Now pray for me as I speak in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
From what I have learned about horticulture, weeds have been a problem for as long as humans have cultivated plants. And if you have ever had responsibility for maintaining a pretty lawn, you have probably come face-to-face with them and thought about how fast uninvited weeds can grow and take over. When nothing else is able to survive heat and drought and disease, weeds seem to flourish. Nowadays, few people know that better than gardeners and farmers and golf course superintend-dents. Just a couple of weeks of neglecting a garden or a field or a golf green in the springtime and those plants can be set back for the entire summer. The culprits, of course, are plants that are unwanted. They reproduce quickly – they grow rapidly – they’re a nuisance. They frequently choke out nearby plants and can even develop a chemical means that prevents germination of other vegetation.
In the gospel appointed for today, Jesus tells us about a farmer who had a weed problem. But that word ‘weed’ needs a bit of attention. Most English Bibles translate the farmer’s prob-lem as ‘weeds’ but the word that Jesus spoke in Aramaic is ‘darnel’. And if it sounds pedantic to say that, I want to tell you why the actual word that Jesus used in this parable is important. First of all, darnel is not just any old weed. It’s a really nasty weed. It looks like wheat – in fact, it’s very difficult to distinguish from wheat. Second, it’s bitter – if you bite into darnel thinking that it’s wheat, it tastes bad. Third, darnel is poisonous – if you bite into it thinking that it’s wheat, you’re not likely to die but it’s sufficiently toxic to make you very sick. And finally, until modern sorting machinery enabled darnel seeds to be separated efficiently from seed wheat, it could not be identified and separated from wheat until both of them were mature and harvested.
So here is my take on the parable. Some workers came to a farmer and said “we thought you sowed good seed in your field; but if you did, where did this darnel come from?” And the farmer replies: “an enemy has done this; somebody who doesn’t like me” . The Romans had a law that punished anyone caught sabotaging a field by sowing darnel in it, so that was a credible answer. But having discovered darnel in the field, the workers then asked the farmer: “so, what do you want us to do – weed the field – go through it and uproot all of the darnel?” But the farmer knew about darnel and worried that the workers might trample or even uproot the wheat do-ing that. So he told the workers to let well-enough alone. Let the darnel and wheat grow togeth-er – and when harvest-time comes, the reapers can collect the darnel first, then bind it into bundles and burn it; and then they can gather the wheat and put it in the barn. That sounds like a ju-dicious move because – as we know- there was no serious hope of distinguishing the poisonous darnel and separating it from the wheat until the plants had matured. So wait until they can be harvested – because only then can they be identified and separated.
It was helpful to know about darnel as I wondered why Jesus gave us this parable – and why Matthew would include it in his gospel. It is clearly a parable of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is speaking directly to those who are his followers, and there is obvious tolerance for diver-sity and difference until the kingdom comes. But Matthew’s Jesus had earlier commissioned his disciples and instructed them not to go among Gentiles or Samaritans but ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. So inclusivity and diversity here are a bit puzzling. In my view, some interpre-ters have mistakenly portrayed this allegory as applicable to governments and states – but Jesus says this is not a parable about politics but about ‘the kingdom of heaven’. So the implications are ecclesiastical – for how his followers are to account for the presence of both good and bad people in not only the world but also the church. So Christian church I know about has means for disciplining its members, whether by shunning or excommunication or some other way.
Still I wondered why Jesus told this parable. And I have come to think Jesus may have given us this parable because he knew that his followers were going to be a mixed bag. There would be good people and bad people in the church – kind people and mean people – honest people and dishonest people – stingy people and generous people – “all sorts and conditions of people” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. In a word, Jesus knew that his church would include sinners. That’s us. You’re a sinner – I’m a sinner – all of us are sinners. Some of us have done mildly bad things, and others of us have done terribly bad things – but none of us is spotless and none of us is worthy to stand before God on our own merit.
And here’s a sobering thought: even the world outside the church knows that we’re far from perfect. In a small Texas town called Mt. Vernon, a business called Drummond’s Bar began construction of a new building – whereupon a local Baptist church started a campaign with pray-ers and petitions to block the bar from opening. But work progressed right up until the week be-fore opening when lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground. The church folks became smug and self-righteous, but then the bar owner sued the church on the grounds that either by direct actions like picketing and petitions or by indirect means like prayer, it was ultimately responsible for the demolition of his building and business,. In its reply to the court, the church strongly denied all responsibility or any connection to the building’s destruction. When the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the paperwork carefully – and at the Hearing, he made this comment: “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this case but it appears from the paperwork that we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer and an entire church congregation who does not”.
Now if, like weeds amid wheat, a correct diagnosis of Christ’s church is that it is filled with sinners, what ought we do about that? Should we post guards at the doors to keep bad people out?! Maybe we should go through the congregation every Sunday and take everybody’s spi-ritual temperature? Perhaps a check-list in the Sunday bulletin to ask everybody to identify last week’s bad and good thoughts and actions . Or maybe we should just ‘clean house’ and decide who belongs here and who doesn’t! Where should we draw that line? Who among us is fit to determine who is good enough and who isn’t; who should be let in and who should be kept out?!
It was of little or no comfort to Matthew that all of us, including himself, are sinners – so why would he remember and write down this parable? Perhaps because by the time he wrote his gospel, serious questions were being asked about who was worthy to be in the primitive young church. Matthew is generally conceded to have directed his gospel to Jewish converts – but just as today, there were good people and bad people in the church and he was concerned about that. Over and over again he returned to this set of issues and hammered away at the importance of Christians leading good lives. He agonized about what the church ought to do with its people who are not leading good lives. So I suspect that he remembered Jesus’ story and thought it an apt allegory about an important concern in Jesus’ church. Just like an enemy has sowed toxic seed in the field, The Evil One has sown poisonous people in the pews. So what ought we do about that? Maybe just get them out like weeds among wheat.
Until I knew about darnel I thought Jesus’ answer either naive or shocking. Just let the good and bad seed grow together until the harvest, he said – and when the time comes, the farmer (i.e., the King of the kingdom of heaven) will collect and burn the bad weeds and gather the good wheat into his barn. Now our practices reflect how we work that out practically in the life of the church. Consider that the drunk in the pew next to us may be praying for strength to quit drink-ing. Or that the thief a couple of pews over might be asking for forgiveness. Or that the gossiper who spreads bad news might be asking for a better governed tongue. Jesus’ answer doesn’t mean for us to be thoughtless and stupid about how we handle our church affairs. We don’t need to put a drunk in charge of the communion wine – and we shouldn’t put a thief in charge of our offer-ings – and we’re not going to ask a gossiper to do pastoral counseling about sensitive matters. But neither should we ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ – or, as Jesus put it, uproot the wheat along with the darnel. Instead, I think Matthew is telling us to be patient and tolerant of folks in the church who don’t fit our idea about who ought to be here. And I also think he means to assure us that God will sort out everything at the harvest when his kingdom comes.
Today’s lections are sober reminders that we live in the between-times – in the tension between the now and the not-yet – between an evil-ridden present and God’s grace-filled future. Our true emancipation from this condition will occur only in that future. So today’s propers remind us that there is lots of ugliness and pain in the world – and that despite out best efforts, we won’t be completely rid of it until God chooses to bring us to the time we regularly pray for – when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Still, some of us can’t wait. Unless WE do something dramatic – and do it NOW – the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
So we have our share of impetuous prophets – like those ‘social gospelers’ who were utterly confident that giving women the vote, abolishing child labor, and guaranteeing nickel beer and a chicken in every pot would surely bring in the kingdom and eradicate the last vestige of human suffering and want. Whatever the occasion for a moral crusade, reformers and reformations always have a sense of urgency. But in this parable Jesus tells his followers that no weeding is needed or to be done. The destruction of evil must await the final harvest, the end-time when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Our hope is anchored in God’s future – that is our faith. We believe in God and we are confident that God is present in the evil that we know full-well. So we do not despair when people act out their hostility toward God and us in horrific ways. Instead, our hope is for God’s future because we are confident that God is present for us on Jesus’ cross.
When his disciples asked him to explain this parable of the wheat and the darnel-weed, Jesus said: “The field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom – but the weeds are the children of the evil one. The harvest is at the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels. The Son of man shall send his angels to gather out of this world all things that are evil and offend – and then the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear”. Amen. So be it.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.