Weeding the Garden

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Last week Sonya and I marked our ninth year in our current house, which is easily the longest we have lived in one location in our adult lives. Nine years is enough time to make a house a home. We have, both figuratively and metaphorically, put down some roots. Eight summers ago we brought in some topsoil and built a raised-bed garden (two more would later follow). We have worked and amended the soil every spring, planted our seeds in straight rows, watered the garden, and watched it grow. And then every year, by the 4th of July, we start to neglect our garden and it becomes overgrown with weeds.

The thing is that I enjoy working the soil and planting the garden. I do not, however, enjoy weeding it. Maybe it is because I don’t like to pay that much attention to what I am doing and inevitably pull up a cucumber plant or two along the way. Maybe it is just the hot weather that comes in the middle of the summer. Either way, I’m glad to say that I have made the decision to follow the teachings of Jesus, which is to say that I will never pull another weed again!

Who doesn’t love a good agricultural parable? If you don’t, I’d suggest staying away from Matthew 13, because there are a few of them sprinkled throughout this chapter. In Matthew 13 we find the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the sower, and of course today’s lesson, the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Or if you know your King James, you probably have heard this one called the parable of the wheat and the tares.

If you have ever grown anything, you know that this parable is really bad advice. If you do not weed your garden or cultivate your field, you will not get much of a harvest. The weeds and the good seed will compete for nutrients, water, space, and sunlight. If Jesus’s intention was to tell people that they should never pull up weeds, then I would expect that someone with some agricultural or horticultural experience would have called him out on it. Someone would have said, “That will never work!” So what is going on here? (Sorry kids, we still need to weed the garden.)

The point of this passage seems to come right down to the long-standing Christian teaching that we are not to judge one another. We can speak about actions that think are right or wrong, but we are in no position to say if someone is “good” or “bad,” and surely it is not up to us to decide on someone’s eternal destination.

In this parable, Jesus says that a man sowed good seed in his field, with the goal of having a wheat harvest in a few months. But a few weeks go by and the workers notice that there is more than just wheat growing in the field. There is a weed, which is sometimes called a “tare” or “darnel.”

The darnel plant looks a lot like wheat, so much so that I’m a little surprised that the workers were able to discern between the two. Darnel puts forth a shoot like wheat, it develops a head like wheat. Most people, myself included, can only really tell the difference when it comes time to harvest the seed.

So the workers come to the owner and ask him, Hey, what’s up with this? Didn’t you sow good seed? The owner says, Of course I sowed good seed! My enemy has come in and sowed weeds in my wheat field!

I wonder about the feud that these two must have had to make him sow weeds in his neighbor’s field, but that really doesn’t seem to be the point here.

The workers offer to go and pull up the darnel, to remove the weeds from the field. But the response from the owner comes as a surprise: he says no. No, we will wait until the harvest and sort out the good wheat from the bad tares. Because in pulling the tares, we may accidentally uproot the wheat as well.

It isn’t exactly clear why they might uproot the wrong plant. It might be because they look so much alike that a worker could grab the wrong one in a hurry and pull it out of the ground by accident. It might be because their roots are intertwined. Regardless of the reason, the point is to wait. Wait, and at the harvest, someone else will sort between the two.

It is not surprising that Jesus’s disciples don’t quite understand what to do with this parable. So like the previous one, they take him aside and ask him to explain.

This is where it starts to get interesting. In verse 37 Jesus says, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.” Jesus often called himself the Son of Man, which was a messianic title that we find in places like Daniel’s apocalyptic vision from chapter 7. We read in verse 13, “In my (that is, Daniel’s) vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Jesus saw himself as that person, the one who would come on the clouds of heaven! And Daniel is such an interesting book, filled with stories of idolatry and the worship of nations and human leaders. It is also the place where we find the story of three men who would not bow down and worship a golden idol. These men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were condemned to die. And how were they to die? They were thrown into not just any furnace. The NIV says, “a blazing furnace.” And if you know the story, you know that God kept them safe. Daniel 3:27b says, “They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.”

I love that last part. They didn’t even smell like smoke.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the good seed is the members of the kingdom of God. The weeds are the people of the evil one. And where do the weeds end up? Not just a furnace. The NIV says, “a blazing furnace.”

Where in the book of Daniel, it is the good seed–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego–that is thrown into the furnace by an evil king, Jesus flips the story around and it is the weeds—the idolatrous ones–who are punished.

My friends, I think that there are weeds out there, and I do believe that they will be punished. I don’t know what that will look like, but that’s not the point that Jesus is trying to make. The point of the parable is that we aren’t supposed to try to uproot and weed out the bad seed. We are in no position to judge.

Let’s look at a couple of reasons why this could be a problem, and I will base these reasons on what I said earlier. 1. The plants might look similar, making it more difficult to discern between the wheat and the weeds. 2. The roots of the good might be so intertwined with the bad that you end up pulling them both out.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine good and bad. Maybe it is at times easy to point out good actions or bad actions, but we really aren’t in a position to determine good and bad people. There may be people who do bad things, but are they completely evil? Do they deserve uprooting?

So often we just don’t know the entire story. Especially in this day and age, where the phrase “Fake News” seems to be entering our daily vocabulary at an alarming rate. Now keep in mind that there is satire and there is fake news. You may have heard this week that OJ Simpson was granted parole and will be released from prison in the coming months. OJ was a pretty good running back in his day, a Heisman Trophy winner, and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You may also know that my favorite pro football team, the Cleveland Browns, have been historically terrible.

After the news of Simpson’s parole was published, one of my friends from Ohio posted an article on Facebook stating that the Browns had signed OJ Simpson to a contract and that he would be playing running back for the good guys from Cleveland.

FYI, OJ will be 70 next year.

That’s satire. That’s taking a real-life story or situation and running with it in an obviously silly way for comical purposes. You can find satire websites online like the Onion, the Babylon Bee is a Christian satire website, and there is even a Mennonite satire site called the Daily Bonnet, whose tagline is, “The Daily Bonnet, a Mennonite’s most trusted source for untrustworthy news.” One of my favorite articles from the Daily Bonnet has the title, “Lancaster Hospital Opens New Wing to Deal with Dutch Blitz Injuries.”

But then there is fake news. This term became popular last election cycle and is still thrown around quite often even today, eight months later. I should note that most fake news is found online. Unfortunately, many people get the majority of their news online, where anyone can publish anything that they want. And if you have the skills to do so, you can make a fake news website look real. During the elections, it was not uncommon to find stories with just enough truth in them to make them seem real, but they would also introduce information that isn’t exactly accurate. Numbers can be inflated or shrunk. Quotes can be taken out of context. And the public doesn’t always know that what they are reading isn’t an exact replication of what took place.

Unfortunately, we in the church participate in this act of writing and sharing fake news. Maybe we don’t do it intentionally, but we do. I’ve seen various stories posted online that seem to present half-truths about people I care about, leaders in the church. And these half-truths are shared by people across the theological spectrum, progressive and conservative. I then hear people wanting to weed the garden of the church, pluck out these bad seeds, based on half-truths and incomplete stories.

One of the reasons that Jesus says that his followers should let the wheat and the weeds grow together, side-by-side, is because we don’t have the entire story and often we have half-truths. It isn’t easy, or sometimes even possible, to tell if someone is wheat or a weed. That’s one reason why it isn’t our job to judge!

How about my other concern? What happens when you try to pull out a plant whose roots are intertwined with another plant? You get a two-for-one deal!

Wheat is an interesting plant. When you plant wheat, it grows and looks like most other plants. The first thing that you see above ground is a single shoot, a single blade of wheat, coming out of the soil. That blade will grow into a fully mature wheat plant with a head that produces seed, if the right conditions are met. But wheat can also produce multiple “tillers,” which are additional stems that grow from the same root system. What appears to be a totally different wheat plant growing a few inches away from the first stem is actually a part of the same living, growing organism.

Do you know other plant grows a tiller? The darnel plant, the tare, the weed that Jesus was describing. So as the wheat and darnel grow and develop root systems, they are growing not only vertically, but also horizontally. Each is putting up its own tillers, and they become more and more intertwined.

In the church and in the world, it is nearly impossible to know who is the good wheat and who is the weeds. Everyone seems to have a little of both. Add to that the fact that we are so intertwined that if you try to pull up what you believe to be a bad one, you’ll likely pull up a good one as well.

It isn’t our job to weed the garden. God will sort it all out in the end.

You might be asking what to do with Matthew 18:15;17? In this passage, Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you…If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

I skipped a step there for brevity, but notice that there isn’t the violent language of uprooting. There is nothing about a blazing furnace here! Jesus call us to treat sinners in the church as tax collectors and pagans, which isn’t to say that we cast them into the furnace. Remember how Jesus treated the pagans and tax collectors. He ate with them. He stayed in their homes. He loved them. You might even say that Jesus became intertwined with them. They may not have had it all together and been a full part of the church, but Jesus also never advocated for an all-out purge of sinners either.

Really, the only violent images that I could find coming from the lips of Jesus for our responsibility when dealing with sin is when we are dealing with sin in our own lives. Jesus says that if our hand causes us to sin, we are to cut it off. If our eye causes us to sin, pluck it out. But we are never called to cut off, pluck out, or uproot others from this world. That is not our job; God has promised to sort it all out in the end.

I want to end with a few quick questions to ask yourself when you consider uprooting another plant. 1. Will the one taint the other? Sometimes we are so concerned with other people having a bad influence on us that we forget that influences can go both ways. Just as someone can be a bad influence on us, so too can we be a good influence on others. 2. Can we have civilized conversations despite our differences? I know that it matters what the issue is. If someone comes up to you and says that strawberry ice cream is the best and you already know that chocolate is the best, you should be unyielding! No, you can probably still have a civilized and loving conversation. But we should also be able to have a civilized and loving conversation about things like politics and religion. And finally, 3. Ask yourself if we are not better off for our diversity. There are times when what we perceive to be a weed, might actually be just a wheat plant of a different variety. When someone demands a certain style of worship, whether that be music genres, robes, bells, candles, or smells, remember that just because someone has a different preference doesn’t make them a bad person.

I think that I have grown more over the last few years by being with and talking with people of different denominations. There was a time when pretty much every other denomination condemned Anabaptists as heretics, but today some of my best friendships and most meaningful conversations are with Methodists and Presbyterians. I might think that they are wrong on some things, and they surely think that I am wrong as well. But I hope that neither of us would consider each other a weed. Our diversity, though sometimes a challenge, can actually be a strength.

Like it or not, our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. And the deeper your roots run, the more intertwined they are going to be.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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