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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 5, 2017

 The Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat

1 Samuel 18:1-9; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

            Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “A weed is a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.”  But clearly, Jesus and His listeners in first century Palestine took a dimmer view of weeds, and especially lolium temulentum, which is the Latin name for bearded darnel, a nasty weed that looked like wheat but bore poisonous seeds.  People called it “cheat.”

            Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds is one of His most interesting, because He is describing the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus readily acknowledges the presence of weeds, or the presence of evil in the kingdom.  This evil is not God’s doing, but it does happen, or come within, the larger, sovereign purposes of God.  In the Bible, the devil is depicted as a fallen angel – not someone who exists apart from God, or outside God’s created order.

            Who here needs to be told that there is evil in the world?  We see it everywhere!  Greed, selfishness, abuse of every imaginable kind, hatred and violence.  Sadly, we see evil in the church as well.  Weeds and wheat sit together in the same pews, and every congregation must deal with what I like to call “the human factor” of the church.  And what is even worse, if we can be truthful with ourselves, we know that wheat and weeds grow together within our own hearts.

            Jesus is telling us in this parable that He understands evil, He sees it, and He recognizes that even in the kingdom of heaven, we must contend with it.

            How do we deal with the weeds in our world, in the church, and in our own lives?  The slaves in Jesus’ parable want to know this: “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?”  It is as if they are saying, “Do you want us to dig them up, cast them out, and make the field pure again?”  We have seen the dangers of such efforts throughout history.  We have seen it in our nation in Salem, with the witch trials.  We have church members, William and Ebralie Mwizerwa, who lived through the hell of genocide, “ethnic cleansing,” in Rwanda.  Hitler wanted to cleanse Europe of its Jewish people.  The effort to cleanse easily becomes the embodiment of evil itself, on a tragic scale.

            Notice what the householder says to the slaves’ question: “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”  Jesus here is counseling restraint and a certain patient charity to His people.  Jesus is intent upon human flourishing everywhere.  If you start labeling people “evil,” you might make some mistakes, and tear out the good with the bad.  A lot of children who might look bad or even do bad things turn out to grow up to be really good people.  I always think of my son’s friend, Jay, on this count.  Jay came from a fine family, had two outstanding older sisters, and had very active, concerned parents.  He was a really sweet boy, but on a school trip, he tried to impress his friends by stealing something from a store.  Of course, he got caught!  In our little part of Spartanburg, everyone knew about the event.  His mother was mortified, and I am sure Jay never again even thought about doing something wrong!  Shortly after it happened, I saw Jay raking leaves one day in his front yard.  (He was doubtless doing penance!)  I stopped my car, and walked up, gave him a hug, and said, “I know what a good person you are, Jay, and I want you to know I believe in you.  One day we will all look back and laugh at this!”  Thanks to all the things that were good in and around Jay, I knew this would come true.  Jay is an ophthalmologist today, a fine husband and a good father.  His parents were tough on him over his mistake, but they did not tear him out of the family.  And sure enough, he grew up to be wheat, and is living a very fruitful life.

            Jesus cares about our growth and health, and so God is patient with sin and evil for our sakes.  “It is not the will of our heavenly Father that one such little child stumble.”  God is non-anxious about evil, and acts with restraint, in the interest of allowing us to grow and to flourish.

            Saint Augustine said once that the church is always a corpus permixtom – a mixed body.  This is why Jesus counsels patience and restraint.  We can easily mistake wheat from weeds, only we do it with human beings.  In the Middle Ages, during the Crusades, knights from Europe blew through an Arab village and killed everyone in it.  Only afterwards did they learn that they destroyed a Christian village.  They did not know that Christians could be brown as well as white.

            The other reason Jesus counseled restraint was He knew how intertwined the roots of the wheat and the weeds were.  The price of tearing up the weeds would be some perfectly good wheat, and Jesus judged it just is not worth the price.

            The best reason, though, to let the wheat and the weeds grow together is that one day, in due season, the harvest will come, and the householder will in fact separate what is good from what is evil, what is real and what is fake, what is life-giving, and what is life-diminishing – and the good will flourish, and the evil will no longer be.  Maltbie Babcock believed this.  In his hymn, This Is My Father’s World, he wrote, “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”  Paul believed this too.  To the Philippians he wrote, “The One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.” 

            We say it in the Creed every Sunday: “Jesus shall come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Jesus Christ is the judge, Jesus is the householder, and Jesus is not anxious about the future.  Indeed, Jesus is, in the words of Karl Barth, “the Judge judged in our place.”

            And one day, evil will be no more.  This is not a call to be passive or uninvolved in the fight against evil.  Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  But it is a call for us to be both patient and confident – I like the word “hopeful” even more.  It is a more Biblical word.  Søren Kierkegaard said, “To fear is to expect the possibility of the evil; but to hope is to expect the possibility of the good.”  I am hopeful, even confident, because God is good, and God is great, and I trust that “He’s got the whole world in His hands.”

            When Pope John XXIII was Pope, he ushered in unprecedented change to the Roman Catholic Church around the world.  He had his enemies, and sometimes he would stay up at night beset by his worries.  He began to end his prayers this way: “But who governs the church?  You or the Holy Spirit?  Very well, then, go to sleep, Angelo.”  “God is in His heaven, and all’s well with the world.”


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