By Sheri Hostetler
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Jesus tells three parables about seeds in Matthew 13 in order to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like. The “kingdom of heaven” is Jesus’ main teaching, and parables are one of the main ways he teaches about the kingdom of heaven. So, these parables in Matthew 13 are the heart of Jesus’ teaching.
Last week, we looked at the mustard seed parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its shade.” I like that parable because I’m a gardener and a tree-lover. And, yup, you plant a seed and within five years it grows into a sequoia 20 feet high. This happened, right outside my house, so I know it’s true. Sure enough, the crows that I love settle in its branches in the late afternoons, and it provides shade for my son when he’s outside throwing frisbee with his friends and they get hot. Since we are also organic matter, I believe what is true of seeds and trees is also true of us. We plant something small and it can grow into something large that can sustain life.
But, of course, not all the time. Another parable Jesus tells about seeds in Mathew 13 indicates how vulnerable these seeds are — (we’ll explore this parable next Sunday). They can be eaten by birds, burned by the sun, choked by thorns. Two months ago, I planted two of the exact same seeds within one foot of each other, and one of them is flourishing and the other one is withering, and I have no idea why. Sometimes, our efforts to seed the kingdom of heaven just don’t flourish.
But, sometimes, something more sinister happens. That’s our parable for this week.
A farmer carefully plants an entire field of wheat. Her furrows are pin-straight; her wheat seed is of the finest quality. She goes to bed that night, content that she had done everything she could to ensure a bumper crop months down the road. (I adapted this retelling of the parable from here.)
But while she takes her well-earned rest, an enemy comes in and, with equal care, plants weed seed in the same furrows. Worse, the seeds the enemy plants are something called “darnel,” which looks almost identical to wheat. Darnel is a noxious weed that is plentiful in Israel to this day. The particularly tricky thing about darnel is that the difference between it and the wheat only become apparent when the fruits, or the ears, of both plants start to form. The ears of wheat are heavy and droop, while the ears of the darnel stand straight up. You can imagine being a farmer or a hired hand going into the fields as they’ve started to grow ears and seeing all these straight-up heads and feeling despair at what has happened to all their hard work.
In the parable, the farmer’s hired hands — actually, they’re called slaves, let’s not sugarcoat it — start noticing these straight-up ears among the droopy wheat and somehow they know that “this was no accident, that no stray seeds drifted in on the breeze one day. They know this was an act of agricultural terrorism!”
The slaves ask the farmer what to do, assuming she will tell them to painstakingly pluck out the dastardly darnel. But the farmer says no, because that would unintentionally rip up the wheat, too. Instead, the farmer says, let them grow together until the harvest, when the reapers will collect the weeds and throw them into the fire.
If, like me, you grew up in a conservative Christian home, you will know exactly what Jesus is talking about in this parable, even before you read his explanation later. He is talking about the apocalypse, when Jesus as the Son of Man will return to earth and begin the harvest, a common image in the Bible for the judgement that will come at the end of our present age. The Son of Man will instruct his angels to separate out the wheat from the weeds, the children of the kingdom of heaven from the evildoers. And then the evildoers will be thrown into “the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Weeping and gnashing of teeth is Matthew’s favorite image to describe the horror of the final judgement and the punishment that will follow. Think of it — if you slam your hand in the car door (as I have done) you will grind your teeth together because of the pain — and this is the kind of pain that will happen in that fiery furnace when the Son of Man comes to finally, decisively establish the kingdom of heaven on earth and wipe out all evil once and for all. When, as it says in Revelation — the mother of all apocalyptic literature in the Bible — God will wipe every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. There won’t be any more injustice. No more oppression. No more 1% and the rest; no racism; no misogyny; no climate change and factory farms; no corruption. It will be like the Shire in the “Lord of the Rings” after the ring has been thrown into the fire and Sauron has been vanquished and Mordor is no more. It will be all green and agrarian and non-hierarchical and, well, if you are to believe the Lord of the Rings movies, white but no… it will, of course, not be white, it will be diverse and good. Really good.
This kind of apocalyptic thought is found throughout the Bible, and it makes sense why this is so. It is a theology of hope for an oppressed people who have known occupation and poverty for centuries. You can understand why oppressed people would long for this kind of God-driven decisive victory over evil. This apocalyptic theology fed many, many an uprising, as Hebrew warriors over the centuries saw themselves as God’s agents in overthrowing the evil empire occupying their land and bringing about a new order. This kind of apocalyptic theology fueled the Crusades and many a holy war in Christian history. We still see it very much in operation today in the theology of fundamentalist religions of any stripe.
And this kind of apocalyptic thought holds a powerful sway in our imaginations. Think of how many popular books and movies are, really, apocalyptic literature — where the clearly defined forces of evil and good contend with each other until good finally wins and a new age of goodness is ushered in. The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are the most ready example, but you see it in the Harry Potter series, in Marvel and D.C. comic books and the movies based on them. I’m sure you can think of other examples.
So, there is an apocalyptic impulse in us — an apocalyptic archetype, if you will. In many respects, Jesus is a typical apocalyptic preacher. Three chapters later, in Matthew 16, Jesus says to his disciples: “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” This saying of Jesus, and others like it, fueled the expectation that Jesus was going to return and usher in the new age within the lifespan of his disciples.
But in other respects, Jesus is a very odd sort of apocalyptic preacher, and this parable is a good example of that oddness. Like all apocalyptic thought, the parable takes seriously the problem of evil. It’s not just all little mustard seeds becoming nice trees and birds and shade and rest. There really is evil. And it is subversive. In this parable, “the enemy operates by deliberately cultivating something which acts like the wheat it is meant to destroy.” (From here.) The evil grows alongside the good, imitating it, indistinguishable from it until it reveals itself for what it is.
But where Jesus gets odd is in his counsel to allow this evil to grow alongside the good, since their root systems are intertwined such that eradicating the evil will also damage the good. No true apocalyptic preacher would say that! The whole point is to eradicate evil, which often mandates and legitimates the violence needed to do so. I think of the drive of many religious communities to expel the sinful person or sinful idea from their midst, and the kind of pain and suffering this creates as a result. I’ve been in political groups where the same dynamic happens — where there’s a drive to root out and purge those people or ideas that don’t toe the line — and the paranoid and judgmental communities this ends up creating. We certainly saw this “eradicating urge” in our country’s response to 9/11, launching whole new wars in an effort to eradicate the evildoers.
As one commentator said: “While we have a natural reaction to ‘rid the world of evil,’ the reality is that evil’s root system is so intertwined with the kingdom that the unintended consequences of such actions are devastating. In fact, one completes the enemy’s work by trying to separate the wheat and the weeds prematurely.” The problem here isn’t really the fact that there are weeds among the wheat — Jesus seems to be believe that the weeds don’t threaten the wheat. The problem is in how we react to the weeds. “The danger is not being in the presence of sin but trying to root out all the sin we see.” (From Scott Hoezee’s commentary.)
Jesus’ parable also suggests that it’s not always easy to define what is evil and what is isn’t, to know what is of the kingdom of heaven and what isn’t. No true apocalyptic preacher would say that! Apocalyptic thought is based on a clear and bright delineation between good and evil. Instead, Jesus suggests that sometimes you may not know what is good and what isn’t until the “fruits” start to show.
A few years back, someone gave me feedback, in a rather judge-y way, that made me question whether or not Jerome and I should have moved to Alameda 10 years ago. Had we sold out by moving from a somewhat more diverse and more economically marginal neighborhood in Oakland to one that was less so? It’s a question we wrestled with quite a lot when we were deciding to move. And now, a few years later, the seed of that question again grew in me, and I watered and fed it with my ruminations and reflections.
But I found, over time, that I was feeling increasing shame, guilt, and despair, since — even if the answer was “yes” — what was the solution? Was I really going to rip our family from a place where we felt settled so that I could avoid the judgment of “sell-out”? Pull my child out of a school community in which he was thriving? In a particularly self-recriminating frame of mind, I talked to a friend of mine who is a spiritual director, who said: “Sheri, what are the fruits of the spirt that are growing in you as you wrestle with this question? Are they from the spirit of life or from another kind of spirit?” I instantly knew, when she asked that question, that the fruit of the seed that was growing in me was not of the kingdom of heaven. It wasn’t the kind of challenge that was empowering me to live out my faith; it was disempowering me. It was not producing good fruit in my life. And so, I was able to let go of that question, which freed me to seek creative ways to live faithfully where I had planted myself.
So, this parable seems to suggest: Evil is real. But don’t be so certain that you know what’s evil and what isn’t. Wait to see what kinds of “fruits” it produces. And once you do know, be careful how you react to the “evil.” Because a violent response, an “eradicating” response, will produce its own kind of evil. It’s almost like that’s what evil wants.
And, in the end, have hope. The weeds don’t destroy the wheat. And there will come a time when evil will be seen for what it is. Some days I believe that; some days I don’t. But then I think of how, just 50 years ago, it was perfectly okay to make a black child drink from a different water fountain than a white child. Now, most everyone sees that for the evil it is. Ten years ago, it was okay to not allow people of the same gender to marry each other; now that discrimination is against the law, and it is increasingly seen as the evil it is. Some day, in the future, we will see the evil among us that right now is indistinguishable from the wheat. May we live into the wisdom of this parable. Amen.