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Growth is Better Than Judgment

A sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by AT on Unsplash.]

The Lutheran liturgy resource we use for our bulletins introduces today’s texts by naming the age-old question: why is there evil in the world?

My tenure here at Abiding Peace cannot quite be classified as “age-old,” but I can say that this is the theology question I have been asked most frequently.

In fact, during my first advent season as your pastor, when I asked this community to write down your questions for God, fully half of those questions were connected to the problem of evil and suffering.

We explored various scriptures over that year that offer us some level of perspective on the reasons for evil in the world, but I think this parable may offer the most direct answer that we get from Jesus:

Why is there evil in the world? Because forcefully eradicating evil would have destructive consequences for good too.

But that answer prompts the question of WHY this would be true.

The entanglement makes sense in the context of the metaphor: the wheat and the weeds are growing with their roots intertwined – one cannot be pulled out without also ripping up the other.

But how does this metaphor translate to the deeper and more complicated truth of human experience that the parable is meant to illuminate? What does it mean for the “roots” of evil and good to be intertwined in our lives?

Perhaps it is helpful to first get a more detailed understanding of what this parable is referring to with the rather generic word “weeds.”

Bible scholars tell us that the plant in question is a grain called darnel.

Darnel is a plant that looks almost identical to wheat when it first sprouts (thus leading to the delay in discovering the introduction of the polluting seeds). The difference only becomes apparent when the grains begin to mature, and unlike wheat’s golden kernels the darnel grains are dark.

While edible, darnel grains are prone to fungal infestations which create intoxication or hallucination when ingested. For this reason, darnel was sometimes intentionally used to aid in fermentation of wheat beer, and at other times had the same effect unintentionally in other wheat products.[1]

Commentator D. Mark Davis offers an interesting take on the identification of the plant in the parable, saying, “Our use of the word ‘weed’ is a judgment call in itself, indicating the value that we ascribe and the intent that we have, more than the actual intrinsic qualities of the plant itself.” (emphasis added)[2]

I find this insight illuminating because it draws our attention to the subjective element that we bring to the reading of this parable.

We (and the English bible translators) make a judgment call when we call the plant a weed, just because it is not the one that was expected to grow.

Just as we make a judgment call when we label things as evil, or sinful, or wrong. It may be the right judgment, but we need to be aware that that’s what we are doing…. And we need to be aware that our judgements might cause unintended damage.

And maybe this dynamic - the dynamic of our tendency to rush toward judgment, as well as the consequences of that tendency - is what the parable is pointing us toward with the image of entangled roots… because of the ways that we tend to act once we have decided that something is “evil.”

This possibility is underscored by the reaction of the servants as soon as they discover the intermingling of the grains.

They immediately want to eradicate the weeds. They recognize a problem and the first thought is “we need to fix it”… without considering whether that action might damage the crop they were supposed to tend.

Again, Davis observes, “The workers’ response, to me, is the very common response to the uncommon insight of the owner. It is the siren song of every fixer, to go and do what has to be done. There is no question of the rightness or wrongness (of the plan); no question of the workers’ competence; and no question of the damage that may ensue. Everything is obvious, so they are merely awaiting permission to fix it.”[3]

It's the “everything is obvious” line that really strikes me.

It exposes the resistance to reflection that underlies self-righteous tendencies.

It is a reminder that a rush to judgment betrays an inherent unwillingness to learn anything unexpected beyond one’s own initial assessment.

And the related unwillingness to consider that we might ever need to learn something new… that our instincts about things so “obvious” to us could ever be missing something important.

Sadly, this is also the kind of reflex I see all too often in both society as a whole and in the Christian church.

As one example, I saw a post yesterday in a Christian discussion group I am part of asking for a review of the new Barbie movie “beyond just calling it ‘woke.’”

The group has members both left and right of center in a political sense, and it was interesting to see the responses to the use of the word “woke” in the question.

While the discussion thankfully got past knee-jerk reactions, it was clear that plenty of people had opposing reactions to this descriptor - automatically making them either suspicious or predisposed to anything ascribed that moniker.

In the language of the parable, it was clear that for some people “woke” = “weed” and for others “woke” = “wheat,” no questions asked. This was why the original poster felt the need to ask for something of more substance than just dog-whistle labels.

I’d be willing to bet you all could offer parallel stories. We all know that we live in a deeply ideologically divided society. This is no surprise.

But what the parable pushes us to recognize is the damage that can be done when we make snap judgments about the things that need to be just eradicated from our society.

When we decide that something is evil and thus it needs to be automatically prohibited, or cancelled, or kept out of our schools, or otherwise banned… without considering the soil that thing is growing from, and the way that soil may nurture some much needed growth if we give it time.

Our lectionary reading skips from the parable itself to the interpretation of it (which may or may not be the gospel writer’s editorializing on the teaching rather than Jesus’s own words), but I find the two parables the reading skips to be more illuminating than the rather clunky, allegorical interpretation in the final verses.

We will hear those two parables next week, along with the three parables that follow, so I won’t go into detail today, but the relevant point for understanding today’s parable is the interwoven theme (in the first four parables) of something small being “hidden”, but nevertheless having a tremendous impact.

Now, in the context of the parable we have been talking about, we can see an automatic link, right? The “enemy” hid the corrupting seeds in the field along with the wheat seeds.

Except, in all of the other parables the hidden thing is actually GOOD. The expectation set-up by the parable of the wheat and the weeds immediately gets subverted by the next four parables.

And all of this makes me think that the point of the parable of the wheat and the weeds is NOT as obvious as the allegorical interpretation suggests.

It’s not a matter of evil really being easy to spot but God just chooses to wait to eliminate it because, for some strange reason, the “roots” of good and evil are intertwined.

I think reality is actually more complicated than that. And it is the human instinct to rush to eradicate all that we (individually or within our chosen groups) identity as somehow wrong that is the deepest threat to the good God is working to nurture in the world.

Because our judgment is not infallible. And we are most likely to make mistakes when we hurry to uproot things without being willing to learn, or examine the fruit, or question our assumptions.

There is one other detail of this story that also bears mentioning.

When the master in the parable tells the servants to “let” the weeds and the wheat to grow together, the Greek word for let, ἀφίημι (aphíēmi), also means “forgive”.[4]

I want to be cautious here, because the language of forgiveness has been weaponized in the history of the Christian church to reinforce various forms of oppression, and I don’t want to add to that burden.

But I just wonder what it might do to the various heated battles in the culture wars if we embraced the possibility that forgiveness is an intrinsic part of the process of nurturing in our society a harvest that can nourish us all.

It’s not a command to never challenge evil… the weeds DO get burned at the end of the story.

But it’s a recognition that growth is going to be messy, and we are going to have to forgive some ignorance, or wrong ideas, or maybe even a bit of ill-intent… to prevent our division from destroying the entire crop.

Ultimately, it’s not a teaching the handily solves the “problem of evil” in the sense of explaining why it exists… but it does offer us a guide in knowing how to respond to its existence:

By making sure that we don’t add to the harm being done,

And by giving us hope that God is nurturing the growth of good, and we have a chance to learn what that good is.

Thanks be to God.

[1] [2] D. Mark Davis, [3] Ibid. [4]

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