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Weeds among the Wheat
Sermon on Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. That is not surprising: Matthew has a higher concentration of judgment parables than any other Gospel. In fact, Matthew seems to have a fondness for these harder sayings of Jesus: it is Matthew who gives us stories about a king throwing out a wedding guest because he wasn’t wearing the proper robe, or torturing a servant for refusing to remit a debt. Matthew seems to have an inclination toward stories that end with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
However, when you take a close look at the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, there seems to be a disconnection between the parable proper and its interpretation. The parable seems to be mostly about divine grace and forbearance, while the interpretation seems to be mostly about wrath and punishment.
I think we can excuse Matthew for what may seem an over-emphasis on the judgment sayings of Jesus. Matthew was concerned about the future of the newborn church. He was afraid the church would be weakened by hypocrites, backsliders and devious people. The purity of the church was of utmost importance to Matthew – that’s why we have in Matthew and nowhere else instructions for dealing with wayward church members.
The parable is puzzling. It’s hard to imagine someone sneaking out at night to plant weeds in a neighbor’s field, but apparently in ancient Palestine that sort of thing actually happened. Maybe it was a tactic used in vendettas between landowners. The weed sowed in the field was probably what is now called darnel. Darnel has long, smooth fibers, just like wheat, and when it gets mixed in with the wheat, it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart. Not only that, its seeds are poisonous, so if it actually gets harvested and made into flour, it can cause blindness and even death. But if you try to uproot the darnel, as the farmhands in the parable wanted to do, you uproot the wheat as well. The enemy who sneaked into the farmer’s field at night knew what he was doing. This is a picture of genuine evil at work.
We don’t know what kind of situation in the church Matthew might have been thinking about, but it is clear that he was disturbed by the “mixed state” of the church. In fact, the mixture of weeds and wheat has been a concern of the church since its earliest days, and almost every major church conflict through the centuries has some element of this concern.
One notable conflict started early in the fourth century, when the church had to figure out what to do with bishops and other leaders who had caved under persecution. In 303 there was an imperial edict for Christians to turn over their books of Scripture to the Roman authorities or face death. Many Christians complied. A new bishop of Carthage, named Donatus, was outraged that such people could continue to call themselves Christians, much less be responsible for Christian flocks, and decided that the weeds had to be extricated from the wheat. Those bishops who had compromised with the evil of the world had made themselves unfit for the kingdom of God, said Donatus and his followers, who were called “Donatists.” The Donatists persecuted the less pure Christian bishops, who were coming to be called “catholic.” The Donatists would seize a church from the “catholics” and proceed to “paint its walls white, scrub its floors with salt, and wash its furnishings” to cleanse the building from contamination. All this was going on as Constantine, the first Christian emperor, came to power. Constantine just wanted a unified church, and had no patience with squabbles about church purity. In the end, the Constantinian view won out, so we understand the church to be composed of both saints and sinners, which is why we call it “catholic.”
The yearning to protect the church from the contamination of politics and compromise is very old, and has recurred throughout church history. In the Reformation the corruption to be rooted out was idolatry, and the Reformers were on solid ground when they insisted that the accretions that had built up around the faith, like prayers to saints and collection of holy relics, not to mention the blasphemous ways the church enriched itself, taking on all the pomp and power of the state, had to go. Just fixing abuses and cleaning up scandals wouldn’t be enough – until the authority of Scripture was established over that of the pope, the church would continue to be mired in corruption and heresy. So the church had to be not just reformed but purified. To demonstrate this, Martin Luther held public burnings of Catholic canon law books and of a papal decree. As the Reformation spread through Europe, ever more radical reformers took additional “purifying” measures that would have horrified Luther: smashing church statuary, knocking down crosses and crucifixes, even dismantling whole cathedrals and incinerating monasteries. One historian called it an “eruption of godly vandalism.” Some of these radical reformers were followers of John Calvin, the spiritual ancestor of the Presbyterian church.
The quest for purity isn’t confined to the church, of course. It is an aspect of most reform and revolutionary movements in society and politics. At some point, the original revolutionaries are overtaken by those in search of ever greater purity, and may become consumed themselves by the movement they helped start.
We can see something of this perennial quest for purity in the toppling of statues and monuments in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. A very real need to get rid of the Confederate monuments that glorify our country’s slaveholding past has expanded into a drive to scrub all traces of that history, so that founders of the nation and not just heroes of the Confederacy have come under attack. The truth is, though, that we won’t be able to blot out the stain of racism by tearing down every monument to a person who was less than pure in his own racial dealings.
We can be realistic about the moral failures of otherwise admirable people without trying to efface them from memory. With humility about our own failings, we can acknowledge that every human being is a mixed bag, a mélange of weeds and wheat. Humility also requires us to recognize that we aren’t always all that good at distinguishing the weeds from the wheat.
Listen again to what the farmer said to his farmhands: “Let both [the wheat and the weeds] grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them into bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” There will be a reckoning, Jesus is clear on that, but it is not always for us to decide who is the wheat and who are the weeds. “Judge not,” Jesus said.
Of course, this forbearance has its limits. Just consider an example from recent church history: the clergy sexual abuse crisis. In such a case, zero tolerance is the only acceptable response, and action to protect innocent lives and make reparations for the harm done to such lives in the past must be swift and thorough.
Jesus is simply saying that when we take it upon ourselves to deal with evil, as sometimes we must, we must do so with the utmost caution. We deal with evil mindful of all the ways our good intentions can be subverted or compromised. We deal with evil mindful of our own propensity for self-righteousness and self-deception. As one scholar has observed, the “parable does not say that resistance to evil is morally wrong, only that it is salvifically ineffective.” In other words, salvation-wise, our remedies will fall short. We can seek solutions to the presence of the weeds among the wheat – but we “should not assume that [our] solutions will necessarily make the world a better place.” That should not deter us from unmasking evil when we are able to do so, or from speaking out against it. We don’t turn a blind eye to cruelty, exploitation, and lies until the day when God’s goodness finally prevails.
Jesus Christ has assured us that evil will not triumph in the end. The weeds are in the field, but so is the wheat: there is evil in the world, but the kingdom is also in the world. Until the kingdom fully arrives for everyone to see, good and bad will exist together.
So what do we do in the meantime? We act with the knowledge that all human “solutions” to the problems of evil and impurity are partial and temporary at best. We act with compassion and forgiveness toward each other, knowing that we are all dependent on the mercy of God, who weighs every human life. And we put our trust in Christ our Savior, the Judge who is also our Redeemer.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2020
 Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 155.
 Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 135.
 Holland, 333.
 Robert Capon Farrar, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 87.