Pentecost 6, Proper 11A,
Wheat, Weeds and Empire, by Pastor Fred Kinsey
Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds, ask the servants in the parable? Sounds like the right question to ask, doesn’t it?!
Some years ago, in my first parish, in Upper Michigan, I visited a parishioner in the hospital, who was gravely ill. A concerned nephew, not from our congregation, was there sitting beside his bed, when I arrived.
Hi, I’m Pastor Fred, I told him. I’m so sorry about your uncle. He’s been a long time member of Bethany Lutheran Church, and I hate to see him like this now. How are you feeling?
Thank you, said the nephew. And he told me a bit about where he was from, downstate Michigan, attending college, and how he was related to the family. Then he told me, suddenly, that I should really be visiting his room-mate, because, you know –he began whispering to me – my uncle is fine, he’s been saved for 5 years now, after I talked to him about accepting JC as his personal savior. You should really have a conversation with the gentleman in the other bed; I’m pretty sure he’s going to hell – you know, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and we don’t want that!
I didn’t have a theological debate, at that time, and in that place, with this young man, about his fundamentalist beliefs. But I did take him up on his offer to visit with my parishioner’s room-mate, and actually found out that he was surrounded by a loving family, and that, although he was not a regular church goer, he was baptized and led quite an exemplary life. I had no intention of talking to him about a personal savior, because I didn’t actually believe that I, or anyone else, could issue him some kind of guaranteed ticket to heaven! And, when I walked out of the door, later, and glanced back, and reflected on the two beds separated only by a thin curtain, I wondered if anyone could really distinguish which of the two patients were wheat or weeds? Good or bad? Saved or damned? And even if that was the point!?
It did remind me, however, of a saying that a preaching professor from Luther Seminary, Karen Lewis, recently put on her Facebook page. It said: “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed they are not it.”
In the parable of the Wheat and Weeds, an enemy comes in the dark of night to sow weeds in the field of a farmer. The name of the weeds are, Darnel, or “false-wheat,” because they appear so similar in shape, size and color, to wheat. And so, as the “children of the evil one” grew up alongside the “children of the kingdom,” it was sometimes impossible to tell them apart. So, the Son of Man instructs the servants not to even try to pull up weeds right now, that is, in our lifetimes, but to wait till he returns for the harvest. Then, when both the wheat and the weeds are pulled up, you’ll be able to sift one from the other.
How can we know who is evil and who is good? Aren’t we a bit more complex than that? Who’s to say what secrets any of us keep from one another? Or what the Son of Man will actually judge us on?
Martin Luther had a new theological perspective on this story, back in his day. He coined the Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator, which means, simultaneously saint and sinner. In other words, there is always both good and bad in each of us, we’re always, part wheat, and part weeds. And it is Christ who redeems us, every day, making us whole by his faith and sacrifice, through the gift of baptism. Or as Matthew says earlier in chapter five, “For God makes the sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to the righteous and the unrighteous.”
We do not get to be the ultimate judges. The only thing that is clear, says Jesus, is the power of the empire, or kingdom of this world, the Roman empire, and every worldly empire, is pitting itself against the empire, or kingdom of heaven, which Jesus is bringing and revealing to us. Jesus says, hold on, reflect if you need to, but we need to get some clarity on this first, listen if you have ears. Sit with the tension, a bit. This, is what our world is like: every day, at work or home, at school or the store, we are mixed up in a world of wheat and weeds, good and evil. “Matthew’s parable this week is in one sense a warning,” Professor Lewis says. “Lest we think we have it all figured out how to judge evil from good, moral from immoral, right from wrong, virtuous from unvirtuous, think again. According to whom? When? In what contexts? By what standards?” “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds? That’s a dangerous practice, says Jesus, pulling up what you think looks like darnel, but might just turn out to be wheat.
But our culture, continues to send us these types of false-messages – putting the blame on individuals, and challenging our self-worth – messages like, our failure to get a job is our fault, that we should pick ourselves up by the bootstraps, and that we’re lazy; that evil is “individual” – and we’d better join the competition to beat out, or beat up, our neighbor.
That evil! Those messages, seeking to control our world, comes from a very deep place. It invades systems and institutions, like a noxious weed, and an invasive species. I know plenty of hard working people who have lost everything because of a bad economy, or an aloof uncaring health insurance system, or a for-profit prison-system. The truth is, greed is pernicious and endemic, and has grown to monstrous proportions. The evil of the military-industrial-complex, for example, or a mortgage crisis created by the big banks, is not an accident. This is an evil that lies deep in our soil, and pervades cultures and societies world-wide.
If we want to affect the harvest at the end of the age, and hope to find God’s justice, we need to understand why attacking one another, is the wrong battle! The greedy and 1%, are happy to have us thinking suspiciously of our neighbor, like they’re the ugly weed, when the problem is so much deeper, and will continue to infect us with their false-narratives, their messages of low-self-esteem, and pitting us one against the other!
When Peter tries to tempt Jesus away from having to go to the cross – his confrontation with the empire of this world – Jesus calls him out, “Get behind me, Satan!” It seems that Satan can be in anyone, even Peter, the leader of Christ’s apostles.
The Hebrew word “Satan,” interestingly enough, means adversary – the one who works in opposition to God. And remember, the Devil was the one in the wilderness who tempted Jesus to live by his own self-will, rather than God’s will.
And so we should remember that it is a power, or structure of evil – not a particular person – that is infecting our wheat field. It’s “the spirit of conflict, that separates us from God and from one another, and even from ourselves,” as writer and theologian John McAteer has said. “Any time you act out of conflict, you are doing the Devil’s work, just as any time you act out of love, you are doing God’s work, for God is love”
In the benign picture of the wheat field, in the “normal” sunny and rainy days, until the harvest, there is a deeper battle going on in the soil below, the ground of our competing empires. Our devilish adversaries are crystal clear they are willing to use every and any deception they can to tempt and trick us, with scripts that make us doubt we are God’s children, that aim to separate us, and pit us against each other – that we should be uprooting each other like we’re worthless weeds. Because, they know, when we claim our power in the Spirit, and of the kingdom of God, love cannot be defeated.
Where is that power today? How will we gather in, and organize, the message of love and grace, to grow the empire of heaven, among us? Let’s not get bogged down with identifying who the weeds are. They might yet turn out to be wheat, says Jesus! Our mission is to attack the root causes of evil, so that the light of heaven shines brightly, right here and now, from this place.