July 23, 2017

Pentecost 7   July 23, 2017   Psalm 1, Romans 8:18-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 34-43

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The parable of the seeds and weeds is like the best of all parables. The parable that tells us everything we really need to know. The parable that tells us God will get rid of all evil, and we’ll live happily ever after, shining like the sun in the kingdom of heaven…

The parable of the seeds and weeds is like the worst of all parables. A parable in which whether we are good seed or bad weed, our fates are all predetermined. The good seed are the children of God, who are bound to grow into good grain no matter what. The bad seed are children of the devil who are bound for the fiery furnace no matter what…

This parable is like the famous first sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, that begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” then winds through a series of comparisons, to “We were all going direct to heaven – we were all going direct the other way…”

We’re in our second week of listening to the Jesus parables in chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel. Once again we’re looking at seeds planted in the ground. Last week all the seed was good, but when good seed was cast by a good sower on four different types of ground, the good seed sown by the good sower still failed completely in three out of four soil situations.

This week we’re in the garden again with Jesus, but now – all the soil is good – and now there’s not one but two sowers. First the Son of Man, who looks a lot like Jesus, and sows good seed. Then a second sower, a stuntman double for the devil, it seems, who sows a toxic weed, an actual weed known as darnel or zinzania, that looks a lot like wheat til its nearly full grown, and which is poisonous enough so that you would not want to eat bread that had darnel mixed in with the wheat. The problem of darnel growing along with wheat was well-known among farmers. No enemy required; wind-blown weed self-seeds. There are a few recorded cases of farmers letting both grow together till harvest, but more often farmers would cut or pull toxic weeds before harvest. Jesus is talking about unusual, not usual farming behavior. People would know this is a parable, not an agricultural lesson.  And…

This is a parable in two rather different parts. In part one, the more conspicuously parabolic part, the point seems to be about not making a bad situation even worse. ‘Leave those weeds alone, or you’ll uproot the good along with the bad. Let the wheat and weeds grow together till harvest.’ So the Lord of the harvest commands.

Then, after two other short parables (that we’re not reading today), Jesus responds to questions from disciples about the meaning of what they call “the parable of the weeds…” in the second part of the parable… and…

As I’ve been thinking about this parable while weeding in my garden… I’ve been wondering – how often have I yanked up little seedlings that I have personally laboriously previously planted – pulling them up, mistaking them for weeds, while gardening in haste? Was that okra or eggplant, one of those new-to-me plants I’m still trying to learn to recognize, that I just pulled up? Can I get it to grow again if I stick it back in the ground? (Should have left it alone!)

I’ve even considered taking what Jesus says literally – giving up weeding altogether. But remembering how, last week Jesus said to keep our hearts free from thorns that choke the seeds… So just to be sure, I better keep weeding the nasty thorny Canadian thistle that grows in our community garden, and other weeds that don’t pull up good plants along with them. And again this is a parable. A comparison in parable form of gardening tactics and the kingdom of heaven.

Today another version of this parable might be about not spraying herbicide – which yes, kills weeds, but can also poison the earth, contaminate ground water, and make the food we eat a higher risk for cancer. As in the original parable – the cure is worse than the weed. And Jesus tells his farm hands not to do even the slow, laborious work of organic hand-weeding…Do not trust, Jesus says, in our own ability to know good wheat from bad weeds. We often can’t tell the difference, and even when we can, their roots are all intertwined now, and if we pull up the weeds we pull up the good wheat with it also… Yes, it’s nice that we want to help. But don’t start thinking God is on vacation…And we have been left in charge.

Pushing the parable envelope just a little further – can we imagine? What life would really be like – if we could actually wait – till we were very, very sure – that what we plan to do to combat evil is not going to create yet more evil? How many conflicts might be avoided – how many fewer lives might be lost – if we could learn to wait… and let God sort things out? And yes, this is difficult. And as GK Chesterton, theologian, and author of the Father Brown mysteries, wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting – it has been found difficult, and left untried.”

So why, again, is Jesus speaking here in parables – instead of just saying what he means more clearly?

Perhaps that’s what he is doing, finally, in the second half of the parable – as he answers disciples who have asked him what “the parable of the weeds in the field” is all about. Many students of the bible hear Jesus’ explanation as his plain and simple answer to their question. Which perhaps it might be…

Though some hear it rather differently. Theologian Robert Farrar Capon, author of three books on the parables of Jesus (and our Thought for the Week today) hears this explanation of the parable as Jesus getting really frustrated by disciples who are just not getting it. Notice, Capon says, how they call this the “parable of the weeds” – when Jesus’ point all along has clearly been about the wheat! The wheat! Not the weeds! The kingdom of heaven! Not the enemies of the kingdom.

Of course there are enemies of God and the kingdom. And of course it’s not about them. It’s about us refusing to come into the kingdom and learn from Jesus how to be living, here and now, as citizens of the kingdom. Not citizens of the world, which never understands Jesus. Never gets his stories and parables, because the world is stuck (always) in broken patterns of misunderstanding…

(A bit like Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities – which on the surface is about the two cities of London and Paris and the reign of terror after the French revolution – while the deeper meaning is about the two cities, the worldly and heavenly cities St Augustine wrote about long ago. The worldly city where terror of one kind or another is always normal. And the heavenly city where peace and grace and love are always our rule of life according to God’s law.)

And the church, Capon says, like disciples of old, is also, so often, not really getting Jesus. Still so often failing to hear Jesus when he says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven…. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…” And of course to understand the parables we need to know what else Jesus says, and look for the context… And as we do so we notice… The waiting that Jesus insists on doesn’t mean we should retreat from all action. Jesus also says “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they will be filled,”  and ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, they’ll be called children of God…”

Jesus has been communicating the kingdom by word and deed all along, often very patiently… Now, perhaps, he is getting tire of explaining kingdom basics again and yet again… So now he resorts to wilder parables – designed to poke holes in our mental defenses and get us considering anew the shocking reality of God’s kingdom… And how different it is from our pre-programmed expectations…

And Jesus now is speaking in another kind of parable… Saying “this is what the kingdom looks like. If you’re hearing me you’re hearing kingdom language. I’m trying hard to teach you all about God’s kingdom – but you still seem to keep wanting to hear the story just the way you think you already know it… So – here it is, just the way you seem to want to hear it: “In the end all the bad guys get tossed in the flames, and all the good guys shine like the sun in the kingdom. The end.”

On one hand, this parable and its explanation– if that’s really what our last reading really is – is a pretty fair summary of all we can really know about evil. That is, evil is not from God, but evil (obviously) happens in the world. Evil gets mixed in with God’s goodness, not by God’s will or design. But the point, which can sometimes only be explained in parables, is always about God’s grace – always about God’s kingdom. Always about God’s desire that no one should perish, and  all should come to repentance – turning to God – turning to Jesus, living by his kingdom of heaven rules…

Yes, there will be judgement, Jesus tells us. But all the rest of this explanation Jesus gives is probably best heard as a parable designed to provoke us into questioning our understanding of the kingdom. The details are all part of the parable – a strong storm warning – not a detailed forecast. We should definitely always be ready for Jesus’ return… But we should especially always remember – how Jesus tells us – many times, many ways – that he has come into this world so that we may become, like him, children of God. Become is the operative word. Whoever we are, wherever we’re coming from, we are all called, all invited to become children of God… trusting in Jesus and listening to him…

Remembering yet again…

It is still the best of times… Still the worst of times…

We are all still going directly to heaven, we are still all going directly the other direction… And our roots are all still so intertwined together… that only King Jesus, Lord of the harvest, can sort us out… So –

May we, his willing slaves and grateful servants, listen well – and say often –

Thanks be to God.

Amen.