Notes from the Sermon by Jan Betts – 23rd July 2017
Don’t sweat the weeds, just be wheat
May all that I say and all that is heard be guided by your spirit, God our creator, Redeemer and sustainer.
The readings today – Matthew 13 vv 24-30, 36 – 43
Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived with her mother and father in a forest full of dark trees, where her father was a woodcutter. They took great care of their little girl and her mother made her a lovely little warm red coat to wear. One day her mother said to her ‘your granny needs some food taking to her but I’m very busy and tired. I think you’re big enough to take it through the forest to her cottage but you need to be careful of the big bad wolf who is always on the look out for a tasty lunch of little girls….’ and you know the rest of the story.
Why do we still read and love this story and lots of other folk tales? Do we hear it just to laugh at the bizarre fantasy of looking out for wolves who may do things like eating your grandmother and then lying in her bed while you chat and you only slowly slowly recognise that it’s not nice safe familiar granny under that bonnet? Or do we read it because underneath we know it has serious things to tell us, the many unfamiliar faces of danger as we grow up , and about how parents need to watch over their children but also let them go? Perhaps all of these and more, including the deliciousness of fear felt from the safety of your someone’s lap? .
Such stories are ways of getting conversations going. They are ways of sharing truths which are difficult if not impossible to define and are only grasped through metaphor or picture. They are understood and felt slightly differently by everyone. The stories have their power because we all relate to them for ourselves, just where we are at the time.
Jesus told stories which Matthew refers to as parables. He told stories partly because stories can live down the centuries and be remembered. Andhe told them partly because how else could he speak of what the kingdom of heaven is like except through metaphor and analogy? The Jewish tradition of learning was and is to debate the Torah, to argue about what it means, not make final judgments which say ‘this is the meaning and this alone’ and Jesus’ stories played into that tradition. In the chapters around todays reading Jesus tells a lot of parables about judgment, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, which sounds pretty odd today. And talking about judgment is not very right on at All Hallows so we need to grapple with this story to make it have any sense for us. In Red Riding Hood there’s a surface plot which is interesting and then other meanings which we kind of get and guess at but don’t immediately think about. Jesus’ parables need to be thought about like this.
Let’s think about this story and why Jesus’ listeners would latch on to it and remember it? .
‘once upon a time there was a farmer.’ Ok. ‘He sowed good seed.’ Ok so we’re talking about a responsible farmer. ‘An enemy came and sowed weeds’. Oh oh! A man with enemies..a fight..bring it on Jesus! And people would recognise that it was a clever enemy because wheat and the darnel plant look really really alike until they produce different heads. To try to weed them out would be extremely difficult.
So the farmer says to the labourers, don’t bother. When the wheat is ripe we’ll know the difference, and deal with it then.
Buzz all round the listeners: some saying yes, good thinking, other clever clogs saying rubbish, I can tell the difference, the plants are a bit more slender, I’d get my men to dig them out, don’t want the weeds taking the nutrients, if it was me I’d ask around and go and beat up whoever did it, ..and so on and so forth. The debate would rage because it was topical. There would be people with certainty about what to do and some with less certainty.
Jesus just leaves the crowd with the story. But the disciples know that Jesus doen’t just tell stories. They recognised that it wasn’t just a story about a wolf and a little girl, oops sorry a story about a farmer with a problem. So they demand an explanation.
I was brought up to think that Jesus’ explanation was only about there being good people and evil people and we need to make sure we are not evil. We had to be wheat not tares. I didn’t think much further really, because I knew there were wicked people in the world. But let’s pay attention to what’s going on.
I think the main actor, AS ALWAYS in Jesus’ parables, because they are parables of the Kingdom of God, is the farmer. What the farmer was interested in, was lots of wheat, a really bumper wheat crop. He wasn’t going to waste time trying to sort out the weeds. He’d find those in due course. So the first real thing that we might learn from this is that the farmer isn’t interested in the weeds , only in the wheat. What Jesus wants from us is to be really really good wheat, to focus our energies on being fruitful. Are we just bursting with being the best kind of wheat possible even though we have to struggle with the other things around us?
Secondly Jesus recognises life is complicated. Good things exist, and evil things exist. We have to deal with wheat and weeds.
And Jesus says wheat and weeds can often look very alike, or even indistinguishable. You can’t tell til they bear fruit. Jesus here is saying who are we to judge? The farmer will do that in due course because in the fullness of time it will show itself.
But we can’t quite leave it at that. We have to live in the world and make decisions about whether the wolf in grandma’s bed really is grandma or not, where we have to be careful of weeds. So Jesus gives us other teaching about fruit, and how to recognise those who do God’s work of doing justice and being merciful and loving God with all our hearts. We need to look closely to see where the wheat is. We may not be good at telling weeds from wheat because of our histories, but sometimes we’re faced with unexpected goodness, where we can’t say ‘ looks like wheat, smells like wheat, tastes like wheat, must be weeds’ . Let me illustrate this with the recent story of Angela Merkel who having been anti gay marriage met two lesbians who by their lifestyle convinced her to offer a free vote to her party on the issue. The fruit of the relationship was its proof for her. What we think of as a weed may be wheat. The Samaritan in another of Jesus’ stories was definitely weeds to the disciples but his actions were wheat. And surely we can sometimes mistake weeds for wheat as well.
Jesus hated those who were weeds, who stopped people coming close to God. But I think what he’s saying here is that pulling out the weeds is not what we are here to do. Not pulling out the weeds in other people nor, really, in pulling out the weeds from ourselves, not as our main focus. We’re here to be wheat.
We get distracted into thinking about weeds. Oh those weeds. The weeds in other people’s lives and what they have done and are doing to hurt us and others. The weeds in our own lives, which we keep hidden. They become so important. But thinking about other people’s weeds may make us judgmental and scapegoating and was what led Jesus to be crucified and thinking about weeds in our own lives just fills us with guilt and anger and self hatred. We are right to hunt out the weeds of those things which would displease God: racism or casual neglect or greed or resentment, in ourselves or others, which eats us up. The story is one of discernment in our own lives as well as in the lives of others. But we fight the weeds not by focusing on them but by focusing growing as wheat.
And wheat of course brings us to bread and to the bread which was broken for us and to Jesus himself. We are to be as like Jesus as possible. The whole focus is on living a life which is truly bringing a smile to the farmer’s face, the Son of Man, living with the desire to imitate Jesus.
In Psalm 86 11-17 we have a reflection on weeds and wheat. Let’s listen…
Weeds are in the Psalmists life in the form of arrogant men but in God’s scheme of things they have no place. The farmer is concerned only to help the wheat grow to its best and the farmer is a good one, full of concern and loving kindness and faithfulness and pity.
And we also know that we are redeemed and forgiven for those weeds in our lives which we repent of. That under whatever circumstances, we can share the psalmists knowledge that God is as he is in Jesus, – tender and merciful, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and mercy, full of pity, – so there is hope. Let’s not sweat the weeds too much, either our own or others, but concentrate on the good.
The wonderful thing about fairy stories and parables is that we are all each one of the players in the story. Jesus fought the division into sheep and goats. He knew that we are all of us the weeds, the wheat, someone in the crowd, one of the disciples, even the good farmer. Take a few moments now to think about which of these players in the story you are intrigued by. Be that for a minute. If you’re in the crowd how do you feel? If you’re a weed how do you feel? What do want to do as a seed of wheat? In the silence form your own prayer around it. Bring it to God because in all of these all God wants is to help us to flourish and bear fruit.