July 23, 2017
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
I do not like our gospel passage at all. I worry about what you think when you hear it. I worry that it robs grace and love from your understanding of God. I worry that it tilts the theological scales of your subconscious minds so that when push comes to shove and you face the truth, God is more of a judge and scorekeeper to be feared than a lover to be embraced. I worry that this parable turns the world into harsh categories of black and white, bad and good, which only makes us all the more judgmental. I worry that it reduces your faith to a way of managing the threat of condemnation instead of embracing the gift of grace that is intended to make our nows sacred.
My scripture professors at seminary all insisted that parables are not allegories, and we should not interpret them by assigning clear meanings and identities to the roles expressed in the stories. We should let the stories speak for themselves, move us, challenge us, stir our thoughts and emotions without applying strict or narrow interpretations. The thing is, Matthew pretty much does the exact opposite. After Jesus offers a couple more parables about the kingdom, the disciples come back to this one about weeds and wheat growing in the same field and they ask for an explanation. Jesus makes it all pretty clear, assigning roles and making judgments. Jesus sews the good seed. The devil sows the bad seed. The good and the bad will grow together until that glorious end when the bad will be burned away. So, you better be good.
I thought about excluding the second part of the parable, but that seemed like cheating. Besides, it’s not always a bad thing to have to deal with the passages that we don’t like.
It’s probably not widely known that the parable and the interpretation of the parable likely come from different traditions. The parable probably comes from the oral tradition of Jesus stories, which were told before the gospels and which remember him saying, “Let the weeds and the wheat grow together. Don’t pluck anything up because you might do some damage. Let God take care of that in God’s time.” The interpretation (that is, the second part of our reading) was most likely Matthew’s application of the parable to his own church’s situation. There were hypocrites in the congregation and Matthew sees in the parable assurance that those who claim to live by the faith but who don’t truly walk the talk will get their punishment. Notably missing from the interpretation is the primary emphasis of Jesus’ story, that is, the patience of the farmer. “Let them grow together until the harvest,” he says. Picking up on the difference, Professor Douglas Hare (no relation) writes, “Perhaps Matthew was less pleased than Jesus with God’s long-suffering.” In other words, Matthew used Jesus’ parable as a way of straightening out some misbehaving members, thereby showing that he was in more of a hurry for God’s judgment than God was.
That said, a certain degree of judgment here can’t be denied. Everything doesn’t go, and divine love and grace doesn’t tolerate their opposites. But, if a God of endless, eternal, self-giving love is our starting point (as opposed to a literal, inerrant understanding of scripture) then that’s good news. It means that in the end there is no oppression (both the oppressor and the oppressed are relieved of that pain.) It means there’s no war. There’s no greed. There’s no injustice. No bigotry. No hatred. No evil. No sin. It means that in the end, when the kingdom is all in all, these things will not stand. It means that our inclinations to dominate others must be burned away. It means our violence must go as well. It means that we will be relieved of our racism, our apathy, our preoccupation with self, and all the rest of the sin that keeps us from a full embrace of the best that God has for creation.
God’s patience in the process, the patience that perhaps Matthew didn’t share, is also good news. It means that there’s time to grow and learn. It means that there’s time to become more than who we are; there’s time to receive more of God; there’s time shed what causes us to fall away; there’s time to know more and more the Spirit that has adopted us into the peoplehood of God.
Discussing all the judgment in today’s gospel passage, a colleague at lectionary group chimed in, “You know, everywhere I look on social media there’s judgment. Some of the things that people say are beyond the pale, but it just seems like you can’t have a bad day on Facebook. You can’t say the wrong thing; you can’t make a mistake. People are so quick to jump all over one another; they are so quick to judge and condemn and ridicule one another. People don’t want to listen; they don’t want to give the benefit of the doubt; they don’t want to be gracious.”
That’s when I thought of Paul’s words for today. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Creation groans for this, longs for this. According to Paul, the world is waiting for the Christians to become Christians. The world is waiting in need for a people who will say, “I know you put the wrong foot forward; I know you are angry; I know you have regrets; I know you’ll make mistakes; I know you are a work in progress. So am I. So are we all. Come and be with us. Come and humble yourself with us. Come and learn with us. Come and serve with us. Come and become more with us.”
In the kingdom of this world weeds do not become wheat. Weeds must be burned away. But, in the kingdom of God it works differently. Weeds become wheat all the time. In fact, I suspect that’s part of the reason we have time at all.
 Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, page 155.