The Wheat and the Weeds

RCL Year 2
Lent 3 Wednesday
March 14, 2012
St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, LA

Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Last month Charles Dickens, if he were still alive, would have been 200 years old. I decided that this year I would read some of Dickens’ works, some I’ve never read and some that were wasted on me when I was young. Dickens is such a great portrayer of the human condition, I want to soak up his caricatures. I began with Bleak House.

There are several plots, of course, and many characters whose lives are intertwined and bound together by a long standing lawsuit, a contested will whose possibilities for inheritance are great. Richard Carstone is one of the heirs who stands to profit if the judgment should be in his favor. He’s young, good looking, bright, charming, educated, with all the advantages a young man in nineteenth century London can be given. He has his life and a bright future ahead of him; he has many choices – but he yields to the smothering weed of delusion. He craves the fortune he may or may not eventually have. He puts all his trust and all his hope in the possibility that he might gain the world.

Richard takes several opportunities to learn a profession, and he throws them all away. Why should he ever need to worry about making a living? He rejects his most valuable relationship, he wastes his time and falls deeply into debt. When the judgment on his inheritance comes in, he’ll make it all up. He is consumed by the lawsuit. He can’t enjoy one minute of his life, even of his marriage. He disappoints and hurts the people who love him. Eventually, his health both mental and physical is ruined. He suffers greatly; his hope is strong, but it’s in the wrong place. He has made his own furnace of fire in his life, and he weeps and gnashes his teeth in misery. Finally, when the judgment doesn’t go his way, he dies. The worst thing is, he knows long before he dies that he’s on the wrong path, but he can’t help himself. His trust is fatally misplaced. He has hoped to gain the whole world, and he has lost his life.

Our parable today, the Wheat and the Weeds is a parable about judgment. There’s no getting around it, even though we don’t like to think about judgment very much. But it’s also a parable about judgment in the light of the Gospel, judgment understood not simply as condemning and acquitting but as bringing everything to light. It’s about where we place our hope and trust.

Let’s look at the judgment element first. “Gather the weeds, and tie them up in bundles and burn them…At the end of the age the Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will collect together out of the kingdom everything that causes offence, and everyone who acts wickedly. They will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Most of these words are found not in the parable itself but in its explanation.

That’s about as graphic a description of the Judgment Day we associate with fire and brimstone as we can get. Each of us has to admit to having acted with wrong intent many times. We have to admit to having caused offense, by word and deed, many times in our lives. If we include our thoughts in our list of offences, we admit to causing offense several times a day – despite our best intentions.

If we’re talking about people being cast into the fire, are we all not eligible? This judge isn’t the loving Father Jesus knew.

There will be accountability, we know that. Without accountability, there can be no right intent, no repenting, no forgiving. We will face the implications of our decisions, our actions and our words and thoughts. We don’t know what that day will look like, and we know it will come. We also know that the words in the explanation of the parable are not the final words. The Cross and the Resurrection are the final word. God’s love crucified there to draw all people into it; Jesus’ plea for God to forgive the humanly unforgivable. The raising up of the way of forgiving, redeeming love.

We want to stay away from the other extreme, too, that sees God as an indulgent parent who lets us do whatever we want to do and rewards us anyway. God loves us unconditionally. God knows our failings and will never do anything that will hurt us, as not holding us accountable would certainly hurt us. This is the Judge who will bring everything to light and whose judging will always be loving and wise beyond our human understanding. This is the Judge who redeems.

What, then, are we to do with this parable? The words of fire draw our attention away from other words that are just as important and instructive for us:

The servants are ready to fix the situation. They ask, “Do you want us to go and pull [the weeds] up?” And the farmer replies, “No, if you do that you’ll probably pull up the wheat as well, while you’re collecting the weeds. Let them both grow together until the harvest….”

This is a parable of God’s patience, of God’s waiting, of God’s hoping, of our trusting God. Judging ourselves and judging others, we’ll probably pull up the wheat as well as the weeds. Let them grow together until the harvest day.

It’s true, we’re all too ready to judge ourselves and to condemn others. We risk judging prematurely, judging wrongly – and we risk our judging poisoning our minds and relationships. We give up all too easily; we like it decided; we like it black and white whenever possible. Some would say that, in the parable God is doing nothing.

But God is patient, God is hopeful. God never, never gives up on any one of us. How can God throw in the towel when God loves the criminal even as God loves the saint? Each one of us thinks and decides and speaks and acts out of all our own history. Each decision is informed — more, or less — by our spiritual life, our experiences and the teachings we’ve received. God sees, as only God can, all of our lives, all the ins and outs, all the ups and downs, all the pain and all the joy, and God takes it all into account – as only God can.

Wait. Not so fast. Don’t pull the weeds up just yet. Who knows but that the wheat will overcome the weeds? In the fullness of God’s time, there is still time. In the fullness of God’s love, there is always mercy; we have only to turn and accept it. There’s room for repentance, for turning around, for forgiving – in this life and in the life to come. God is hoping that, however long it takes, we won’t forever resist that redeeming love. God put perfect love into the Resurrection’s assurance that our failings are redeemed on the Cross, and God keeps pouring out perfect love.

Finally, we tend to think of a sprig of weed here and a stem of wheat there. Separate entities, individual organisms. Are you a weed, and you a wheat? No. Each of us is a mix of wheat and weeds; a mix of motives and desires as varied as the days that present them. We make good decisions and bad ones, and we have the chance to learn from both. It’s possible that the wheat can overcome the weeds; it’s possible that, eventually, good can come from both. God is patient. God never gives up. God tends us lovingly and hopefully, working with the weeds as well as with the wheat. “You meant it for evil,” Joseph says to his brothers in Egypt, “but God meant it for good.” God is always working for good.

Never doubt that there is evil in the world, sowing weeds among the wheat. Some days we’re more able to resist evil than other days, but the enemy is always active. Pulling up the weeds too soon denies God’s action in our lives.

And the field belongs to God.

This is a parable of patience, of love, of hope and trust in God’s wisdom and God’s love. This is a parable of bringing into the light everything that separates us from God and from one another.

Let’s look again at those words of weeping and gnashing of teeth. I think we can learn from Richard Carstone: We can make our own furnace of fire for this life, and we’ll miss the full, beautiful, wonderful life God offers us. We make choices with varying degrees of self interest and self sacrifice. Acting time and again in our own interest brings misery. There’s no doubt that we pay, in guilt, in pain, like Richard Carstone, for placing our trust in the wrong places. On his deathbed Richard Carstone patches up his ruined relationship, he repents of his folly, he dies – and God takes him from there.

If judgment is understood as bringing everything to light, our failures, in God’s time, can always bring repentance. At the end of the age, when all things are brought into the light, might the weeds that will be gathered and burned be those things, known and unknown, things done and left undone, that have separated us from God and from one another?

That is our hope. Let the weeds grow with the wheat, and let us learn from both. Trust the light of God’s love, and know that in that redeeming, patient, constant and hoping love the harvest will be glorious!

The Rev. Mary B. Richard