Weeds and Wheat
Pentecost 9A Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
In every generation, in every century, in every epoch of time, there are people who appear to be more religious than God himself. In every age of the human race, there are people who are so pious, so prayerful and so pure that you can actually see them and smell them a block away. Such people inevitably make you feel....irreligious, guilty and not very good inside.
The people who were like this in Jesus’ day were the Pharisees. They were so pious. When they spoke of God, their voices intoned great reverence as they spoke of “Gawwwwd.” They were so prayerful. When you saw them pray, their hands were lifted up just perfectly and their faces seem to glow with the glow of God. They were so pure. They associated only with good people like themselves and they believed that their synagogues were to be reserved only for people who were equally religious. They weeded out the sinners from their church.
These Pharisees had problems with Jesus. That is, Jesus seemed sufficiently religious, but his followers were the riffraff of society. Jesus’ friends were pimps and prostitutes. Cabbies and camel drivers. Tax collectors and tanners. These friends of Jesus were a motley crew.
So one day Jesus told the self-righteous Pharisees a story. He said: “The kingdom of God is like this. One beautiful morning, a farmer went out to sew his seed in his field. He finished his work, was satisfied with his planting, and went home. Later that night, with low lying clouds and no moon or stars, his nasty neighbor snuck quietly into his field, looked all around to make sure that no one was watching and the nasty neighbor then planted weeds. Yes, weeds.
Now, we must pause for a footnote. The word for weeds is a technical Greek word that needs to be explained since it unlocks the meaning of the story. The Greek word for weeds is “zizania” which is a very particular type of weed that looks just like wheat as it is growing up. You can hardly tell the difference. Today it is called “darnel” wheat; it looks like wheat, it appears like wheat but it is not wheat. It fools you. It’s kind of like wild oats and true oats; they look alike but they are very different. So back to the story.
After the farmer had planted his field with wheat, later that dark night when no one was looking, the farmer’s nasty neighbor came into the field and planted weeds. The weeds and the wheat grew up together. Months passed before the hired servants noticed something was wrong and asked the owner: “Did you use only good seed in your field?” “Yes, I did.” “Well, weeds and wheat are growing together. Do you want us to go into the field and pull up the bad weeds right now? We can tell the difference between the bad weeds and good wheat? Do you want us to get rid of the bad weeds, to pull them up out of the field.” “No, no, no” was the owner’s reply. “Let the weeds and wheat grow together. If you pull up the weeds, you will end up pulling up the wheat as well. Let them grow together until the harvest time; then the harvesters will come in and cut the field. They will first gather in the weeds, bind it up into bundles, and burn it. Then they will gather up the wheat and bring it to my storeroom.”
And when Jesus finished the riddle, he said to the Pharisees, “Get it? Get it?” No, the Pharisees didn’t get it.
Later, when in Jesus’ house, the disciples asked, “What did that parable mean?” And every generation of Christians asks the same question: What does that parable mean and how does it apply to our lives as Christians? That is the purpose of this sermon for today.
First, this parable clearly tells us that there will be a final judgment, where God will make a final judgment between the good and the bad. We find this same theme in other parables of Jesus such as the fishing net in which a fisherman catches a variety of fish and then separates the good fish from the bad fish. I am a salmon fisherman. When you go salmon fishing, you often catch dogfish. As a fisherman, you release or kill the dogfish and you keep the salmon. That’s just the way it is. So it is with God at the end of history; God will destroy the bad dogfish and keep the good salmon. In other words, God separates the good fish from the bad fish. Jesus told another parable about the sheep and the goats. The sheep symbolized people who had taken care of the hungry, thirsty, starving and naked; the goats symbolized those who didn’t. The sheep went to cool heaven; the goats went to hot hell. The third parable on the same theme is the one for today: the weeds and the wheat. The weeds and wheat grow up together until the final harvest day, until the final judgment day, and then the angels of God gather the weeds together, bundle them up and throw the weeds into the fire, into the “fiery furnace.” All three parables have the same theme, that there is a final separation, that there is a final judgment.
Now, I am keenly aware that it is not “politically correct” to preach about a final judgment and a hot hell. For many people here today, the reality of a final judgment where a person is judged to go to a cool heaven or a hot hell is a “fairy tale from the Bible,” one of those myths that needs to be demythologized, one of those first century fantasies such as the earth is flat. We don’t believe such stuff from the Bible anymore; it is part of that first century world view, but not part of our time. That is, today we accept the stuff about heaven and eternal life but not the stuff about hell and damnation and fiery furnaces.
This reminds me about the heretic Marcion of the second century. Marcion, like any good heretic, had a pair of scissors and he sliced out all those parts of the Bible that offended him for one reason or another. And today we have a world and church full of Marcionites; in fact, we all are Marcionites to a certain degree; that is, we cut out those parts of the Bible that we don’t like and we retain the parts we do. We slice out all references to a final judgment, a hot hell and fiery furnace but keep those pages about a cool heaven and living in love with God for all eternity.
I ask you: when is the last time you heard a sermon about hell? I have been preaching in this pulpit for twenty-six years and the last time you heard a sermon about hell from me was some twenty-four years ago when I preached a series of sermons on the creed. “He descended into hell.” What I am suggesting to you is that I am a politically correct pastor who hasn’t preached on hell; that is, I talk about the final judgment but rarely about the eternal consequences of that judgment.
But the reality of the final judgment is woven into all of the New Testament. It’s not like the baptism for the dead which is found only once or the rapture (going up in the clouds to meet the returning Jesus) which is found only once in the New Testament. The reality of a final judgment and eternal consequences is found often in the New Testament; it is woven and intertwined throughout our sacred book.
At the heart of this story about the weeds and the wheat, Jesus is clearly telling us that there is a final judgment and a final separation of the good from the bad. And his clear revelation about the final judgment is to motivate us to live lives that God would approve of. This parable is to motivate us to live a godly life; to energize us to be the kind of people God wants us to be. The motivation of the threat of hell isn’t politically correct but it is still real.
A second theme that we hear in this parable of Jesus is that only God is to judge; we human beings are not to. It is God’s responsibility for making the final judgment calls.
In a baseball game, the pitcher, catcher, batter, and coach can argue all they want; but the home plate umpire makes the final calls and final decisions. No matter how much the players froth at the mouth, it is the umpire who makes the call. Those are the rules of the game.
And the rule of the game of life is that God makes the final judgment calls. We don’t. We may froth a lot at home plate; we may froth a lot about what we think are close calls; but it is God alone who makes the final judgments.
And that was the mistake of the Pharisees; they thought they were in a good position to make judgment calls about other people, and Jesus didn’t like their judgments.
So if people get into heated arguments over who is going to heaven or hell e.g. Muslims, Buddhists or Jews; Catholics, Baptists, or Methodists; Mormons, Adventists or Scientologists; don’t get baited into those heated arguments around home plate. God knows the heart and God makes the call based on God’s reading of the heart. You and I can’t see into another person’s heart. We’re not in a position to.
Thank God we don’t have to make those final judgments. That’s God’s job, and God can have the job for that matter. I wouldn’t want to be the final judge. I don’t have the wisdom or the stomach for it, and I don’t think you do either.
Here in my hand are the two gold necklaces that I used for the children’s sermon; one is fourteen carat gold; the other is fake gold. The children couldn’t tell the difference and neither could you from a distance. Only my wife and I knew what was underneath the sheen and shine of the necklaces and only God knows what is underneath the sheen and shine of your life.
Here is the rest of the story about these two necklaces. My parents came for Christmas a number of years ago, and they told me they were giving my wife Jan a gold necklace for Christmas. Loving to play pranks, I purchased a cheap gold necklace for her, placed that fake gold necklace into an elegant jewelry box from a prestigious store. When she opened her presents that Christmas eve, she received two gold necklaces and she was overwhelmed with joy. I pressed her as to which one she liked more; the gold necklace from my parents or me. I suggested that she should keep only one and not two. Which one would she want to keep? Yes, I can see already, many of you women are not into the humor of this situation, but on that Christmas eve, we ended up laughing about the whole thing. The point is: at that moment on Christmas eve, my wife couldn’t tell the difference.
And the point is: neither can you nor me. You and I are unable to judge the quality of the hearts of those around us, which are true and which are false. It is amazing how people can be good actors and put on good fronts around everyone. Look around you right now. Look at all the faces. Look at my face and eyes as a preacher. Can you tell me who is genuinely close to God, whose heart is truly a heart of love as God sees love? I don’t think you want to judge. Just because I stand here before you today as a preacher does not guarantee the genuineness of my inner heart. Only God knows. Only God can see inside a person, what lies beneath the sheen and shine of one’s life.
And besides, there will be a lot of surprises on judgment day. Jesus told the story about the sheep and the goats. The sheep were surprised that there were going into heaven; the goats were surprised that they were going into hell. And I think that there are going to be a lot of surprises on judgment day.
But let’s again move more deeply into this story. Jesus is telling us that there is to be a final judgment, with eternal consequences of heaven and hell. He is further telling us that only God is the final judge who makes the final calls.
And then the parable seems to imply that we are not to judge one another on this earth. The Pharisees did a lot of judging of their neighbors, and Jesus didn’t like that. He told the story about the woman caught in adultery, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and every body dropped their rocks. Today, we would say, “if any manor woman sins by committing adultery, let the person without sin cast the first stone.” No rocks please, at anyone who gets publicly caught doing something sinful and stupid.
And how about all those who don’t get caught doing something bad; are they innocent? Less guilty? There are probably more people who don’t get caught than those who do. We are not to have hearts of judgment against anyone.
In preparing for today’s sermon, I enjoyed the book by Archibald Hunter, PARABLES THEN AND NOW. In his comments on today’s parable, he had one limerick that I really enjoyed: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us, to talk about the rest of us.” I would like to say that again for you, so you can learn it: “There is so much good in the worst of us....and so much bad in the best of us....it hardly becomes any of us....to talk about the rest of us.” I have found that statement to be profoundly true.
And what was it that Jesus said about specks and logs? Not to pick out specks in other’s eyes before you take out the log in your own. Before you go knit picking about the imperfections and irritations of those around you, you better first take a look at the log in your own eye. As you pick, pick, pick at the flaws of your spouse, parents, children, in-laws, outlaws, and ex-in-laws and outlaws, and co-workers and neighborhood kids; before you pick, pick, pick at others, perhaps you need to be aware of that log coming out of your own eye that is making everyone duck when you are around. Do certain people duck when you are around because of the log sticking out from your eye?
Only God is the judge; we are not to judge one another.
But then there seems to be one more final twist to this story about the weeds and the wheat. The Pharisees wanted their communities to be so pious, so prayerful, so pure, just like they were. They wanted to “weed out” anyone who was not sufficiently pious, prayerful and pure. In this parable, Jesus counsels the opposite: that his religious community is to be filled with sinful, imperfect people....who may not be pious, prayerful and pure. Do not “weed out” such people.
When I was a young man, during my seminary days of training to become a pastor, my ideal congregation was The Church of Our Savior’s in Washington, DC. Among my peers and friends, that congregation was the ideal, the inspiration, the model to which we aspired. It was a small congregation of 200 people who renewed their spiritual vows each year. Their vows were to tithe, to attend Bible study every week, to pray every day, to be politically active for the poor every week. And they signed on the dotted line every year. These people were committed. That was my ideal community in those younger years. But not anymore. Maybe I have matured. But now, I want a community that is wide open to all people, including the uncommitted, the half committed, the lukewarm, the confused, the puzzled, the materialists, the messed up; the addicted, the afflicted: we are all welcome here. We want weeds and wheat in our church and besides, I am no longer sure which is which and who is who, as I used to be as a younger man.
When I was a little boy, I remember my father not feeling worthy to have Holy Communion at our local church. He wasn’t pious enough, prayerful enough, good enough. And as a little boy, (I knew that I was going to be a pastor even then,) and I made a childhood vow to myself that people like my father would always know that they are most welcome in the church I serve, at the communion table where I serve. All the doors into this church are to be wide open for all kinds of people, for God’s kinds of people.
And knowing that this congregation is composed of weeds and wheat, in my preaching each week, there will be a part of those sermons which preach for conversion. Knowing you and I are going to face a final judgment some day, a possibility of the fiery furnace of hell or the green pastures of our eternal home, don’t you think that it is time for you to get right with God, to come to grips with who you are and aren’t, and time for you to give your life to Christ and walk in his ways? This day could be your day. This hour may be the hour for you to finally ask God in. This is serious business, risky business, showing up in God’s house where God sees deeply and clearly into each and every one of our hearts.
Some people are so religious that they are more religious than God himself. So pious. So prayerful. So pure. And one day, such pious people stood before Jesus and he told them a story about the weeds and the wheat growing together until the final harvest day. And when the story was done, they all went home and thought about these things. Amen
(As usual, this sermon was preached orally, without notes on Sunday morning, and then typed up the following week.)