Kingdom Talk: Weeding Through A Parable
I’ve been at war with the weeds in front of our apartment complex over the last three months.
A ridiculous quantity of grapevine weed has been gradually swallowing the bushes spaced neatly outside of our porch patio.
I’ve tried my best to pull the vine from the bushes, but getting at the root of the weed has been very difficult – especially without a good weed killer in hand.
With the addition of this miserable heat wave we’ve had, the bushes have pretty much turned into twig skeletons.
So, yes, I am losing this war against the weeds, and I am losing badly. I’d say the score at this point is Weeds: 10, Hannah: nothing
As we read from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, Jesus has something to say about weeds.
Jesus tells the crowd that has been following him around Galilee and his disciples a parable about wheat and weeds.
It is a parable unique to the Gospel of Matthew – and it follows in a series of parables about planting, sowing and harvesting.
But only here do we get to hear about every farmer’s nemesis across history: weeds.
But the weed of which Jesus speaks is not at all like the grapevine that I’ve been battling.
You see, the word the Gospel writer uses to refer to these weeds is tares.
Tares, in biblical days, referred to a specific weed – the bearded darnel
Unlike the green leafy grapevine sticking out of my bushes like a sore thumb, the bearded darnel looks exactly like the wheat it surrounds and grows up alongside.
It is virtually impossible, until a field is fully grown – and until the darnel bears its seeds – to tell it apart from wheat.
Furthermore, unlike grapevine, bearded darnel is extremely toxic.
The Latin word for bearded darnel is Lalium Temulentum, which translates as “drunk” or “intoxicated.”
Upon consumption, this weed was known in first-century Palestine to cause a drunken nausea which could prove fatal.
In essence, premature harvesting of wheat alongside darnel could prove deadly.
Even the slightest traces of it in food could bring about severe illness.
But the interesting thing about Jesus’s parable is that the slaves in it, upon learning from the Master that these very toxic weeds have been sown in a field of good seed, are eager to prematurely harvest the field.
“Then do you want us to go and gather them?!” they ask the Master with an energy we can almost taste.
The parable produces a question:
Why would slaves, who are farmers with this Master, and who know a thing or two about the toxicity of this weed be so eager to uproot it?
Why do they want to race out and pluck it, when they know they could risk the quality and safety of the entire crop yield?
I imagine that the farmers in that crowd listening to Jesus’ words somewhere by the sea in Galilee are shaking their heads and saying: “Those slaves should know better than that! Even I know that it doesn’t make sense to run out and harvest that field right away!”
But perhaps this is the great beauty of a parable.
Just as much as it leads to answers, it raises questions.
And perhaps the biggest question facing Jesus’s disciples [and the first-century church to whom Matthew writes] was what to do with religious opposition and diversity.
After all, the disciples have watched as Jesus has received relentless opposition from the Pharisees.
These Pharisees have rebuked him just a few chapters earlier for feeding his disciples on the Sabbath and healing a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees go as far as to hold a council against him because of his preaching and teaching.
Later, in Chapter 13, Jesus’ hometown Nazareth rejects him on the grounds that he does not have authority to teach and preach in the synagogue.
What are the disciples and the early church to do with these “weeds” among them – these opponents to the furthering of the gospel?
What are they to do with opposition in their midst – with the very real and very evil intentions of religious entities trying to interfere with Jesus’ work and theirs?
The early church of Antioch to which Matthew is writing is asking: “It seems like a number of individuals among and around us are as worthless as weeds, so how and when are we to rid ourselves of them?”
[And, I think as this parable so succinctly illustrates –] This is so often our human first response to opposition, to diversity and to otherness within the church and within our world.
Like the slaves who hear of the weeds in the field, our natural inclination is to rush to root out whatever and whoever we perceive as a threat – whatever we interpret as evil or wrong.
Yes, the parable highlights something about our human impatience with otherness – our impulsivity to weed out the offensive, the foreign and the unknown.
And believe it or not, clergy are not immune from this impulsive mentality and behavior.
Over the last several months, Alex and I have been following some events coming out of our alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary.
Earlier this year, a committee, which included no representatives of Princeton Theological Seminary decided to award Tim Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public life.
The prize includes an opportunity to lecture at the Kuyper Center on the Princeton Seminary campus and a $10,000 check.
Keller has published over 14 books centering around faith and urban culture, and he has grown his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, from zero to over 5,000 members in the last 20 years.
I imagine that there is a plethora to be learned from this faith leader who has planted seeds and watched them grow.
As part of the prize, Keller had planned a lecture on Leslie Newbigin, one of the most celebrated missional theologians of the 20th century.
But there was this one huge hiccup with Keller being awarded this prize as seen by members of the seminary community.
Keller is ordained within the Presbyterian Church of America denomination, not the PCUSA – the denomination with which Princeton Seminary is affiliated.
Keller openly opposes the ordination of women and members of the LGBTQ community.
And no sooner had the Kuyper prize decision been announced than members of the seminary community began to protest the award and the invitation to lecture.
Some of the seminary peers with whom Alex and I studied, who are still at the seminary completing Doctorate studies, were some of the loudest voices on our Facebook feeds and within the seminary community calling for the revoking of the prize and invitation to Keller to speak.
Two questions at the forefront of this debate within the social media news reports coming out of the seminary were:
1. How could an institution committed to full inclusion of women and LGBT people in ministry give a prize – a full $10,000 – to someone who very publicly wasn’t?
2. How could an institution committed to academic freedom silence Keller and deliberately rescind an invitation to lecture?
But the refrain coming from across campus, as President Craig Barnes identified in a news interview was: “I wonder if I really belong here.”
This was first the refrain of the female and LGBT body as they heard news of the prize.
It was then the refrain of the evangelical student body as the prize was rescinded and talk of declining the lecture emerged.
As Barnes reflected on the outcome of the events: “I thought there would be a good debate. But it hasn’t been a good debate. Everybody’s edgy. People are worried about inclusion – right and left. There’s been so much hurt, so much fear.” So much fear.
Yes, the product of rushing to extract perceived “weeds” – whether they be individuals or theological viewpoints – produces fear, because the act itself is rooted in fear. And fear leads to sickness – sickness like the lethal toxins from an improperly extracted bearded darnel.
In our rush to discerning who is in and who is out of God’s kingdom – even whose theology is worthy of God’s kingdom – we put to death the opportunity for relationship.
We slaughter the chance to practice radical hospitality.
We eradicate the occasion for reflective listening and genuine fellowship with those whom we might initially define as other or who may have a differing worldview.
We fail to live as gospel people – people of good news.
Because people of good news sit down and break bread together – even on seminary campuses during debates.
People of good news carve out spaces for leaders like Tim Keller to hear and learn from the voices of ordained women, and for young clergy to hear and learn from a lifetime of seasoned experience from pastors like Tim Keller.
People of good news exercise listening skills, empathy, and are curious about the stories that make up the individual.
People of good news don’t discard individuals because of their differences, but rather welcome them with radical hospitality.
And I think I have to agree with Christian author Philip Yancey in that “Jesus did not give the parables to teach us simply how to live – to just teach us something about ourselves. He gave them to correct our notions about who God is and who God loves.”
What we are reminded of in this parable is that we have a God who practices this infinite holy patience – allowing weeds and wheat to grow alongside one another, who in God’s good time will take care of the future judgment and redemption of all things – from the evil that exists in this world, in real and spiritual forms, and whatever deadly theologies that accompany it.
The God of the Parable of the Weeds releases us from wondering who is loved to do the loving of all people.
The God of the Parable of the Weeds frees us up from wondering who is in and who is out to do the living with and among all people.
The God of the Parable of the Weeds invites us to see no one as beyond God’s attention, no one as beyond God’s love and care.
The God of the Parable of the Weeds encourages us to imagine a field of endless wheat waiting for an encounter, a conversation, a harvester.
The God of the Parable of the Weeds proclaims: “Everything in all creation belongs to me. Go and proclaim this news!”
For the God of the Parable of the Weeds is a God who has rushed into our midst, broken into our reality to live, die and rise again that all things might be redeemed – even those pesky weeds wrapped around my skeleton bushes in front of my apartment, and most especially those weeds that wrap around my heart and mind and those wrapped around the hearts and minds of everyone in this room.
Praise be to God, the Harvester of all things who daily renews us and frees us up for the work of holy patience and abundant love. Amen.