Rev. Teri Peterson
What’s a weed?
17 July 2011, Ordinary 16A
Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
A few days ago, Harry Potter took to the big screen again, searching for (and finding) ways to root out evil in the world. As many of you know, when the wizards in the story enter their school, Hogwarts, they are first placed into a house. One by one each first year student sits on a stool in front of the entire student boy, and the Sorting Hat looks into them and declares to which group they belong—the group known for courage? For intelligence? For cunning? For compassion? Each new house member is greeted with cheers and applause. Everyone knows where they stand, where they belong—and where everyone else belongs.
It’s quite the temptation—to put people in categories, to declare who is good and who is bad, or at least more likely to be bad. It makes the world easier to understand, if everyone just fits into a nice little box—good, nice, disadvantaged, at-risk, poor, rich, liberal, conservative, wrong, right, American, foreign…we each act as a Sorting Hat all the time, putting people where we think they belong.
The trouble is—how do you tell? We don’t have all the information the Sorting Hat has—it can look into people, but we can only look at them. What happens when the boxes break down, or when something is not what it seems, or when something changes?
This week when I was reading about this story Jesus tells, I learned that the weed in question—it’s a specific weed, named in the Greek text—is darnel, or false wheat. It looks just like wheat until the ears mature…almost until harvest time, you cannot tell the two apart. Only when the grain matures can you see that the real wheat is heavy and bends over, while false wheat stands up straight and has a slightly darker color. In the meantime, while you’ve been watching the wheat grow, the false wheat has wrapped its roots around the roots of the real wheat, so pulling up one would pull up the other, or at least damage it. To add insult to injury, the fruit of false wheat is poisonous, and even a little mixed in can make a whole batch of flour toxic.
Nothing like upping the odds on a story, Jesus. Not only are there weeds, but they’re poisonous weeds…and not only are they poisonous, but you can’t tell what’s a weed and what’s legitimate crop until it’s almost too late. Fantastic. Makes you wish for a sorting hat for plants!
Even with all this complexity, the servants still want to go in and weed—to get rid of the stuff that’s not good enough, to pull out the bad even at the risk of damaging some of the good—wouldn’t it be better to get rid of a little good in order to save it all from being poisoned? But the master gardener instead says words every teenager longs to hear from their parents: just leave the weeds there. It always seems to me like the vast majority of time people spend gardening is actually spent weeding. But again, this particular weed would pull the wheat out too—which is often what happens, right? We work so hard at rooting out the undesirable elements that we damage the good things too. More than one family, more than one community, even more than one person has been ripped apart by weeding.
It makes you wonder why we are often still so intent on removing the people we consider to be weeds from our communities. It’s always someone, right—people lowering our property values, affecting our schools’ test scores, bringing crime with them, being a drain on the system, believing the wrong thing, liking the wrong kind of music, standing on the wrong side of important issues. Don’t we have to weed out the bad seeds, so they don’t affect the good seeds? But how do you know for certain what’s a weed? I’m reminded of the fact that the neighbors of people who commit crimes almost always say “I’m so surprised—he was such a nice guy” or some such thing. Or, conversely, as in the story of Harry Potter, there is surprise when someone we were so certain was a weed, so certain was evil, so certain was on the other side, working against all that is good…turns out to be on the good side after all, turns out to be some of the best wheat in the harvest.
Interestingly, this exact problem is one of the reasons Calvin wrote about the doctrine of predestination. He says that we do not get to choose—God’s grace is given to us as a gift, period. We can’t earn it, we can’t change it. That’s the good news part. The bad news part of predestination as Calvin wrote about it is that some people are weeds, and some people are wheat. But then the good news part again: it is not for us to decide who is wheat and who is weed, nor for us to worry about whether we are wheat or weed. The master gardener tells his servants to leave both and let God sort it out—which is what the idea of predestination does tells us too. We don’t get to judge others as weeds, nor ourselves as weeds—we grow together, we live under God’s grace together, we are intertwined, a community together. The question is not who is toxic and who is worthy of the soil. The question is not where we belong or what box we can put other people in. The question is: how can we live together to produce the best harvest?
Please understand—I am not advocating for allowing people to do bad things without consequences, or for perpetuating injustice because we’re just not sure. There is a place for discernment and for faithful kingdom work, but there is not a place for judging the worth of other beings with whom we share the field. So I am advocating—I think with Jesus—for reserving our judgment on what people are and where they belong. As Solzhenitsyn famously said, the line between good and evil does not run between us, but through every human heart. We all have the capabilities for wheat and weeds—and the only one who can change that is God.
In fact, change, transformation, is at the heart of the gospel story, isn’t it? Sure, in our world weeds do not become wheat (though apparently people eat dandelion greens, so weeds can become food, I suppose!). But interestingly, the same Greek word Jesus uses to describe the fruit of the false wheat is the one he uses when he calls Peter a stumbling block…and Peter turns from that toxic fruit into the rock on which the church is built, a guy who sometimes got it wrong, sometimes chose violence, sometimes helped keep people out…transformed into one who opened the doors of God’s grace wide, who taught and healed and brought hope, who helped spread good news even to those he once considered poison. And scripture is full of God surprising us—the last will be first, murderers become leaders, barren women become mothers of nations, blessed are the poor and meek and grieving, let the little children come. So…can God change false wheat into real wheat? I don’t know, but I have a suspicion the answer is yes. After all, if anyone—ANY ONE—is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything is made new. Maybe even the weeds, in the world and in our own hearts.
May it be so.