“Seeds and Weeds”
July 20, 2008 - Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Let’s go outside and look at the flower beds. The beds around our north parking lot are a living picture of this parable. Two years ago we planted kinnikinnick as a ground cover around the new trees and shrubs. Now all sorts of weeds have grown up through the kinnikinnick in such a way that it’s a nearly impossible job to yank out the weeds without also yanking out the plants we want to keep. The same is also true of the islands of vinca to the west of our building—weeds tightly tangled in and around the good plants.
Jesus pictured not only the planting of desirable plants—wheat—but He invites us to imagine an enemy who deliberately comes along afterward, sowing weeds. Last week we heard the parable of the sower, God planting the good seed of His word. Now we hear a parable in which there is another sower, an “enemy,” as verse 24 says. Someone other than God is sowing bad seeds.
In verse 29, the owner of the field refuses to let the weeds be pulled because in the process the wheat also may be uprooted. Jesus was describing the weed known as bearded darnel, “tares” in King James language. It’s something like rye grass, and in the early stages looks very much like young wheat. The leaves of the tares are about a quarter inch wide and in the early stages wheat leaves are only slightly bigger. Even a careful weeder would have a hard time telling them apart. More wheat would be lost than would be saved in a weeding operation. Only when wheat is mature can it be distinguished, because its leaves are then two or three times as wide as those of the darnel.
Last Sunday, in the parable of the sower, the seed was the Word of God and people were the soil, but in the parable of the weeds the seeds picture something different. Unlike most of the parables, this one is point-for-point allegory, and Jesus carefully explained each point. Verse 38 says that the good seeds are “the children of the kingdom.” The weeds are “the children of the evil one.” The seeds and the weeds are two kinds of people. And it’s hard to tell them apart.
The classic 1956 film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” has been re-made three times, in 1978, 1994 and 2007. The story is the same in all of them. Aliens invade and take up residence in the bodies of human beings. On the outside they look exactly like the familiar people you live and work with, but inside they are controlled by sinister minds bent on dominating our world.
The 1978 “Body Snatchers” with Donald Sutherland is distinguished by how the aliens single out someone who is still human. A trusted friend you thought was still on the home team suddenly stiffens, turns and levels a pointing finger at an unsuspecting human, signaling other aliens with a mouth open inhumanly wide in a piercing scream. The thrill and fright of all the films is never quite knowing who is for real and who is not.
Jesus’ parable here is something like a reverse “soul snatcher” invasion. In the story of the weeds, it’s God who is taking human beings over for good. It’s those who remain untouched by the good news of Jesus Christ who are still “children of the evil one.” We live and work in a world where there are two kinds of people and God has chosen to let them grow up and live out their lives together. There are aliens in the world and they are you and I. Our calling is to spread the seed and continue the invasion of the world, despite the resistance of the weeds.
One problem with this text is that it’s often misinterpreted. A number of venerable readers of the Bible, like Augustine and Calvin, like Matthew Henry and my old teacher Robert Gundry, have blithely ignored Jesus’ own interpretation and read this parable as a description of the church, as a story about church discipline. Augustine used it to argue against those in the church who wanted to banish Christians who had denied their faith in the face of persecution. He felt that the parable counseled tolerance for those in the church who proved unfaithful.
If we took that tack, then what we learn here would be that there are real Christians and there are fakes. Sitting in each row on Sunday morning, just like rows of a planted field, there are stalks of wheat and there are invasive weeds. You might want to sneak a look at the people around you. It’s the invasion. Some of them may not be what they seem. The church will not be sorted out until the end, but Jesus was not talking about the church.
You can’t read the rest of the New Testament and make this a parable about internal church affairs. In Matthew 18, Jesus talks about recognizing someone in the church who commits a sin and then exercising discipline, even separating from the person if she doesn’t repent. In I Corinthians 5, Paul talks about asking an unrepentant sinner to leave. In the garden of the church there is, in fact, a little weeding to be done.
Of course, there’s plenty of forgiveness to be had. We’re all sinners depending on the grace of Jesus Christ. If we were in the business of weeding out everyone who does wrong, we would just spray Round-up on us all and shut the doors. There’s lots of forgiveness, but that’s just it. It’s forgiveness for those who want to be forgiven. It’s not tolerance for those who sin and can’t see anything wrong with it.
Verse 38 does not say that the field is the church. It’s the world. This parable is not about the church. It’s not about the church, it’s for the church, to teach us what it means to be children of the kingdom living in a world where people around us are something else. It is not a story about being passive in church discipline. It is a vital lesson concerning the relationship between God’s kingdom and the kingdom of the world. It’s to reassure us about what God is doing more than it is about what we should be doing.
Like our hymn said, this parable is about being “chosen seed,” and “trav’ling to the heav’nly Canaan on a rough and thorny path.” This is a story for a church that finds itself in a world that is still very much full of weeds, full of evil.
Whether or not you like the politics expressed in the Doonesbury cartoon, last week it dealt with a topic relevant to us here: persecution of Christians. Since the war started, as many as 600,000 Assyrian Christians have been forced to flee their homes in Iraq. Some churches have simply been left standing empty. The Iraqi government puts a person’s religion on their identity cards and that identification has been used to target and persecute Christian families.
The weeds are everywhere. Our denomination recently focused concern on the fact that slavery is still alive and well in many places. The killing that happens in abortion goes on constantly. Children are abused. Pornography is broadcast. Drugs are sold. Innocent people are hurt and robbed. All of it in a world supposedly made by God.
Drive down any street. If you see a house where the yard hasn’t been mowed in weeks, where the weeds are growing rampant, where the leaves haven’t been raked, what do you assume? Either no one is living there or the people who do don’t care.
Recently, writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have made great hay of applying the same reasoning to belief in God. If God is supposed to be taking care of things, there’s no evidence of it. Evil and suffering spring up everywhere and there is no supernatural weed control. Our poor, pitiful world looks like the garden of a house with nobody home, or with an owner who doesn’t care.
Our conviction as Christians is that God has done something about the garden of this world. He’s sent His Son Jesus Christ to live and die and rise again so that this world can be planted with good seed, so that ultimately the garden of paradise in which it all began will be restored. The question for us, then, if God’s good kingdom has come in Jesus, is why does it all still look so bad? Why are there so many “weeds?” This parable is the answer.
This parable answers the same concern addressed by our reading from Romans 8:18-25, the need for patience. There Paul says that you and I are God’s children, “that we have the firstfruits of the Spirit,” yet along with the world we are waiting, groaning, expecting God to deliver both us and His creation from “frustration.” Just as in the parable of the weeds, we are waiting for God’s great harvest, but until then the weeds will grow.
Jesus is teaching us not to be discouraged in the face of the weeds, in the face of all the evil and opposition His church encounters in this world. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 44:8 said the same thing, “Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?” The Lord predicted the trouble we would have, even though His kingdom had arrived. Jesus is inviting us to join God in being patient with the thorny, noxious, troublesome weeds around us and to wait in expectation for the day of harvest when all will be judged and all will be made right.
In the meantime, however, God doesn’t want any possible good seeds to be pulled out in an effort to exterminate the weeds. Jesus’ parable reminds us that getting rid of weeds is not our business. Our business is planting seeds, and how the harvest turns out is up to God.
Jesus told two other little parables in between telling this parable and giving its explanation. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are all about not being discouraged when the planted seeds of the kingdom look small. Just like a huge tree rises from a tiny seed, or a smidgen of yeast causes a whole mountain of dough to rise, God is going to raise up a great kingdom for Himself out of tiny beginnings. From the perspective of the little seed or the pinch of leaven, the end result looks impossible, but we know trees and bread happen all the time. In the same way, God’s kingdom will happen.
Verses 34 and 35 also help us understand. Jesus is talking in parables to the crowds, not to hide anything, but to explain things. He’s teaching in parables matters that had been hidden from the creation of the world. Now it’s revealed, but it still begins small. So, He teaches in the parable of the weeds, don’t get discouraged.
Here’s why we don’t want to be discouraged to be only a congregation of a hundred or so. Here’s why David and Joy don’t want to disheartened with only five converts this year. Here’s why our missionaries labor for years and years in places like Japan, even though they only see a handful of new Christians in the midst of a culture that largely ignores them. Here’s why we keep planting tiny seeds of love and service and witness in our community, trusting God to produce the harvest.
The point of the parable of the weeds is that God’s whole desire is to harvest wheat. Yes, ultimately there will be judgment on the wicked, on the weeds. The angels will come and root them out and throw them into the fire. Yet the point of it all is the production of wheat. God’s goal is what it says in verse 30, to “gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” Verse 29 tells us that’s why God is patient with weeds. He doesn’t want to lose any wheat in the process of dealing with weeds.
It’s exactly the same point that Peter made in II Peter 3:9 in answer to those who were wondering why Jesus was so slow in coming back, why God wasn’t dealing with evil people right here and now. Peter said, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Like any good farmer or gardener, God wants as big a harvest as possible. He wants to save as many people as He can. So He’s being patient.
God is being patient for exactly the reason you find in those two little parables sandwiched in there in verses 31-35. Those are little stories about good growth if one is only patient, but especially the second one displays the amazing, transforming power of God’s kingdom. The tiny seed becomes a tree. And the bit of yeast spreads through the whole mound of dough, leavening it all, changing it all. There is God’s own patient hope. Throughout the world, His love working in His people, in His good seeds, is reaching out, touching weeds, and turning them into wheat. That’s what He’s waiting for.
Throughout time and history that weed to wheat transformation has happened over and over. It happened to a prostitute named Mary Magdalene. It happened to the Apostle Paul. It happened to a young man named Augustine. It happened to a slave trader named John Newton who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It happened to a young, angry drug-user named Anne Lamott. It happened to my college roommate.
In my senior year, “James” popped in on the first day hauling a surfboard as his main item of luggage. He announced, “I’m from Texas and I’m here to surf!” He was certainly not concerned that he had enrolled in a Christian college. He spent his time surfing and drinking, and he cheated on exams in order to pass his classes. In less than two weeks he discovered that I would be an uncongenial roommate for his chosen pursuits and he moved out to join someone of more kindred spirit. I wrote him off and only heard from other people, as they shook their heads, how he surfed and cheated through his first year.
Then after I graduated I happened to speak with another friend who was still there. He told me that in his second year James had changed. He suddenly began to take Christian faith seriously. He changed his major to religious studies. He was feeling a call to the ministry. He had become a new person. Wheat to weed.
That’s what God is waiting and working for. That’s why He lets all those weeds keep growing, even when they’re giving the wheat hell. God still has hope for weeds. He has hope for them even when you and I are almost forced to give up hope because the weeds are so noxious, so invasive, so bad. Through Jesus Christ they may still become wheat.
Our calling, then, is to be patient and to be good seed. Sometimes it’s to be tiny, pitiful mustard seeds that can barely be seen in the midst of all the weeds. Sometimes it’s to be a pungent little pinch of yeast doing our best to flavor a big pile of uncooperative, bland dough. But we’re to stay there, stay at it, stay faithful, and trust God to deal with the weeds, trust His grace and His judgment. It’s His field and it’s His kingdom. If the weeds choose to remain weeds, God will deal with them in His own good time. Until then, it’s not our task to weed the world, it’s our task to seed the world with love and kindness and the good news of Jesus Christ.
We have hope to share with the weeds. God can transform us. On our own we’re all weeds. But trust Jesus Christ in faith, and useless stalks of grass become nourishing grain. By the grace of Jesus, lives still keep changing. No one needs to remain a weed. Jesus said He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. Jesus died on the Cross so that anyone who believes in Him does not need to perish in that eternal fire for which the weeds are destined. Christ rose from the dead so that God could raise up a great harvest of true life in everyone who turns to Him.
With the last verse here, Jesus switched His metaphor. In the end, the grain is bright and golden. In fact we discover that God has grown a field of bright, beautiful sunflowers. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” With patience and hope we wait for God’s kingdom to be completed in a day when all darkness is banished and all that remains is light, the light of God’s love shining in those who have waited for Him.
Jesus ended His interpretation of the parable of the weeds with the words He said so often, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” May you and, like a good field of grain or corn, be full of ears. Let us hear what our Lord says and live patient, hopeful lives that truly are the good seed for this world. And may the Lord of the harvest bring us all into His storehouse, safe and shining with the golden light of His grace that has shone on us all along.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj