Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8: 12-25, Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
Matthew is at it again. Another parable turned into an allegory, another very restricted reading of a dynamic and challenging parable. Why does he do it? What is going on in his community, that he feels the need to interpret Jesus’s words for them in this particular way? We can surmise as much as we like, and many people have, but this reading of the parable of the wheat and the weeds is particularly judgemental. Matthew has turned it into a story about the end times, of good and evil, of God’s work being frustrated by a malevolent power who will ultimately be destroyed, when he could have left the parable open and flexible, with questions about the origins of weeds and the power of distraction a-plenty for us to work on.
The definition of a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place. Weeds are just as much plants as roses, it’s just that they have not been so carefully worked on over the centuries to produce scent or large flowers or food. In many ways, as any gardener knows, weeds are more successful than lots of the plants that we want to grow – they sprout faster, come into flower faster and can be incredibly effective at spreading their seed for the next generation of weeds to bother the gardener. Weeds have adapted to human presence, attaching themselves to our clothing or travelling in our cars or trains – in fact the advent of the railways brought a massive spread of weeds across this country, one of the many unintended consequences of progress.
But in Jesus’s parable, these are not random weeds that have made their way into this field of wheat – “good seed” has been planted, that is, carefully selected seed, with all the little weed seeds taken out of it. No, someone very deliberately sows the weeds, as an act of sabotage, or spite, or both. Why do that? There are far more efficient ways of ruining an opponent’s crops – trampling, burning, letting cattle in – all of which deny any form of harvest at all for the suffering farmer. This way, the farmer just has more work to do to separate out the weeds from the grain. He still gets his wheat harvest, just with a bit more effort. And, in practical terms, the farmer also gets a pile of dried weeds to start the village bread oven, so it is even possible to read some benefit into the weeds. This enemy must have other intentions. If he is not trying to starve the farmer, or destroy his livelihood, then this enemy must be in the business of frustration and annoyance. The wheat will grow, the grain will be produced, but not without pain and extra labour. Echoes there of the fall narrative – where God curses the ground so that Adam’s labour will have to increase and childbirth will be painful.
Now the parable starts to open up. The kingdom of heaven will not ultimately be destroyed or defeated, but its fulfilment will take more effort than we think. All sorts of things will get in the way of God’s rule on earth, and we will have to be selective in how we deal with those issues. Covid 19 is one of those weeds. It has the capacity to strangle life out of communities, to break down societal cohesion and to render nul all the advances of the previous centuries. But it is also possible that we will learn to deal with it, to vaccinate against it, to order our lives in a new way that mitigates its effects. Covid 19 is not the end of the Kingdom of God, nor is it the end of the Church, or our way of life. It is one of those extra things we will get to grips with, but ultimately it will be thrown on the fire of irrelevancies.
What else, then, could qualify as a weed, or a barrier to the expansion of the Kingdom of God? Well, how long have you got?! There are external weeds, like discrimination and prejudice, poverty and exclusion. There are internal weeds like distraction, laziness, lack of focus. There are serious weeds, like illness and bereavement, family stresses and workplace hassles. There are spiritual weeds like doubt or unbendable opinions. The whole work-family-life balance could be one big weed – or it could be an opportunity to knuckle down, sort out some priorities and enjoy the good things that God has provided for us in this wonderful world.
Your vicar leaving could be viewed as a weed, or as the best thing that could possibly happen to these parishes. I leave that one with you to assess in the years to come.
The good seed of the Kingdom of Heaven will continue to grow. Our baptism, our faith, the presence of the Holy Spirit in us cannot be taken away and will bring us to everlasting glory, when everything will make sense and we will learn to value weeds fully. But may we be given grace to work at either eradicating our weeds, or finding an accommodation with them, or using them for some other valuable purpose, so that God’s great kingdom of love and mercy may fully be realised in.
Rev Peter Hart