Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Story of the Weeds & Wheat

Was Jesus a “religious extremist”? Yes…and No. Jesus certainly asked for extreme commitment to him as Lord, saying that we must put him before family, or possessions, and our own self-interest (Luke 14: 25-33). But was Jesus a “religious extremist” in the sense of being a militant revolutionary? We can say unequivocally…no. Jesus did not lead his followers to violently overthrow his enemies…he led them to the foot of the cross where he forgave his enemies. He taught his followers the way of radical devotion characterized by extreme sacrificial love. Perhaps you are an extreme idealist who wants to create heaven on earth, a perfect church, or even a perfect home? Then again, you may have lost all idealism, and feel discouraged and beaten down by failures, suffering and opposition. Either way, Jesus' story of The Weeds & the Wheat (Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43), can help us understand and respond to this messy world and our messy church with extreme determination, hope, and love.

24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

As we read Jesus’ parable, we learn, first, that weeds and wheat will always be found together (24-28a, 37-39). "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away." In the interpretation, we read that "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man" (37). The Greek word translated “sows” describes the act of "sowing" -- action that is ongoing and continuous, not just a one time event. If we go back enough generations, most of us have relatives who worked the land. My uncle was an alfalfa farmer, and my mother’s family was in the nursery business for decades in Malibu. I learned that sowing and growing is not just a hobby, it’s a career. So it is with the Risen Christ, and I find that exciting. His life’s work is to sow the good seed, which is his word, and those who have been transformed by it. Through his followers, the kingdom of God is advancing, however slowly, in the world!

Understanding this is important, because what Jesus describes next is something like industrial sabotage: the sowing of weeds among the wheat. When the servants awake (like you and me), they want to know the origin of these weeds. “Didn’t you sow good seed in your field?” (27a) -- a question they already know the answer to. The farmer is a good farmer, and he sows good seed (24)! So they immediately come to the real question: Where did these weeds come from? (27b) This is the problem of evil. If God is good, and loving, why is there so much evil in the world? If Christ is building a church in the world, why are there so many bad people in it? If Christ is Lord, why am I still prone to do evil things?

The answer given is brief: “an enemy did this” (28). From the interpretation, we know that Jesus speaks of the doer of evil, the devil (39). Now the devil may be out of fashion today, but his tastes never are. Some may deny his existence, but no one can deny the palpable presence of evil in this world. In a Newsweek cover story titled, “The Roots of Evil” Sharon Begley writes: “In their search for the nature and roots of evil, scholars from fields as diverse as sociology, psychology, philosophy and theology are reaching a chilling conclusion. Most people do have the capacity for horrific evil, they say: the traits of temperament and character from which evil springs are as common as flies on carrion.” Psych. Robert I. Simon of Georgetown Univ. School of Medicine says, “The capacity for evil is a human universal” (Newsweek / 5-21-01). No kidding. Jesus spoke with authority about weeds, because he lived, ate, ministered, and died in the midst of weeds. He is fully aware of the evil in man (see John 2.23ff.) so he wants us to be fully aware of it too, to wake up and see the truth (25)!

The truth that weeds and wheat will always be found together is inescapable logic, but it is still difficult for many of us to accept when it comes to the church. Several years ago, the 4th cent. Church of the Nativity was under siege during a confrontation between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. After it was over an 18 year old Palestinian Christian re-entered the church and commented in tears, “I can’t believe this,” surveying the cigarette butts, spent shell casings, dirty dishes littering the church. “This is the house of God and the place where Jesus was born. What a dark moment” (LA Times 5-11-02). I couldn’t help but think that what happened in the Church of the Nativity is an extreme example of what is true about the church in general. We are the house of God, but we are also a place where you can find a lot of trash; and weeds as well as wheat. Only when we wake up to the reality of the weeds, and the evil that we ourselves are capable of, can anything be done about it (1 John 1.8-9). To agree with God that the evil is real and sometimes working in me is the meaning of the NT word homologeo ("to confess," "to say the same thing" or "to agree" ) with God about our condition -- and it’s the first step to being rid of evil!

Secondly, it is the Lord’s job to uproot the weeds (28b-30, 40-42). “The slaves said, “Do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both…grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” This is a difficult part of the parable to grasp. When the farmer explains to his servants that his enemy planted these weeds, they ask if he wants them to pull up the weeds right away. Oddly enough, the farmer says, “No!” Why? Because if they try to gather up the weeds too soon, they will uproot the wheat along with it.

The first implication of the fact that we are to let God uproot the weeds is that we are incapable of making final judgments about the moral character of other people. A person may appear to be good, but may be evil. A person may appear to be evil, but may be good – only God truly knows who his children are. In fact, there is a type of weed that grows in Palestine that closely resembles wheat in its early stages (darnel). In some regions it’s referred to as false wheat because it looks so similar…that is, until the ear appears. The ears on the real wheat are so heavy the entire plant droops downward, but darnel whose ears are light, stands up straight. The wheat appears brown when ripe, but the darnel is black. At harvest time, the weed has to be separated from the wheat because it causes the sensation of drunkenness and then death if eaten. In The Gulag Archipelago, the great author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, says, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." In the church, we spend a lot of time apologizing for ill-spoken words, and self-righteous condemnation. C. S. Lewis once observed that the church is the only army that shoots it’s wounded. We must forever be repenting of this sin.

Having said that, I don’t think we can argue from Jesus’ teaching that we are never to confront evil or practice discernment in the church or in the world. After all, in Matthew 5, Jesus tell us that if our right eye causes us to sin, we should tear it out rather than have our whole body cast into hell. That’s a vivid way of saying that we are to take immediate, drastic action against that habit, or thing that is threatening to destroy us. In Matthew 7, Jesus says to “Beware of false prophets….you will know them by their fruit.” Then, in Matthew 18, “If your brother sins against you go and show him his fault…..” Obviously we can’t take any of these actions without confronting something that is simply wrong. But while Jesus calls us to discern whether certain actions are good or evil, we are not permitted to decide whether a person or group of people is ultimately good or evil. Even good people do stupid things….

Therefore, the second implication of the fact that we are to let God uproot the weeds is that our Lord alone can distinguish the weeds from the wheat. As human beings we’re tempted to rush to final judgment about all kinds of things and all kinds of people, but one of the biggest reasons we must avoid doing that is we may end up destroying the very one God wants to save and redeem. I’ve been studying up on weeds lately. Ain't Wikepedia a Modern Marvel?! Did you know that there are a number of weeds, such as the dandelion whose leaves and roots may be used for food or herbal medicine? It’s true! Burdock (thistle) is a common weed over much of the world, and is sometimes used to make soup and other medicine in East Asia. Incredible isn’t it? Some modern species of domesticated flower actually originated as weeds and have been bred by people into garden plants for their flowers or foliage (say 'ooooh, aaaaah!') In other words, you’ve no idea the plans God may have for the weediest person in your life. Weeds can be redeemed....

I’m thinking of a man who in his teens began living with a woman and got her pregnant (No one in our church, by the way). After living with her for 15 years, he dumped her and got engaged to someone else—only because it would advance his career. But it was a long engagement (two years) so while he was engaged, he began living with a third woman, who was not his fiancée. Meanwhile, during all this time, he left the church and joined a cult. Eventually, he got bored with that and became a skeptic. Now was this a person a weed or wheat? He certainly behaved like a weed, and yet if you were to tear him out of the pages of history, you would be tearing out the future St. Augustine, one of the most brilliant theologians in church history whose conversion was as spectacular as his former life was decadent. Writing more than 1500 years ago, he preached: “O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many... I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God….” (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160323.htm).

Finally, the Lord will ensure that his wheat prevails (39, 43). “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire…Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” I find this comforting, and unsettling, because of the reality of weeds in me. What assurance is there that we will not be among the weeds that are destroyed? Only that if we come to Jesus, and seek his mercy as the woman did who knelt at his feet, or the prodigal son, or the paralyzed man, that we will hear him say, “Your sins, which are many, are forgiven” (Luke 7:47); and “whoever comes to me, I will not cast out” (John 6: 37).

But Jesus’ story ends on a high note (43). Christ will triumph over every kind of evil. No matter how messy this world looks right now things will get straightened out, and we shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of our “Father”. Jesus says this will happen “at the close of the age” (39) The word trans. “close” is sunteleia, and it literally means,“completion or fulfillment.” There are many aspects of our lives, of the church, of our families, that long for completion, putting back together again.

Case in point, when we first planted grass in our backyard it was perfect…marathon sod. Not a weed in sight…but within a year, the weeds were everywhere. Now, I know we’re in a drought, but about three weeks ago I decided that I needed to give my lawn a little tender loving care. I have a lot of weeds and a lot of dead areas that just looked terrible. So, I went down to the garden supply store and picked up some seed…and some topper. I started out by trying to remove some of the weeds…and then I realized that I would have to remove most of my lawn too! But here’s the interesting thing I learned. Weeds grow when your lawn is weak, not when it’s healthy. For the longest time, I focused on getting rid of the weeds, but then I realized that what I really needed to do was focus on re-seeding and feeding my lawn. (Don’t tell anyone but I actually watered my grass by hand…several times when no one was looking.) Right now…it looks pretty good...not quite sunteleia (complete) but getting there. Are there a few weeds? Sure…but I’m not worried -- I may use the dandelions to make some herbal medicine (the legal kind). For now, I’m focusing on the grass.

And that’s what Jesus wants us all to do. Because we’re the most help to him when we focus on growing wheat rather than pulling weeds (30). I heard Chuck Swindoll give some good examples of growing wheat. Here they are: We are growing wheat when we mend a quarrel, dismiss suspicion, or tell someone, "I love you" this week. When we give something away--anonymously. When we forgive someone who has treated us wrong. When we turn away wrath with a soft answer. When we visit someone in the hospital. When we apologize if we were wrong. When we are especially kind to someone with whom we work. When we give as God gave to us in Christ, without obligation, or announcement, or reservation, or hypocrisy.

In other words, we will be the best kind of religious extremists when we are extreme in our compassion, extreme in our hope, extremely forgiving, extremely loving, not wallowing in the mess, but walking in the ways of the Messiah who promises to clean this whole mess up.

Mighty Savior, we confess that there are weeds…that there is sin and evil in this world. We see it in our nation, we see it in our families, we see it in our church, we see it in ourselves. O Lord, you have solemnly vowed: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.” Yes Lord, and let the weeding begin…with me. Remove from my heart the roots of bitterness and resentment, falsehood and unfaithfulness, arrogance and unbelief. Help me to confront the reality of evil in myself and in others with boldness and humility, truthfulness and loving-kindness. We joyfully confess that you are greater -- for “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” – that evil is a reality but not an invincible one. Therefore we pray for and anticipate your return and until then…the visible signs of your victory in every arena of our lives …to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amen and Amen.