Each spring as the winter brown of America’s lawns begins to show forth the new life of spring, there are certain flowers that are, by and large, the first taste of pollen for honey bees. The flower, named Taraxacum Officianale, is a mediocre food source according to one website, but in the early spring or in times of dearth when little else is in bloom this little flower is better than nothing. There is something else occurring at the time that the honey bees are hitting the McDonald’s of the wildflower world, however; in the name of the pristine lawn, or for fear of the home owner’s association, many folks are out with their containers of RoundUp killing this nasty little weed. Or is it a wildflower?
I did a Google search with the term “wildflowers” and as the search results came in, at the top of the page were four listings for “wildflower seed mixes” ranging anywhere from $62.00 to $9.95 for a 1/4 lb bag of seed mix. Immediately after this listing of wild flower seed mixes for sale was the definition of wildflowers: “A flower of an uncultivated variety or a flower growing freely without human intervention.” (Unless you’re buying $62.00 worth of wildflower seeds…and if you’re buying wildflower seeds to plant in the garden at your house, are they really wildflowers anymore?)
Back to the Taraxacum Officianale — even if you think it’s a wildflower, your neighbors probably want you to stop growing weeds in your yard, even if it’s slightly beneficial to the honey bees, because Dandelions are the wildflower weed everyone loves to hate and hates to love.
We don’t’ really have an anti-dandelion agenda, we remember being kids and actually being excited about the white-topped wildflowers in our yards. “Make a wish!” we’d say and then blow the little parachutes everywhere; it’s a great memory, right? But when the wind blows our neighbor’s little white-topped weed seeds into our yard, it’s another issue altogether.
Jesus tells this parable which says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a homeowner who invests good seed and good fertilizer into a pristine lawn and then while he and his lawn keeper were asleep, his next door neighbor leaned over the fence and “whoosh” blew dandelions everywhere.
Not really. Dandelions would be easy to notice. Tares (or bearded darnel), the weed that Jesus talks about, looks exactly like wheat as it grows in the field. The farmer literally cannot tell the difference between the two until right before harvest; the difference between weed and wheat is in the fruit.
I have read that Tares/Bearded Darnel don’t bear fruit at all and I have read that the bearded darnel bears “fruit” that causes hallucinations and eventually death. Maybe no fruit would be better.
Either way, can’t tell until the grain pops out and by then the roots are so intertwined that to rip out the weed would damage the wheat.
(I learn SO MUCH about agriculture because of Jesus!)
Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this farmer whose field of wheat is sabotaged by the evil one with imposters, a landowner whose servants want to cast out the bad crops but are told to be patient because to take out the bad will likely harm the good.
So is this a parable about “wolves dressed like sheep” or fake disciples mixed in with the good disciples? Is this a parable about the nature of humans: we’re either good or bad and there’s nothing to be done about it?
It is probably safe to say that Matthew’s world view is that that people are either Children of God or Children of the evil one, even if he also holds that the community of faith is what some call a corpus permixtum (a mixed body). The body may hold a variety of people, but people are one or the other: good or evil. That’s probably where Matthew is coming from.
And certainly history bears witness to individuals who are personifications of evil, just as history bears witness to individuals who are personifications of good. But I struggle with the idea that either people are evil or people are good.
Or maybe more appropriate to the context of Matthew’s community of faith, I struggle with the idea that there are people who are wholly right in their orthodoxy and their orthopraxy and there people who are wholly wrong.
The community of Antioch (Matthew’s community) began as a church of diaspora Jewish Christians following the initial wave of persecution in Jerusalem. It was a diverse and urban church and after the fall of Jerusalem, it became even more diverse. Gentile Christians started worshipping with Jewish Christians and the question of the community became, “How do we deal with those who seem like us but who reveal a difference through the expression of their faith and/or their actions.” Or as one pastor says, “[To be blunt,] it seems to us that some of our number are as worthless as weeds, so how and when are we to rid ourselves of them?”
It may not seem significant to us that there were Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the same community and that the the influx of Gentiles into Matthew’s community warranted the inclusion of this parable in his gospel, when we don’t see it in the others. But there was, and is, a big difference between the expectations of Jewish & Gentile Christians (just read Acts and some of Paul’s letters). We’re talking at a minimum Sabbath observance, dietary rules, circumcision…or not doing these things—and this was a deal breaker for Jewish Christians.
Matthew works to unburden his community by sharing this parable: “It’s not your job to determine one from the other.”
“In the very act of asking [who is accepted by God and who is not] we so often assume that it is our job to draw up the specifications regarding the wideness of God’s welcome…
The strategy [revealed in the words of Jesus] makes room…for a holy and purposeful ambiguity…
The God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other…
It is not our job to determine who is within and who is beyond this God’s attention. It is rather our job to imagine everyone as belonging to this God, and therefore, with all that we can muster, to endeavor to embrace….God’s wholly and purposeful ambiguity.” *
Matthew is not interested in saying that Kingdom of Heaven is “good and evil getting along and being accepted by God forever and ever, amen.” Let me be clear about that. Matthew also not saying that the Church should be passive in the face of evil or that this i a divine command to ignore injustice or violence. Matthew is saying that the difference between the good and the bad is demonstrated in the fruit.
So maybe the reality is that “each of us is some mixture of wheat and weed, of holy and unholy, of potentially fruitful and potentially destructive.”
One day I was sitting at a traffic light at the mall. Between me and the intersection was a guy driving a jeep and someone else in the pole position at the signal. The jeep in front of me had a gigantic cross dangling from the rear-view mirror. The rear bumper was enhanced with an “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned” sticker. The light turned green, and after about two seconds of no movement…you know exactly what happened…not a polite “hey you awake” tap on the horn, but the full blown lean-on-the-horn-yelling obscenities-flipping-the-bird action. Wheat or Weed?
Or what about the members of churches who are so committed to their idea of church or their memories of what the church was that they cling to it so dearly that they choke the life out the very thing that they love. There is no doubt that they love God and that they love the community of faith, but they can’t let go of what was and they aren’t bearing any fruit. Wheat or weed?
Before I entered seminary I worked as a caretaker for an Episcopal Church in Northern California. During Holy Week I met a lot of the church members who were helping set up for the services. Every day, as most of the faces changed, these two same people were there, helping clean, helping cook, arranging fresh flowers, reading liturgy. As the week moved on I could see them getting tired but their love for God still managed to shine bright and they kept sharing their gifts with the community. I don’t think the week’s celebration would have moved as many people closer to God without their work; and yet, to many these two men living together in a long term committed relationship raise the question: wheat or weeds?
This parable shows us a God who is patient with us as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. There will be times when we look around the Church and see others that we perceive as useless weeds, and there will be times when others will perceive us the same way. Maybe that’s why Jesus says worry about the plank in your own eye before judging the speck in your neighbor’s.
The good news is that God has a long-view on what makes us wheat or weeds. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this whole parable and nothing gets sorted until judgment—and the things that are really, truly evil will be dealt with and the things that are really, truly good will be dealt with. In the meantime, let’s be about bearing good fruit; let’s be about reflecting the likeness of Jesus into the world, to act in his name according to the command to love.
* Theodore J. Wardlaw “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 13…” Feasting on the Word, Year A. Vol 3.