These agricultural parables always make me wish that I knew more about farming. Although I don’t know how much Jesus, the son of a carpenter and town-dweller, leader to a band of primarily fishermen, would have known about farming either. I admit I have mostly romantic and idyllic notions of farming, even though I should know better. I was born in rural Western Kentucky where the biggest community event each year is still the Tobacco Festival which celebrating the harvest of the local burley tobacco. And, I lived on a farm for six years. When my parents bought thirteen acres with a barn, chicken coops, and an apple orchard when I was in 7thgrade, my brothers gladly donned their new overalls and posed for the picture to celebrate our new farm life—away from the big city of Nashville. I, on the other hand, sat my dramatic 13 year-old self down under an apple tree and cried—certain that my life was ruined.
But it seems that we always long for what we don’t have. When I found myself in Boston in my early 20’s, finally living in the city again, all I wanted to read was Wendell Berry, my fellow Kentuckian, farmer, essayist and champion of small, sustainable farming. But though I have an obsession with reading about farming life, I have to confess, that my husband is the one who uses the very small plot of land that we own to grow vegetables, plant raspberry bushes and grapes, and split and stack wood for the winter. Not me.
But I have read enough to know that this parable about planting the wheat and the weeds and the instructions of the master don’t seem very reasonable. Farmers who are attentive to their crop would never ignore those weeds. In one of Wendell Berry’s many poems about farming he reminds us of the farmer’s ongoing responsibility once the seeds are planted.
In early May, prepare
The corn ground, plant the corn.
And now you are committed.
Wait for the seed to sprout,
The green shoots, tightly rolled,
To show above the ground
As risen from the grave.
Then you must cultivate
To keep them free of weeds
Until they have grown tall
And can defend themselves. (The Farm, Sabbath Poems)
As we hear in this poem, once the sower has planted the seeds, he is committed—there is a responsibility to protect the investment of that seed by keeping it free of weeds that could choke it out—until the seeds have grown enough to “defend themselves” as the poem says. The slaves in this parable recognized the folly of letting the weeds come up alongside the wheat.
But maybe, if we think about Jesus as the master, the sower, the farmer—whatever you want to call him, in this story. Maybe, just maybe, his attitude toward the weeds, while perhaps not the most responsible move for a farmer, is a sign of God’s extravagant love. As if to say—I know our inclination is to get rid of the weeds, to protect the wheat that we have invested in. But the longer we leave the weeds, the longer God’s grace is extended. By leaving them, perhaps the master believes those weeds still have potential to be something other than destructive. Perhaps Jesus is urging us to “Wait and watch,” as Joy Moore from Working Preacher suggests, instead of rushing in to decide what is good and what’s not.
And this trial period, if you will, this time to let things be and see what emerges…believing in the possibility that some of those weeds may turn out to be wheat after all…this time is important. Because when we get to the end of our Gospel selection today, the part where the weeds are thrown “into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” When we hear that, it sounds terrifying. Judgement is scary—no doubt. But judgement must come before justice. And justice is what ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven. But if we rush to quickly to pull those weeds, if we refuse to take a wait and watch attitude as the master in this parable suggests…we might be putting ourselves at great risk. Because what if…God forbid, but what if…wearethe weeds. Maybe not every day, but at some point in our lives have we not been the cause of sin and evildoing? And if we have, what if judgement came that day? If we consider that we could be the weeds, how does that change this story?
All of a sudden, the extravagance and generosity and even folly of a farmer that says let’s wait and see, becomes a whole lot more attractive. Wendell Berry may well deserve the last word when it comes to practical responsible farming, but if we see ourselves in these seeds that have been planted, we might prefer a farmer without his precise skills of cultivation.
Now despite my generous interpretation of how the master is acting in this parable, it’s fair to go back and read about the weeds as the children of the evil one, the judgement, the reapers and the furnace of fire and question that generosity. I said a couple of minutes ago that judgement must come before justice. And justice is what ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven. But if we want to understand what that Kingdom will be like, we need to look at those five verses that our lectionary selection left out this week. In those five short verses, that you will hear next week, there are 2 parables that Jesus uses to explain the kingdom of heaven.
“The kingdom of heaven [he says] is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” And then, he says,
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[a] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Those concise parables speak to God’s generosity and abundance. The tree that grows from that tiny mustard seed spreads its branches and welcomes the birds of the air to make their nests. And to understand the parable of the yeast, we have to understand that three measures of flour was not the same as, say 3 cups. Three measures of flour is somewhere between forty and sixty pounds. Can you imagine how much bread would be made from sixty pounds of flour? The hyperbole of the yeast parable may remind us of the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned sixty gallons of water into good wine or the feeding of the 5000 where five loaves and two fish fed the crowd and yielded twelve baskets of leftovers. (Levine, “Short Stories by Jesus,” 133) These images point us to the abundance and generosity of God—a God even willing to be wasteful with love—not a God eager to throw some of us into the fire.
So let us not despair this morning about whether we are the wheat or the weeds in this parable. Let us strive to be that which God calls us to be—full of compassion, mercy, and humility with a thirst for justice. But even if we falter at times, we can rest in the assurance of a generous God—a God that believes in our potential and promise. Amen.