19 July 2020

Pentecost 7: Growing Wheat

Bible Passage: Matthew 13:24-30

Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

One of the hidden blessings of being in a pandemic is the amount of time I get to spend in my garden. A few weeks ago I asked Montavilla Gardeners facebook group what to do about my dandelion problem. A couple of people had suggestions along the lines of what I was looking for: “plant woolly thyme.” “Disturb the soil.” Or “don’t disturb the soil.” But the majority of the people who responded to my post said “Oh, no! You need to leave the dandelions for the bees!” I did not know this, but apparently it is a thing.

That experience reminded me of what we know about weeds 1) not everything we think of as weeds are weeds, 2) whether or not something is a weed is actually subjective, 3) some weeds have powerful medicinal properties, like dandelions and chickweed, and 4) sometimes eradication is worse than just leaving the weeds where they are.

This is definitely true in today’s parable about the weeds growing among the wheat. To uproot the weeds would damage the wheat, partly because the particular weed Jesus uses in the story looks a lot like wheat until it is mature.

Let both of them grow together until the harvest.

We live in a time when it seems as though an enemy has sown bad seeds among us. There is much in the world to be afraid of. Jesus’ instruction, to let the wheat and the weeds grow together has much to say to us about how we respond to the evil in the world.

Letting them grow together allows wheat to grow tall, strong, and resilient. It allows the reapers—who are not, by the way, you and me—to distinguish between wheat and weeds, between the righteous and the evildoers. Letting them grow together involves letting go of judgment and acknowledging that it is God, not us, who does the sorting between good and evil, in God’s time.

Our criminal justice system is a prime example of what can happen when humans take judgment into their own hands. Mass incarceration (brought to you by white supremacy and racist policies), is the result of, among other things, mandatory drug sentencing laws. It puts into the hands of a few the authority to judge what they think might be weeds. I’m not saying there is not a place in our society—as in scripture—for restorative justice. But the school-to-prison pipeline that populates our prisons with young Black men robbed of their futures damages not only their own lives but the communities—the wheat fields—from which they came, communities which might have had the power to grow them into strong and resilient people.

Letting the weeds and wheat grow together means focusing on the potential strength and resilience of the crop, and not focusing on the fate of those who would disrupt that strength and resilience. There’s a sign on a telephone pole in my neighborhood that’s been up since early June that says: “What we focus on expands.” This is, I think, an important takeaway of today’s story.

While judging who is evil and who is good is not our task, helping our communities to grow strong wheat—resilient, loving citizens of the Kingdom of God is our task. Why does God even create the possibility of evil seeds to be sown by an enemy? This is the age-old problem of the existence of evil. It is not our problem to solve. Our problem—not our “problem” but our opportunity—is to continue to seek the good in the presence of its opposite. To love when we are surrounded by hate; to open our doors—these days, figuratively—when other doors are closed.

Our saints provide example after example of wheat that grows strong and resilient among weeds. Representative John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Georgia congressman who died Friday, is a prime illustration. If you’ve been reading about him this weekend, you’ve come across this quote:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”

Strong wheat among weeds.

Letting the weeds and wheat grow together means letting go of the anxiety that we might feel about our own fate. “Am I good enough? Am I righteous? Or am I destined for the fiery furnace?” I don’t know which is worse: spending energy on judging other people, or spending energy on judging ourselves. When we focus on these questions—and I am as guilty of doing so as the next person—we are actually resisting grace, resisting God’s invitation to simply grow.

Let both of them grow together until the harvest.

When Jesus says “Let both of them grow together,” the word he uses for “let” is áphete. This is the imperative for the verb aphiénai. This verb, which appears one hundred and fifty times in the New Testament, has two major meanings. One is how it is commonly understood here: leave, or let.

The other meaning, which we would have no way of knowing because the English translation only goes one way, is forgive.* More than a third of the time that this verb is used, it is used in the “forgive” sense of the word. We don’t know this is what Jesus meant, but we don’t know that it isn’t. We do know that it is the same word Jesus used when he told us to forgive our enemies seventy times seven. The earliest Greek-speaking Christians would have prayed for forgiveness of sins and of enemies using the Lord’s Prayer, within minutes of hearing this gospel on the Sundays it came around. They would have heard áphete as forgive.

The Jesus who says “Let them grow together” is the same Jesus who, dying a miserable death on the cross, prayed for forgiveness for the people who put him on the cross and then taunted him as he hung there dying.

So, part of what it means to grow as a strong, resilient community is to forgive. This is the Kingdom practice the parable teaches. It is part of our liberation from the powers that would destroy our hope.

When we pray, in a few moments, for one another and for the world, let us pray for all those who have hurt us, all those whose actions we consider evil, and for ourselves, that we might turn our attention, always, to the loving, liberating, life-giving work God has set before us.

* I’m grateful to Robert Farrar Capon for this insight, in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. (Eerdmans, 2002)