Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
What does Jesus’ story mean? First of all, perhaps, it’s a reminder of just how hard it can be to tell the difference between ‘wheat’ and ‘tares’.
Even a Palestinian farmer might have difficulty distinguishing wheat from darnell because the young plants are both similar to grass stems and look very alike when they’re first sprouting. It’s only as the seed heads mature that you can easily tell the difference between them, and by that time uprooting the darnell might uproot some of the wheat as well.
For us, of course, the confusion is even worse, as this little game we played earlier might reveal! Our problem is that weeds and crops are shifting categories which can be hard to separate.
So, for example, oats can be both a cereal crop and a weed, the domestic variety being closely related to the weed. This means that wild oats are the English equivalent of ‘darnell’, plants which - when they are immature - are virtually indistinguishable from the main crop. Hence the proverb, ‘To sow your wild oats’, refers to behaviour which can have very serious consequences but which, nonetheless, is hard to pin on any particular culprit because he - and it usually is a ‘he’ - will be long gone by the time the outcome - usually a pregnancy - is discovered.
Another example of shifting categories is the poppy - sometimes cultivated in its own right for its seeds, or for its beautiful flowers, as well as being a poignant symbol of spilt blood, and yet also a weed. Once the flowers have died back the dried seed heads will be mixed in with the main crop when the harvester collects it in, and the poppies can then be removed only by painstakingly cleaning the whole harvest to remove them. When poppies once get in among a crop then, like darnell or wild oats, they spell financial disaster.
But there is another problem in trying to categorise weeds. As we have noted, when they occur naturally - in a haphazard way - they may cost the farmer a lot of money to remove and are definitely unwelcome. However, attempts to eradicate weeds have proved equally disastrous and led to what a prophetic voice of the modern ecological movement, Rachel Carson, called ‘the Silent Spring’. By this she meant a countryside so clean and tidied up that there was no longer any room for wildflowers, and therefore less room for insects, and consequently scarcely any room for birds and for their birdsong.
So before we are too hasty to condemn weeds we have to ask ourselves, ‘When is a weed not a weed?’ And the first answer, is that weeds are no longer unwelcome, but become wildflowers again, when they grow on land which has been ‘set aside’ to encourage wildlife, even when it stands cheek by jowl with the main crop. And, of course, because we are no longer intimately connected to the land in the way that our ancestors used to be, most of us are now merely sightseers and for us wildflowers - even when they are growing in the midst of a crop, and should strictly be regarded as weeds - can still be beautiful to behold. So, finally, a weed is only really a weed when you are the farmer and the weeds will cost you money!
Perhaps, then, we should think of this parable as having a life of its own. The details of the story never change but its meaning shifts according to the perspective of the reader. It can no longer mean the same thing for us as it meant for Matthew, but in turn Matthew seems to think that the meaning needs unpicking even for his generation, within fifty or sixty years of Jesus’ death. Hence, although parables are supposed to speak for themselves, he gives his readers the secret meaning of the parable just to make sure that they understand it properly.
Are there some things about the story which never change, even over time? If so, then I think those unshifting messages might be these: we most never forget that the weeds are growing, even when we cannot see them - they are a silent menace lurking among the crop; but it’s not always our job to seek them out, since - at certain points in the development of the crop - we may accidentally pull up the wrong plant; however, God is on the case and eventually he will clean the harvest and remove anything that shouldn’t be there.
What about the changing messages, then? Some people have speculated that Jesus’ original message was for the protesters and agitators of his day - people who were campaigning to get rid of the absentee landlords who creamed off all the profits from the land, and perhaps also the Roman occupiers who protected them. The protesters needn’t worry too much about getting caught or singled out for special treatment by the authorities because, according to this theory, Jesus means them to understand that they can just blend in with the crowd. The authorities can’t arrest everyone, or put everyone under surveillance, so they will escape the net simply by pretending to be part of the silent majority. Then, one day, when the time is right, they will be able to rise up and challenge injustice without being crushed.
It’s the sort of advice which someone must have been giving to our top politicians. ‘Don’t complain about Rupert Murdoch and News International invading your privacy. No one will care and he is so powerful that he will simply crush you like a bug, even though you might have been the prime minister. Keep your head down and your powder dry until the time is right - until he’s already in trouble, for bugging the phones of murder victims and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq. That’s the right moment to break cover and accuse him. That’s when you’ll be able to get even with him.’
Perhaps that sort of theory explains the motivation of the people going after Rupert Murdoch just now, but it doesn’t sound like a plausible explanation of one of Jesus’ parables, does it? It’s not that Jesus’ message had no political implications for his contemporaries. It certainly did, and that’s why he ended up on a cross. He was on the side of the little person and on the side of justice against oppression. But he also said that we must render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and that his kingdom did not belong to this world. In other words, although his message had political implications, he was not a political operator and his parables weren’t coded messages for political agitators. He did mean his followers to infiltrate society and change it silently from within, but not by rising up against the landlords and occupiers. He expected them to change the world by the irresistible power of example, by love in action.
What’s more, there’s little doubt that Jesus saw the weeds as a bad thing, a contaminatiion of the crop rather than a pleasing addition. He’s not in sympathy with the weeds, he just thinks they cannot be removed.
So what about Matthew’s explanation of the parable? He saw it as a message for the Church, about the need to be an open circle which welcomes in the sinner and the stranger. It’s not our task, in Matthew’s view, to excommunicate or anathematise one another, or to judge one another’s motives and behaviour. That’s something we should leave to God, who will be ruthless in rooting out sinfulness and falseness, but will do it when the time is right and without needing our assistance.
By and large I think I would agree with him. His interpretation of the parable is still a valid one. The Church is never more dangerous than when it goes in search of sinners and heretics within its own ranks, in a bid to guard its own purity.
However, there are limits to how far we can agree with Matthew. In the past, Christians who have followed this line have allowed all sorts of bullying, harassment, emotional manipulation, pastoral malpactice and even downright criminal activity - such as child abuse, to go unchecked because it’s not supposed to be our job to sort out the wheat from the tares. Clearly that laissez-faire attitude was just as misguided as the Christians who have gone on a witch-hunt against all the people who disagreed with them, in a bid to root them out of the Church.
So what about the modern interpretation of the parable, the one influenced by the ecological movement and environmentalism, the version that sees weeds as maybe not so bad after all? As we approach the story from today’s perspective doesn’t it have something to say to us about the beauty and importance of diversity and difference?
It’s tempting to try to make everyone the same as us, or to cluster together with people who are just like ourselves - who look like us, perhaps, but who - more importantly - think like we do and believe the same kind of things. But isn’t that kind of world awfully sterile and dull? Isn’t there something missing? Where’s the buzz, the excitement, the challenge?
The other day Helen and I walked across a field of wheat near our home. To the right and left of the path were serried ranks of wheat stalks - every row the same. But, in the middle of the field, along the footpath, was a large swathe of set-aside land and as we walked along it we startled a skylark up into the air and it sang to us. How boring the walk would have been without that beautiful birdsong!
Of course, celebrating diversity is not the same thing as saying that there is no difference between one set of ideas or beliefs and another. Nor is it an excuse for letting people get away with things that are plain wrong, such as denying the human rights of members of their community on the grounds that they are entitled to behave totally differently from the rest of us. But it is saying that we should reserve judgement on many of the things that divide us, and agree to disagree, safe in the knowledge that God is the final arbitrator of all things.
Isn’t Paul saying something similar in his letter to the Christians in ancient Rome? Isn’t he saying that, much as we might like to second guess what the future is going to be like, when God completes the creation, we can’t rush things. We have to turn our backs on fear and look forward to the future eagerly, but with patience.
We may feel that we are God’s children, but at the moment that doesn’t give us any special privileges over everybody else. We all have to wait, with eager anticipation, for God’s truth to be revealed. Living in a diverse world, a world not yet completely under control or entirely obedient to God’s will, may sometimes be frustrating and may even cause us pain at times, but it’s God’s way and it allows us to discover so much that is exciting, challenging and hopeful, which will make our pilgrimage more interesting as we continue on our way through life with Jesus.