There is a woman in our congregation who loves to engage in all kinds of friendly competitions with her husband, and he with her. It’s all in good fun, but I hear that things can get pretty cutthroat, and they love to have bragging rights over each other. For example, they really got into competitive horseshoes a few years ago and put together a professional-grade horseshoe pit in their backyard. They played every single day, husband versus wife.
This year I was informed they have engaged in a pretty intense gardening competition. Each of them got to select a part of the yard they thought would produce the best results for vegetables. I’m sure not about all of the plants they’ve grown, but I know tomatoes are involved, and I know that the winner will be decided by a taste test. The woman told me back in May that he had been talking a little smack about her plot, saying he was sure it wouldn’t get enough sun. But she had a little glint in her eye and muttered something about soil quality and afternoon sunshine.
My own tomatoes have started to come in, so I checked in with her the other day and asked her how it was going. She informed me that the Great Garden-Off was definitely still on, but that she might have to forfeit one whole plant because a warbler built its nest in it and it doesn’t like to be disturbed. Some people just let tomatoes grow and leave them alone. Sounds like she might be doing some pruning or weeding, staking and caging to get the best results possible. I suppose if taste is the sole criterion for winning, then size and color aren’t important. She just wants a tomato that tastes better than her husband’s.
I’m not sure about all the methods and criteria for growing good wheat in Jesus’ day, but it’s clear that there is a gardening competition going on, and it’s not just limited to someone’s backyard. The whole world seems to be engaged somehow. Someone is trying to sow and grow good wheat and someone else is clearly trying to sow weeds. And what’s worse is they haven’t staked out separate garden patches for this. It’s all mixed in together, the unwanted weeds growing right in there with the wheat. How are we going to know who’s winning?
This parable of the wheat and the weeds is how Jesus chooses to explain to his disciples the presence of good and bad in the world. Jesus has just finished explaining in private to his disciples about the purpose and meaning of parables and how sometimes the word of God finds good soil in people and takes root and grows. Sometimes, however, the seed hits rocky ground or a place where thorns will choke the plants as they come up. It’s not the fault of the word that faith doesn’t appear in some people, and it’s often not the fault of the person who does the sowing of the seed, the sharing of the word. Some people at certain times just aren’t receptive to it.
Now Jesus uses another common image to explain why Jesus and disciples can work and work and still not get results that are 100% good wheat. The advancement of God’s kingdom among the people of this earth is affected not just by the receptiveness of all kinds of people to hear it and understand it. It is also affected by the presence of those who are actively working against God’s goodness.
This isn’t rocket science. We look out at the world and we can see plenty of good, plenty of examples of people showing forth godly love for one another. And yet we look out at the same world and can be overcome by the sight of lots of evil.
I remember years ago in one confirmation curriculum we used, back when people were still reading newspapers to get their news, we gave groups of confirmation students newspapers and two big pieces of posterboard. Their tasks was to cut out all the headlines that seemed like good news and paste them to one sheet of posterboard and the bad headlines on the other. Year in and year out when we did this, they always filled up the bad headline posterboard first. Granted, news media generally makes more money on bad headlines than good, so it probably wasn’t the most statistically fair exercise for this, but the point was still clear: there is such a mixture of good and evil in the world, and yet God still loves it. We have faith that God is still working to bring about the day when all will be good and new in Jesus Christ.
Until then, however, we are often left with this sense of frustration and confusion about so much of it. Like the slaves in the parable, we wonder how it all even got to be this way. If God is so powerful and so loving, why would God let the weeds continue to grow like this, especially when they can do us such harm? We wonder is there something we can do about getting rid of the weeds before they spread too much. The challenges and problems that lie before us in any day and age—the debate over health care and health insurance, terrorism, drugs and narcotics, care of the environment, immigration—are all so complex, riddled with deeper issues that are difficult to unwind and untangle.
And that’s just what we see in the news about the world. The church is not immune to the power of the evil one. If you think that those who follow Christ are 100% whole wheat, dream on! Although the church is the community called out to proclaim the good of Jesus and to embody his mercy and love, there is still an issue of weed control in the body of Christ, too. We had a seminary professor who liked to remind us of the danger of harboring the fantasy that the church was free from all sin and wrongdoing, and to be on guard against running to the church or to seminary to be free from the problems of the world. He said that the devil’s favorite place to build his own seminary and conduct his business is right next to one of Jesus’ seminaries.
This is all what the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, calls “groaning in labor pains.” That sense of despair and dread mixed with hope, sorrow and pain tinted with optimism, and anger jumbled together with promise that so many of us grapple with is a sign of that longing that all of creation is dealing with a longing to be made completely new.
And the reality of this all, of course, is that the line between wheat and weed, ripe and rotten, good and evil, goes right down the middle of us all. The frustration and confusion we feel about the presence of all this in the world, the challenges and problems of thorny issues is really a frustration and confusion with ourselves, isn’t it? To uproot and destroy evil is somehow going to involve shredding ourselves apart. The creation groans with longing, and we groan inwardly, too, for our redemption.
It’s easy to listen to Jesus’ parable and get the impression that this Master, this wheat farmer, is distant and removed from this complicated mixture of good and evil because it will all just get worked out in the end. What really happens, of course, as the story continues is that Jesus, the master, the one telling the parable, plants himself right in the middle of it all. On the cross, he offers himself up to the tangled weeds and the wheat. In his own death, God’s judgment upon evil reaches its harvest. He lets himself become part of the tangled mess of this world, and bears the brunt of a system that thinks it can weed out all the bad, a system that thinks, wrongly, it is able to successfully root out the wrongdoing and crucify it so it won’t be a problem anymore. This way of dealing with evil dies with Jesus and something new rises in its place: the triumph of forgiveness…the victory of mercy…the supremacy of love. Jesus’ own resurrection from all that evildoing is God’s down payment on the glory that is about to be revealed to us.
As we wait, we pray for patience and the grace to understand that the issue is not that God is content to let evil run loose. God just doesn’t need us to go about dealing with it in the amateurish ways we’re prone to. God is ultimately concerned that no good be harmed. The master doesn’t want any wheat uprooted! So, if we’re interested about how to counter evil in the world, the answer is to plant more wheat. Do more good. Point to Christ as often as we can. As the 105 children at VBS proclaimed at the top of their lungs each day this week, all of them in their best superhero poses: “Do good! Seek peace! And Go after it!” In fact, we call can try this. Striking a superhero pose does something to your sense of well-being. (Thumbs up: “Do good!” Peace signs: “Seek peace!” and superhero pose: “And go after it!”).
They weren’t exactly those kinds of superhero poses, but we did see this week a powerful sign of planting more wheat out of Iraq. It was more like the poses of praying hands. The city of Lourdes in France sent fifteen statues of the virgin Mary to Erbil in northern Iraq to replace ones that had been destroyed by ISIS. They processed with them around the city, singing hymns and praise to God, as they placed them in each church where they will stand. Beginning in 2014, when terrorists gained control of a region of northern Iraq where Christians were the majority, churches, monasteries and schools have been bombed and the population decimated. Now that ISIS has lost ground and retreated, Christians and other groups are starting to move back into the rubble and rebuild. They could, I’m sure, rebuild with revenge, uprooting what they find evil, but instead they are cautiously, but optimistically, putting a peaceful foot forward. May those statues and the people who worship around them be a sign that God is replanting the area with wheat.
And may all of this—our congregation’s ministry, our personal pointing to Christ, our superheroic compassion—be a sign of the new creation that God has in store for us all, a sign of hope and joy amidst the groaning, because, don’t forget, the days of the weeds are numbered! As it turns out, they’ve chosen the bad garden patch. They’ll lose the competition. And we, the heirs of God, will get to taste the harvest that God is tending, and it is promised to be delicious.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.