Pastoral Parable 2: The Return of the Weeds!
Well I hope you’re still wearing your gardening gloves, have your wellies at the ready and your flask of tea nearby for we’re heading outdoors again for this week’s parable.
Reading: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
So, last week, Jesus was addressing the different responses to the gospel through the allegory of different soils and the prism of God’s radical generosity. This week, he trudges further into one particular patch of ground as he comments on the mixed harvest of weed and wheat. Whereas, last week, all the seed was good seed, here we see two types of seed planted – the good seed sown by the field’s owner and some weed-seed sown by an enemy. Whereas last week we played with the quote that ‘a weed is a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered’, this week it’s harder to redeem the weed as, Jesus later explains, it’s sown by the devil, grows into children of the evil one and will eventually be burned up with some good old weeping and gnashing of teeth – a harvest image seldom represented on Countryfile!
We are told, then, that there are children of the kingdom, sown by the Son of Man – which, let’s just say for now, means Christ – who will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, and children of the evil, sown by the devil, who will be collected and burned at the end of the age. Well, I did warn you last week that we’d be looking at one of the Biblical passages that could be seen to affirm the Calvinist worldview! Indeed, many generations have taken it such and have used this passage, and others like it, to warn of the children of the devil who grow within our churches alongside the children of the kingdom. In fact, we saw an example of this the last time some of us were able to gather together.
It was on March 15th, the world looked like a very different place, and a few of us from both church communities gathered for our monthly film and chat afternoon. I normally go for a Wales-based film during March and so this year we watched Solomon and Gaenor – a 1999 romantic drama which follows the doomed relationship between an Orthodox Jewish man and upstanding, chapel-going woman in 1920s South Wales. In many ways, the film is very timely, dealing with issues of prejudice and discrimination, scapegoating and questions of identity and is, perhaps, a reminder of the ongoing cycle of othering and dehumanization. Anyway, somehow – I’m not good with these things – Gaenor gets pregnant but manages to keep it quiet until a charge is brought against her at the Presbyterian chapel. Gaenor confesses she is with child and the minister shows her compassion and grace. Only joking! Instead he says the following to the young woman –
“Shame on you, Gaenor Rees. You were an example of goodness to the young…and now, about you is the stench of deceit and evil…May God punish you accordingly. You will leave the chapel now…From the fellowship you are banned forever.”
In other words – we thought you were a child of the kingdom when clearly you are a child of the devil and so you must be plucked from the field. This is the way the church dealt with Gaenor. This is the way the religious authorities dealt with a particularly persistent Nazarene weed. This is the outlook that has seen Protestants burn Catholics; Anglicans persecute non-conformists; and even – at St. David’s Uniting Church – some of our forebears murder other of our predecessors as Anabaptists were drowned by their reformed siblings for daring to disagree about baptism!
And does anyone spot a tragic irony about all this? For it would appear that those churches – past and present – who are more likely to believe in a literal interpretation of this passage (i.e. that those who belong to the devil will be separated and ‘burned up’ at the end of the ages) are also most likely to ignore Christ’s instruction within the parable! You see, whilst we can get carried away with the othering and division into good and evil that we humans so love to do – which, admittedly, would make a fascinating midweek reflection: ‘this week WhatsApp us a list of those at church who you think are children of the kingdom and those who are probably children of the devil’ – whilst we ignore the fact that the servants of the landowner are told to refrain from doing exactly this! Go back to the parable and we see the servants excitedly ask the householder if they should gather the weeds and separate them from the wheat and the landowner telling them to calm it down. Leave the sorting to God, Jesus seems to be saying, it’s not a task for you.
Presumably us lovely, cuddly, progressive Christians would nod and smile and sigh at our less faithful sisters and brothers who don’t leave the task to God; who judge, divide and exclude those who they consider to be ‘planted by the evil one’…but, I wonder, how many of us condemned those who advocate the TULIP theology that we looked at last week? How many have looked around our own churches and judged the faith of others because they don’t think, believe or act like us? How many of us might even have thought to ourselves – if only she or he, that couple or those lot moved away, this church would be a much more faithful and fruitful community?!
At the risk of going way over in words and time (when have I really cared about that!) I thought I’d share with you something that I shared at a Synod online discussion group this week. We were looking at cancel culture – something on which we reflected last month and which is akin to the desires of the servants in the parable; the ridding or silencing of those whom you deem to be unacceptable – and I told them of a service that I attended one Ash Wednesday in Cambridge. It was held at a URC church, though, as the Theological Federation arranged, it was turn of one of the Anglican colleges to lead the service and they had invited a Bishop from Uganda to preach. Now, the Anglican Church is a very broad one with a wide diversity of views and this became evident within the service. The Bishop began preaching and touched on the sin of ordaining women; the immorality of divorced individuals holding leadership positions; the heresy of homosexuality condoned within the Church; and that the consequence of this sowing of sin was a reaping of a mixed harvest, so evident in the decline in church attendance and power within the UK. By the time he finished the sermon a third of the congregation had left.
Some of my friends were upset or angry and so walked out as a protest against what the Bishop was preaching from the pulpit. Some were upset or angry that others walked out during the preaching from a guest who was, after all, sharing a message that was dominant for most of Christian history; was the message that we took his country along with a flag and a gun; and was still a widely held Christian view today. Others disagreed with the sermon but wanted to stay to continue with the worship being offered. I wonder what you would do and why.
I don’t think there is a simple right or wrong/wheat or weed response to the question. After all, God has granted us different gifts, personalities, outlooks, which can all benefit the church and world in a diversity of ways. But I was struck by the actions of one member of staff who, as a divorced ordained woman in a committed same sex relationship was triply targeted by the preacher, yet who nevertheless decided to stay and even intentionally took the bread and the wine of Communion from him. “I may have been hurt. I may vehemently disagree with him. But he is still my brother in Christ. We are still part of the same body’’, she told us. I was in awe.
There are a number of ways to understand today’s parable that don’t lead to a literal interpretation of it – from putting it down to widely used rabbinic hyperbole to an understanding that there are fruitful and unhealthy intentions growing in all of our own personal fields – but however you choose to understand the parable, I think two lessons shine through…and to illustrate this, I thought I’d use some words from two brothers who, centuries earlier, most of the reformed bunch would have judged to be weeds!
First then – Saint Francis of Assisi –
‘Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and in our eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act?’
What the parable says to me is stop making it all about you Phil! Stop thinking you can decide who’s in and out – stop judging others from where you’re at and instead embrace a little humility. A humility that the landowner encouraged in his servants. A humility that I witnessed as the staff member celebrated Christian unity with the Bishop who had just preached against her. A humility that can grow from an acceptance that we, too, are capable of any act. For those of us on the theological left-wing of the Church, this doesn’t mean we have to stop campaigning for justice; speaking up for the marginalized; advocating for change within the Church as well as beyond it…but it does mean taking it easy with the judging; resisting the urge to get weeding; pausing and recalling that if circumstances were different, we quite easily could be the ones embracing a TULIP outlook; excommunicating pregnant young women; silencing dissent; or even martyring so-called heretics. As one of the online discussion group reminded us on Monday – when you point your finger at someone, three fingers point back at you!
Humility, then, can grow from an acceptance that we too are capable of any act. It can also be nurtured by an ongoing and ever-deepening trust in God. Of course, with personal tragedies, a national recession, global pandemic and climate crisis, you’d be forgiven for getting a little itchy-fingered with your hoe and trowel right now. And yet, just as with the reckless sower from last week, Jesus tells us that the landowner knows what he’s doing. The harvest is coming. It will be bountiful and beautiful and beyond our wildest imaginings. We might only see a few shoots here and there, and we might not even be sure if they’re weeds or wheat, but let it grow and let it go, for God’s got it covered and all will be well. As the martyred Archbishop – Oscar Romero – once put it;
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
That is what we are about. We plant a seed that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
 There is still no theological consensus on the term ‘Son of Man’ but, for today, I’m happy to go with the widely held position that suggests Jesus was referring to the Book of Daniel 7:13 and using the term as shorthand for the Messiah – the Christ.
 Teachers were known to use hyperbole – exaggeration – in their stories and teaching to make a point. Even our more conservative sisters and brothers wouldn’t advocate actually plucking out your eyes or cutting off your hands as Jesus exaggeratedly encourages elsewhere in the gospel according to Matthew (5:29-30).
Prayer – Wheat And Weeds – Deborah Jones
This parable is very relevant as we go through coronavirus lockdown. Coronavirus being the weeds or the enemy.
The parable says:
Sir it was good seed you sowed in your field where did the weeds come from?
Why is a question we have asked. Have the weeds, the virus and the chaos come from the devil? Truly since you are a God of the greater good.
Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest. God you unite us in Unity as Christians, the field is the world, full of sin, the weeds have to stay amongst the wheat, the virus has to work with good chemicals to produce a vaccine.
Lord we pray in the end for a harvest where Gods people will reap the harvest, a healthier world, where buds burst forth and produce good seed and crops to grow in your kingdom and sin is castaway.
Lord we thank you for the miracles we have seen of those leaving hospital where buds have burst forth.
We thank you for medicine and scientists and doctors, Your Angels.
We thank you for those who care for the wheat, for farmers who have produced fresh produce throughout the pandemic.
We thank you for the forces who have helped with testing.
We thank you for the church with its unfailing hope and care, even in difficult times.
We thank you for our minister leading the church through this unprecedented time.
The parable says:
Lord do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?
No he answered because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheats along with them.
This is true as we learn what it might mean to gather again as a church where we take care not to upset was is set.
There may be people afraid, Lord comfort them.
There may be different ways of worshiping help us as we walk the way.
We ask who we are as a church?
We are servants of Gods field gathering the corn, banishing the weeds and then harvest comes once more in the Kingdom of God.
The sun comes up
We believe in one God, one people, one church, one creation.