and on the earth, and who goes right ahead planting good things where we don't expect them, and where they may even be dangerous to us, if we misuse them.  Don't eat the darnels.  But don't go destroying them wantonly, either.

(Seriously, after the harvest, what else was the farmer going to do with the sorted dead darnels?  And how else was he going to harvest his grain, except by cutting down everything in the field?  Just don't assume God is the farmer.  He may be more adversarial to your purposes than you think.)


  1. To take a slightly different approach, since I had to preach on the first of these readings, Matthew 13 is all about the bearing of fruit. How do you tell the difference between the wheat and the darnel? By the fruit each bears. Or rather, how does the sower (not farmer) tell the difference?

    And consider -- the Kingdom of Heaven is always a verb in these parables. The Kingdom is the whole process, the sowing of the good seed and the darnel, of the slaves asking should something be done, of the sower saying no, the growing together, and then the harvest with the fire and the wailing and the teeth gnashing. The Kingdom is not merely the pile of wheat and the burned weeds -- it is *everything*.

  2. I'll grant the fruit point, but I question what use it may be put to.

    And I disagree about the kingdom of the heavens as a verb. I will agree that it is a living process, but I am wary of identifying it too tightly with the image. The parable is an image that points outside of itself, and certainly one must take the whole image, not just part of it -- but how do we take the image and the claimed likeness?

    Matthew 13:24-43 is the opening set of three parables and a gloss, followed by a shorter but formally parallel set in 44-50, that illustrates the parable and gloss of the sower in 13:1-23. That parable has no opening "likeness" language. And 24-30, the opening parable of the set of six that follow, uses a different form than the remaining 5. It begins "homoiothe he basileia ton ouranon" -- in the aorist passive, "The kingdom of the heavens has been compared to ..." The remainder state that "homoia estin he basileia ton ouranon," in the present -- "The kingdom of the heavens is like ..."

    I'm inclined, in spite of its intentional integration through the gloss into the theme of the chapter, to suggest that the parable of the weeds and the wheat was intended to point out a problem with how we have understood the kingdom. And instead it has become the dominating image of judgment that drives the kingdom, and Matthew 13.


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