We’re spending the next few weeks of summer taking a look at some of Jesus’ parables, and in keeping with the season, I’ve chosen parables that are related to agriculture. So we’re going to read all about wheat and weeds and fig trees and harvests for the next few weeks.
A parable is a special kind of story. “Parable” is from the Greek parabole, and means, “something cast beside.” They’re stories that take things and throw them together in ways that confuse us. Parables are not allegories, in which each item in the story has a particular meaning. There’s a long history of interpreting parables as if they were, but parables are much more complex.
Parables almost always have a moment of surprise, a moment of turning the expectations of the listener upside down. And that is why they are so infuriating. They don’t offer answers, but only provoke more questions. They relate truths that we can’t fit into regular language. They disrupt our ways of thinking and, as one commentator puts it, “our doubt around their application teases us into active thought.” Parables ask us to stretch our minds.
A little bit of context for this parable: the weed that Jesus is referring to is a plant called darnel. It’s a plant that looks a lot like wheat in the early stages of its development. But as it grew, when the plants became mature, its grains turn darker than wheat. The thing about darnel is that it not only tastes bitter, but it’s slightly toxic, so if it’s ground up with the wheat, it will ruin the flour.
The farmers in our parable do everything right. They till the soil and they plant it with good seed. They irrigate and weed and fertilize and tend the crop as it grows…only to find that the entire enterprise, their entire livelihood, has been compromised. It’s not until the grains actually appear on the heads of the wheat that they can see they’ve been growing two crops all along: wheat and weeds, mixed together, entangled.
We’ve been talking a lot this season about farming and harvests and food. Jews in ancient Israel were tied to the land, dependent on their family’s ability to raise crops and feed themselves. Their lives were defined by the rhythms of planting and harvest, and their sweat and toil went into the crops they planted.
So imagine the sickening feeling of going out one morning to find your entire field blemished with grain that is black instead of yellow. An entire season ruined.
You thought you were harvesting grain that would nourish.
Instead you’re harvesting grain that is toxic: that will sicken.
The workers in the field, all they want to do is to fix it. All they want to do, is to do something. Pull out the invading grains that are so alien to the field. But the householder says something strange, “No, let them grow up together. If we pull them out now, we’ll pull up the whole crop.”
Sometimes you have to wait.
Last week, on the fourth of July, I was struck by something that one of our congregants said during the sharing after the sermon. I had preached all about what feeds us verses what leaves us empty, and she said, “I’m trying to tell the difference between what feeds me and what’s just a distraction, and I’ve realized that sometimes you can’t tell until afterward.”
Sometimes, you have to wait.
Yesterday was a special kind of day for me. It was the one year anniversary of resigning from my job. I resigned after two years working at church, and those two years had been immensely difficult for me. They were difficult in a way that I don’t think I really understood until I’d had the time and perspective to look back on them.
During those two years, there was a lot that was growing in me.
Some of it was wheat:
it was nourishing, restorative, helped me to learn and grow,
made me tougher, made me smarter,
made me more sure of my call
and what God wanted me to do with my life.
But some of it was weeds:
I felt constantly anxious. My body suffered.
I became closed off and bitter,
and was constantly protecting myself.
I was angry a lot of the time.
Every day I wondered if I could keep doing what I was doing. If I should keep doing what I was doing. But somehow, I knew I couldn’t stop yet.
The season wasn’t right.
Sometimes, you have to wait.
And then suddenly, the harvest came.
And I stopped.
The harvest meant not only cutting up the crop, but sifting through the weeds and the wheat. Picking out, one by one, the pieces of grain that would feed me, and gathering them into the barn, and picking out, one by one, the pieces of grain that would make me sick, and bundling them up, and throwing them into the fire.
It was a lot of work.
But it was worth it.
Because if I hadn’t let the wheat and the weeds grow together, my harvest wouldn’t have looked anything like this.
Weeds and wheat grow together, and at some point, we look closely at a head of grain, and we see it. See that something we thought was healthy all along will actually make us sick. And then begins this delicate dance this discernment, of knowing when the moment has come to harvest.
And it’s not simple.
How many of us have been in a relationship,
or a friendship,
or worked at a job,
or had a time in our lives,
or have a relationship with a family member,
that is a little bit of wheat and a little bit of weeds.
It both feeds us, and poisons us.
And the two are all tangled up.
So you let the two grow together, and put your energy into both. And when the time is right, the harvest comes. And you begin the work of slowly untangling. You keep what’s nourishing and life giving. And what’s not goes into the fire.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.
I don’t think that this parable is about a moment in time:
A day of judgment when we’ll all stand before God
and God will tell us if we’re wheat or weeds.
I think that, just like in the parable,
each of us is all tangled up.
And I think that, God’s kingdom, is the whole cycle.
God’s realm reaches across the whole process:
the planting of good and bad seed,
the tending of the field,
the discovery of the weeds,
waiting for the time for the harvest,
and the separating of the weeds from the wheat.
I see God’s realm made present in the rhythm, in the cycle,
in the confusion and the mingling of
good and evil,
nourishing and toxic,
in the careful process of learning to tell the difference.
“Let them grow together,” the landowner says.
And so we do.
And trust God to bear us into a fruitful harvest.
We share the sermon at St. Lydia’s. Please share a story that’s been brought up in you by the text or my words.