Sunday 23 July 2017
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 16A
This morning we have another parable about planting seeds. Last week we heard Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Sower. A farmer plants seeds. As they are thrown out, some seed lands on a path, some seed lands in shallow soil, some seed lands among weeds, and some seed lands on good soil. God just throws seed everywhere. Even though it can’t grow everywhere, seed is still planted everywhere. We don’t always know where the good soil is ahead of time, and sometimes the seed of God’s word surprises us. Today we have another parable about a farmer planting seed.
As you may have heard before, Mark is the oldest of the four gospels we have in the bible, probably written about 70 CE. Matthew and Luke both use Mark as a source. They’re both written about ten years later, around 80 CE. Interestingly, about 90% of Mark is duplicated in Matthew. Matthew uses Mark as a framework and adds a few more stories and a lot of Jesus preaching and teaching.
Now, at this same place in the gospel of Mark there is a parable about a sower. It may be the basis of the parable we are looking at in Matthew this morning, but it is much simpler. Here it is: This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.” (Mark 4:26-29)
This parable shares much in common with our parable today. The sower sows. Things happen in the day and in the night. We wait until the end of the season, and at harvest time we find out what has grown. The point of the Mark parable seems to be that while we are doing the work of the kingdom of God, we never quite know what effect it’s having until much later. Any teacher knows this. You may teach a classroom of children today, but you never know exactly how it’s going to be processed and learned by your students. Only much later do you see the fruit of what you planted in the past, and the way that it comes to fruit sometimes remains a mystery.
Matthew takes this simple parable and reworks it extensively. Once again we have a farmer scattering seed. Matthew makes sure to tell us that it is not just ordinary seed, it is good seed. In the night, an enemy plants the field with weeds. Specifically, the enemy plants lollium temulentum, known commonly as darnel, poison darnel, darnel ryegrass, or cockle. Darnel is a common weed in wheat fields. It looks a lot like wheat, especially as it is coming up. It’s also hard to distinguish between wheat seed and darnel seed. In some places, it is called false wheat.
In addition to just being an annoyance to wheat farmers, darnel is a health hazard. Darnel can be host to a ergot fungus. You cannot tell by looking whether a particular darnel plant is infected. When eaten by humans, it can cause a number of different reactions, including a burning sensation in the hands and feet (called St. Anthony’s Fire), gangrene, miscarriage, hallucinations, and even death. So this dirty trick played by the enemy is not just obnoxious, it is noxious. It is potentially a matter of life and death.
Next, the parable takes a strange turn. It had been quite clear that one person, the farmer, does all of the planting. But after the planting is over, suddenly the farmer is transformed into a landholder with slaves. As the crop is coming up, the slaves notice that there is both wheat and darnel growing in the field, all mixed together.
The slaves ask the master, “Didn’t you plant good seed?” It seems like a rather impertinent question, coming from a slave, but they ask it all the same.
The farmer-turned-master responds that an enemy has planted the darnel. How exactly the master knows this, we are not told. Interestingly, the word translated here as enemy, ἐχθρὸς, has a better translation in contemporary English slang. It literally means “hater.” Someone who hates me is an enemy. The slaves ask why there is so much darnel in the wheat field, and the master essentially says, “Haters gonna hate.”
So the slaves ask a very reasonable follow-up question: “Do you want us to go pull the weeds?” That would be the impulse of most gardeners, wouldn’t it? If you find weeds in your crop, you pull them out as soon as you can. You don’t want the weeds drawing away resources from your crops. Sunlight, water, nutrients: weeds can steal them all from the plant you are trying to grow. So the normal practice is to pull the weeds and leave the crop. This was no less true in the ancient world than it is today.
And so it is very strange when the master responds “No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest.” Again, that statement would have been just as strange in the ancient world as it is today. Every wheat field grew with some darnel, and it wasn’t uncommon to try to weed it out. This parable isn’t drawing on the common wisdom of 1st-century Palestinian farmers, it is making its point by defying that common wisdom. No farmer lets weeds and wheat grow together. But, according to Jesus, this farmer does. Why?
We can actually do quite well without the heavy-handed, allegorical interpretation that Matthew offers in verses 36-43. It is one possible interpretation of the parable, but it is not the only one. Parables, by definition, resist having a rigid, unbending interpretation. What makes parables powerful is that they can never be fully solved. They gnaw at the mind. They mean different things at different times and in different situations. If they could be easily explained with one, never-changing interpretation, they would not be parables.
The kingdom of God is like a farmer who lets the weeds grow along with the wheat because to pull out the weeds might cause harm to the wheat. What does this mean?
The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is not pure. Mark and Luke talk about the kingdom of God, but Matthew doesn’t want to run the risk of using God’s name in vain, so instead he talks about the kingdom of heaven. He means the same thing by it, though. But Matthew’s language—the kingdom of heaven—gives the distinct impression of something other-worldly, something away and apart, something that is completely separated from the world. The kingdom of heaven sounds like white-robed angels and streets paved with gold. It sounds like the afterlife. It sounds like a place with no conflict, no change, no argument, no struggle, no pain.
But that is definitely not what Matthew’s Jesus is talking about when he talks about the kingdom of heaven. There is no doubt about it: the kingdom of heaven actually happens on earth. The kingdom of heaven is what happens when God’s rule encroaches on the rest of the world. As we’ll explore next week, the kingdom of heaven is insidious; it is always working its way through the world and popping up in unexpected places.
This parable reminds us that the kingdom of heaven is all mixed up with the evil of the world. They grow together. They are intermixed with each other. Sometimes they even look quite similar. Sometimes they can be hard to tell apart, hard to separate.
And that is the way we experience the kingdom of heaven. The joy of life is all mixed up with the pain of death. They cannot be separated. To lose one would be to lose the other. Without the pain of death, the joy of life has no meaning. And although we would rather weed out the pain of death, if we did, we would destroy the joy of life.
Likewise, good and evil grow up together. They are intertwined. The same hands that do good can also do evil. The same mouth that speaks blessing can also speak curses. The same heart that loves can also hate. We are such complex beings, and even when we try to do good, sometimes we fail. Sometimes, even, with the very best of intentions we try to do something good but it ends of causing more hurt.
Brown vs. the Board of Education, a landmark supreme court case. It recognized that in a segregated school system, the white schools always got more resources than the black schools. And so, in order to remedy that inequality, the court ruled for the desegregation of public schools. And yet, as a result, many black students found themselves getting a far worse education in a desegregated school in which they were systematically treated as inferior trespassers than they had in the segregated black schools where they had black teachers who cared about and understood them.
Good and evil mingled together. In fact, as C. S. Lewis argues, evil is not a force unto itself. Evil is a good that has been twisted. As in that field, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two until the fruit has actually started to appear.
The kingdom of heaven is not pure. We who would follow Jesus do not have the luxury of keeping our hands clean of the hurt and sin and death in our world. In fact, it is often in those places of pain and suffering where God’s presence is most powerfully felt. It is often in the places of evil and pain and death that the power of the kingdom of heaven is most efficacious. Christians are not immune to the hurt of the world. And if we really are following Jesus, we will find ourselves seeking out hurt in order to offer healing.
The hurt and the healing, the pain and the joy, the death and the life: they grow together. And we are not able to separate them. One day, God will sort everything out, but that is not something we need to be concerned with today. It is not our job to make those kinds of judgments. It is not our job to try to weed out the people that we don’t approve of, or even to weed out the experiences that we would rather avoid. We can’t. They grow together.
And in that, there is grace. God does not expect perfect automatons. God uses our faults to make us more empathetic. God uses our failures to give us wisdom. God uses our weakness to make us strong. And God is there in the midst of it all, amongst the wheat and the weeds alike, offering guidance, offering grace, offering love. Thanks be to God.