Sermon July 19, 2020
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
When I read this week’s scripture in the Gospel of Matthew, I immediately noticed that the message comes off as counter-intuitive, and the ending is actually frightening.
So, why would our loving God want to keep weeds in the beautiful fields?
Further, why would Jesus – who talks about unity and loving our neighbor – tell this parable about gnashing of teeth and burning the weeds that grew with good seeds?
Let’s see if we can make sense of this passage.
This parable is one of three in a mosaic of parables about Sowers and Seeds. If you recall last week, the story was about the seed falling on good, rocky and sandy soil. The third parable is about the mustard seed and faith.
While perhaps not a pretty visual, the passage for today is certainly germane to our Christianity.
Let’s start with the seeds.
God, of course, is the Sower. The first thing we notice is God’s generosity in this parable. As a gardener myself, I can just imagine God throwing seed everywhere – like wildflower gardens… enough for everyone. Every piece of soil earths the good seed. God’s generosity is vast.
And, while we know that God’s seed-sowing is vast, we also know that seeds themselves are kind of mysterious. The most elegant gardens can fail, while a profusion of weedy, vibrant flowers can push through a crack in the pavement and brighten an entire neighborhood. New life can spring from the deadest, most shriveled places in our lives — places we've given up on, places we assumed were hardened beyond hope. We've all witnessed hostile and violent environments be altered by love.
We know all too well that the divine judgment and the gruesome visuals in this Scripture have been used to separate us, the children of God, and scare us. To separate “Good” against “Weedy” people. “Other” people. People who do not look or believe as we do. To gain Power over Others.
In this scripture, though, Jesus is actually talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. Divisiveness just isn’t what Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven is all about. Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven is about love, compassion, unity, healing, connection and justice.
As we recall from his many teachings, Jesus addresses his disciples and the crowds from the perspective of a corporate personality – meaning ALL of humanity. Jesus was not an “individualist.” So, when we think like Jesus – in the community mindset, weeds simply cannot be “others.” Jesus taught above all that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. So, he’s not ultimately teaching about weeds as people, but weeds as aspects of our world humanity.
So, why then the paradox?
Jesus focuses on the interdependence and connection of people… of communities… of nations… of our world. His point in this story is that God keeps the weeds and the wheat side by side because the righteousness of one person or group benefits not only that person or group, but others as well. “Let them both grow until the harvest.” Each of us not only needs each other, but also benefits from the other – whether we happen to be a weed or a flower, or a weedy flower or even a flowery weed.
Here are some other examples of what I mean about the interdependence: the prodigal son benefits from the work of the elder brother; the tax collector benefits from the goodness of the Pharisees. Humanity benefits from the righteousness of Jesus.
We are clearly interdependent. Instead of playing the blame-game about our happiness or outrage about the state of our nation, or one political party over another, one of our jobs is to reflect on our own complicity and privilege in weedy systems that have abandoned the poor, oppressed minorities, ostracized the immigrant, and failed to provide adequate health care for all. More importantly, though, Jesus tells us to focus on the positive aspects of humanity, and build from that foundation: to concentrate on the beautiful, equitable possibilities for the collective – in a new vision for society. We are to participate in bringing that vision of compassion, love and justice into reality.
Dr. Barbara Holmes asks us to consider envisioning the building of a new order - as an actual spiritual practice. She encourages us to imagine the possibility of improving our social order so that all members of society thrive.
Our humanity does not have to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers. We have the opportunity to re-envision and restructure our society. Do we believe that it is every man, every woman for themselves, or do we want a safety net for those who have fewer options and fewer resources as a direct result of hundreds of years of oppression? Clearly, the pandemic, the resulting economic hardships, and widespread demonstrations for Black Lives Matter have lifted the veil from our eyes about the insidious injustices in our society. We see the Truth with love.
And, we see the interwoven nature of love – love of God, of self, and of neighbor. We reflect and we re-envision that love and compassion. Then, we take action because not only does Jesus tell us to co-exist and love one another, but we are to participate in the work of sowing the seed. Virginia Organizing has a listing of relevant issues, with corresponding research and movements. I urge you to get involved in the way you feel called.
While Jesus was generally focused on the collective, we can take his message into our personal lives. We can look at the wheat and the weeds as various aspects of ourselves.
The ‘weeds’ could be viewed as our own shortcomings – our not-so-pretty character traits. At times, we may feel “less than” or “more than,” and become afraid, angry or filled with shame. We may try to get in there and rip out those weeds, and hide the shame of their existence. But, Jesus says that doing this can destroy the good roots around them. Spending time yanking out weeds can damage the fruitful momentum in our lives. The Sower instructs us to leave the weeds for God to deal with.
So, if we’re not supposed to focus on pulling out the weeds, what can we do in our own personal lives? We can fertilize our personal gardens. Farmers who fertilize their crops know that the nutrients in the fertilizer are too strong for weeds, and the good seeds will yield much more.
Jesus is saying that we should spend our time, our energy, our prayer, on the growth and the positive aspects of ourselves, our lives and our communities. Yes, give some attention to the weeds – you can glance back, but be sure you are not swept up with all that as a priority. Use that energy towards our own personal and collective healing. Guard and nurture our gardens but refrain from over-thinking and over-working them.
Our primary purpose is not to destroy the weeds in our lives but to deepen our roots… strengthening that bond… that trust… that relationship with God/Spirit… so the weeds in our lives will not get as much attention… not as many nutrients.
The parable lastly speaks of the burning of the weeds and the gnashing of teeth. To understand this part, we need to dig deep theologically. To put the burning of weeds in context, we keep in mind that this practice was customary 2,000 years ago, because weeds provided fuel for the Israelites’ fires.
For the gnashing of teeth part, we turn to a historical and theological analysis of the Gospel of Matthew itself. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew was Jewish, as was Jesus. This writer believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people. Because of their beliefs, the writer and his community were expelled from the synagogues. You can imagine the tension this caused at the time. The audience for Matthew’s gospel was the Jews who remained in the temples, and the gospel writer was trying to convince the temple Jews of Jesus’ divinity. This passage clearly underscores the urgency and passion with which Matthew’s community believed in Jesus as Messiah – enough to insert God’s supposed fiery judgment into the story.
Instead of adopting a scary, judgmental interpretation, we can see the weeds as Jesus did (in the collective and with love). Jesus teaches us to see the weeds as fueling a fire that purifies all that deadens humanity and corrupts God’s world. Whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God will – thank goodness – be burned up metaphorically in the fires of God’s everlasting love.
Let me say that again: What if – instead of invoking fear - the fire of God’s love actually purifies all that deadens humanity and corrupts God’s world. What if God’s love purifies, transforms and renews all that is not contributing to love, compassion and the common good? What if the fire of God’s love heals us, right here… right now?
As we journey through this period of transition, I ask you to reflect on what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth – here and now- looks like from your eyes? What weeds will you ask God to heal? What role will you play in manifesting God’s vision of beauty, justice and love?