Earlier this week I walked through Longrun Meadow. The wheat had just been harvested, but around the edge there were a few stalks left, along with some weeds. Thinking of Ruth in the Bible I gleaned some and here they are. I wondered if I would be brave enough, if anyone caught me, to say that I was just getting ready to illustrate a Sunday sermon! You can see clearly in that setting how wheat and weeds do, in the way of things, grow together sometimes.
I have a memory from another summer of walking beside a field of wheat, singing the Sting song Fields of God to myself, when I remembered this parable – the wheat and the tares. I noticed that there were some strange plants growing in the middle of the field; large, green, spiky and evidently weeds. I realised, as I looked, that it was perfectly sensible to leave them there. There weren’t many of them, compared to the wheat, and even getting to them would have meant trampling over much more wheat than you’d be likely to save by pulling up a few weeds. So, best all round to leave them there. I got on with the walk. And the parable just seemed like a piece of good sense.
But a parable of Jesus has to be more than good sense – more than Patience Strong. You don’t get crucified for dispensing gentle wisdom. And when I look closely I can see that there is something more going on here that what normally happens in a well-tended wheat field like Longrun Meadow…
The story is not just about how a few weeds always grow among the wheat and you just have to live with it and make the calculation that that’s OK and that wisdom lies in leaving things be. In this case, in the story in the parable, there are more weeds than normal because they have been deliberately planted there by ‘an enemy’. This is agricultural sabotage.. A perfectly good field of wheat has been deliberately planted with weeds… This is the kind of thing that would make one of those documentaries about the world’s worst neighbours.. This is like someone coming and giving the sheep a nasty disease, or setting locusts loose amongst a crop or giving the cows TB. This is a serious thing.. and not just what you might normally expect to happen.
But, the surprising thing here is that the householder seems remarkably laid back. He sows the seed but then, like everyone else, he sleeps. It’s the slaves who notice the weeds and draw them to his attention (and they are slaves remember – it’s not really their worry!). They want an explanation. How did the weeds get there? ‘Didn’t you plant good seed?’, they say. The householder gives them an explanation, that ‘an enemy did this’. They are then keen to do something about it. Shall we go and pull up the weeds? And perhaps they were also thinking about sorting out the enemy too, or doing something to their field too… But the householder says no. And he doesn’t just say ‘not yet’. He says that someone else (the mysterious ‘harvesters’) will deal with it. His own slaves are keen to set to work, even rather zealously, but the householder says that there’s nothing you need to do at all. It’s someone else’s work, not yours. ‘Let them grow together.’ Of course, quite a bit of me reacts against this reading, because I’ve often been told (and indeed told others) how important it is to take action now against something that’s unjust or evil. And sometimes it is important. I often feel that I’m not doing enough, writing enough letters, going on enough campaigns, to challenge the places and situations in the world where bad things are happening. I’m often tempted to think that I’ve got to fight back against all the bad stuff and that there are never enough hours in the day for the kind activism we all ought to be doing. This story seems to suggest somehow that perhaps there are times when I don’t, when we don’t, when something else is even more important.
I think this is really a story about forgiveness. It’s a story that says, at one level, that we should always be prepared to leave the judgement to God. Leave it – to God to sort out. And it also suggests just how God might sort out quite a bit of it too.
The words that are translated as “let them” in Jesus’ statement, “Let them grow…” can also be translated as forgive them. These are the same words that Jesus spoke from the cross in St. Luke’s Gospel when he says, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). As one writer has put it, ‘Even then, even on the cross, Jesus is unwilling to pull up the weeds.’ Even the criminals beside him, even the Roman soldiers, are not to be condemned, but forgiven. They too are to be allowed to grow.
This is a story then that points us to how we might treat those who are our ‘enemies’. We forgive them. We don’t retaliate. We don’t go with violence and wrench out the bad. We let them be. We forgive them. We let God be the one who judges. That makes this parable a much more radical story than a piece of gentle everyday wisdom. It makes it very challenging indeed.
We human beings are, it seems, almost hard wired to divide the world up into good and bad, holy and disgusting, loved and hated, saint and sinner. And, often, if we are left to it, we like to condemn and judge some others – partly so that we feel better about ourselves. When we read a parable like the one of the wheat and the tares, we invariably start assigning people to one side or the other. It’s pretty hard for those who find themselves on the wrong end of this way of judging others. Whether we are criticizing our MPs with a vehemence we would hate to experience ourselves, or consigning a particular group of people to the margins of life’s field, or whether we are being criticized, judged or condemned ourselves – we all have moments when we can sense both how apparently easy and natural this seems, but also how ungodly. Jesus was suggesting – and living – and dying for – another way altogether. And I think that once we’ve glimpsed that we can’t live in the old way again.
In the world that Jesus offered, there is patience before judgement, there is forgiveness before condemnation, there is fruitfulness and growth imagined even in those cast as weeds.
Sometimes, in many different eras, including our own, the church has been panicked into thinking that it has to keep itself pure and that it’s important to cut out the weeds. In the fourth century, Augustine had to argue that the church could safely in a hostile world without panic or fear of losing its identity. He insisted that the church should not fear defilement either from pagan corruption or from Christian sinfulness, because its purity does not depend on its members and ministers but solely on God. The church is not a community of the perfect, but a community of the broken. It is always, inevitably, a “mixed” community, comprising quite bad people as well as pretty good people. “Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown”.
The great stories from the Bible of the patriarchs show a people who, at first, thought that God was in very particular places and that other places were empty of God, or at least of their God. We heard today the story of Jacob who found God in a particular place and set up a stone there. But gradually, as the story goes on, God’s people discovered that God could make holy any place, any people, any time. God is not just with the wheat, but also with the tares, not only in a holy land, but in every land, not only with saints, but also with sinners. Surely God is everywhere, and in you and in me.
I think the only other time I have gleaned was in a potato field in Wales, when we picked up a few discarded potatoes for our tea. But the remarkable thing about this field was that it had within it, standing in the very midst of the crop, a great upended stone, where thousands of years ago someone had marked the place as special or even holy. Surely God was in that place too, as God is here and with us, and with all God’s children. Amen