Holding on to the Weeds

Sunday, February 12, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Matthew 13:24-43

The first house Erica and I bought had a magnificent clematis that crept its way up the house just outside the door we used off the driveway. The clematis had probably been growing there for at least 20 years. It had the most beautiful purple flowers, and it was huge! By our second or third year living there, some of the vines had become barren and woody, and there seemed to be some other things growing in it that didn’t look so much like clematis.

So, one day, I thought, “I’m going to clean this clematis up. I’ll get rid of what shouldn’t be there and help this thing back to health. So, I got the big loppers out, and started trimming and pulling the other plants out of it.

(You know where this is going, don’t you?)

It didn’t take long to realize that I had made a very big mistake. It turns out that the “few” cuts I made and “weeds” I pulled pretty much took out all but one or two little vines of the clematis, and within a couple of days I knew it had been traumatized. The flowers were gone. The healthy shape and body of the vines barely hung on the trellis behind it. It was an outright and total horticultural disaster. I was too impatient, too unskilled, and too eager to “fix” something that I clearly didn’t have any right to “fix”.

I don’t imagine I’m alone in this. Maybe it wasn’t your spouse’s beloved landscaping, but something else where you jumped in to correct, “improve” or fix something, only to discover that maybe you too should have left well-enough alone. Here the thing though, it’s part of our nature to want to fix things, whether it’s ours to fix or not. Or we want to control things that we may, or more likely, may not have any power to control. People do this on personal and global scales alike. And the more responsibility, or experience, or influence one has often gives just that much more incentive to jump in and fix, correct, or weed out. Which brings us to the gospel today.

The most elaborate parable we heard Jesus tell in the reading this morning, the parable of the weeds, is often labeled by biblical scholars as a parable of judgement. By the time we get to the explanation at the end of the reading, it seems obvious that it is just that – a description of what God does with all the good and bad in the world at the end of time. But before we get to the weeping and gnashing of teeth at the end, let’s remember how Jesus sets this parable up in the first place.

Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who plants good seed in his field.” That’s a good start, right? God comes with goodness and spreads goodness all around. It really sounds like this is about God’s kingdom, not God’s judgment. Now, when we hear Jesus use the term “kingdom of heaven”, he isn’t just talking about something in some celestial afterlife. This is God’s presence and powerful goodness acting in and among our everyday lives. It’s earthy and tangible, like a farmer’s field. So, Jesus’ initial intent is not to point to judgment, but to the way God’s redemptive reign comes among us. And when we pair this parable with the two that Jesus tells immediately following it, we get a better sense of what he’s getting at. The kingdom of heaven is often hidden in plain sight, like yeast in bread or an unwanted mustard bush in the midst of a field, or a harvest of wheat infested with weeds.

The goodness of God grows right alongside the weeds of evil, or as Luther would likely say, “sin, death, and the devil.” And doesn’t that sound familiar? That we experience the goodness and grace of God alongside, or sometimes right in the thick of the messiness and difficulty of life? And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The weeds Jesus talks about in the parable look an awful lot like the wheat the grows and will bear fruit, but the weeds don’t produce fruit. In Jesus’ day, the weeds that would grow in a wheat field were called darnel. As they grew along with wheat, they looked a lot alike. It wasn’t until the wheat heads were full of grain, and ready for harvest that you could see that the darnel didn’t produce the same heads of grain. They were imposters. And good ones at that.

Jesus told these stories in the presence of those who were deeply suspicious of him. Namely, other religious leaders, Pharisees, who would ultimately advocate for crucifying him.  Perhaps like those hired hands so eager to get rid of the weeds in the field, they too were trying to pluck him from their presence because he seemed like a weed in their perspective of what it meant to be religious. When in reality, they are the ones who weren’t always aligned with the goodness of God’s reign among them.

As I said before, this desire to quickly sort what we perceive is good or evil, strong or weak, worthy or unworthy, is human nature. The judgment some look for in this parable more often comes from us than from God. How often are we quick to judge another by their appearance or their social status? How subtle do we sort people by what or who they know or don’t know? How many times have we been mistaken by trusting someone who seemed good, even influential, like a famous person, a community leader or even a religious leader, but later found out they weren’t as good as we thought? At the same time, trying to always sort out the good from the bad doesn’t really get us anywhere either.

We are conditioned to be preoccupied by the weeds growing in the world. Sensationalized 24-hour news cycles have fueled this preoccupation for decades and social media magnifies it. I recently read that the majority of people in the world now trust what they read in their social media feeds more than what is reported by professional, reputable, carefully vetted news sources.  It seems that we want to hold on to the weeds so firmly, that we can’t see the harvest of good among us.

But Jesus doesn’t play by these rules. The farmer in Jesus’ story looks at those hired hands who are so obsessed with the weeds and says, “Let them grow together. Don’t get too focused on all the ways we can split these things out. You’ll do more harm than good. Acknowledge the weeds, but don’t let them own you. It clouds your vision of the good that is there. Be patient because the harvest isn’t here yet, and it isn’t even your responsibility.”

When we let the weeds alone, we let go of our need to control. We lose our grip on needing to fix everything, as if we’re the only ones who know best. When we let go of our preoccupation with the weeds, we can admit that maybe our sense of what is good or bad isn’t always the same as God’s sense of goodness or even what’s best for our neighbor. We may even be able to see with a bit of humility the good and the bad – the wheat and the weeds – that are present in in ourselves. Jesus uses a very interesting Greek word to tell the hired hands to “Let them grow together.” The word is aphete. It is often translated as permit or allow, but it is also translated as “forgive” more than forty times in the New Testament.

Forgive the weeds to grow among the wheat. Forgive those you see as imposters or weak, as evil doers or unworthy. Let them be and see what will come at the harvest. Forgiveness goes beyond permission or tolerance to exist. When we forgive, the possibility is open for reconciliation, for relationship, for transformation, for a harvest that is more than we could ask or imagine. When we step back and look at the thrust of God’s full relationship with the world, this sounds like the kingdom of heaven!

The kingdom of heaven is hidden in the patient practice of waiting for God to make things new through the forgiveness of all of our sins, our imposter syndrome, our shortcomings. In this parable we get a glimpse of the heart of Jesus, and see a Messiah who enters the world not to condemn it, but to save it. Jesus comes not to wipe out every person with evil in them, but to wipe out every evil within each of us; so that in the here and now, and the hereafter we may experience the full goodness and mercy that comes from the heart of Christ. Amen.

Past Sermons