Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
When Mark and I first viewed the house we live in, we decided within a minute that it was the house we would buy. I had viewed literally over a hundred houses, looking for the right one. This one was just the right home to get us started together. Aesthetically, it was going to need some work, but it had good bones, the right amount of space…and the yard was magnificent! There was a big shed off the patio. And the woman who had lived there with her family and raised her sons had also established a gorgeous garden of roses and decorative grasses and hibiscus. The garden is what really sold me.
We bought the house in the fall of 2008. That following spring, as I got ready to tend my new garden, I was overwhelmed. The woman had made a map of each plant she had, where it was planted, and instructions about when to prune and things like that. But, as I looked at all of the varieties of plants along the back fence, I honestly had no idea what was what. That first spring, I probably tended as many weeds as I did intentional plants.
The second spring, I just decided to dig in. I didn’t know what I was pulling out, but there were a lot of things that were ‘weeded.’ I never saw the hibiscus again. I took out a huge planting of zebra grass in the corner. That was an experience—surrounded by apparently wild garlic. I placed there a couple of trellises and planted what I had decided would be the most wonderfully fragrant flowers—honeysuckle.
And then, I had my work cut out for me—trying to keep the darned vines from going nuts along the fence. Apparently, one of my neighbors didn’t think I was effective at that. One morning, I noticed that one of my honeysuckle plants was dead—utterly and completely. I suspect Round-up was involved. I guess they had decided on my behalf that it was a weed and that I needed some help. I took the honeysuckle out.
Here’s the thing. How do we know what is a weed and what is a plant? And who gets to decide? I’m going to show you some pictures, and you can help me out here.
We’ll start with something easy. Who can tell me what this is?
Right. A poinsettia. We buy these in droves around Christmas, we decorate our worship space and our homes with them. So, is it a plant or a weed?
Well, in America, it’s a beloved plant. In Mexico, kept unchecked, it’s a weed.
What about this one?
Yes, a thistle. Prickly and problematic. A colleague of mine told a story about growing up on a farm where the thistles would often cause problems. A whole field was filled with them, and he—being the typicall farmboy—wanted to know if he and his brothers could start a field fire and kill it off. But, their dad said, ‘no.’ Instead, dad took the tractor and used an attachment to lay the thistles down. Then, he released the sheep into the field. Within days, the thistles were gone.
So, we consider it a weed. But the sheep considered it food. It became useful. If it’s useful, is it still a weed? What makes a plant a weed anyway? Who gets to decide? Does it become a weed when it is simply not something we humans intended? Is it a weed when it grows where we wanted something else to grow? Think about that question in terms of people—and the church. Is it a weed when it grows where we wanted something else to grow? Who gets to decide what is a weed, anyway?
That’s part of what makes Jesus’ parable so complex. The farmer planted wheat, but an enemy planted darnel in the field, as well. Darnel is often known as ‘false wheat’ because it resembles wheat so closely that it’s almost impossible to tell which is which until the head appears. In the ancient world, darnel was a serious farming problem.
It explains why it was important for the workers to wait and not to try and pull the weeds from the field before they knew what they were looking at. But when it came time, it wasn’t the slaves who were responsible for weeding the field. It was the reapers—the harvesters. As Jesus explains the parable, the harvesters will not be fellow humans but God’s angels. That’s an important piece to remember.
Because, you see, we aren’t the ones who planted the seeds. We don’t really know what we are looking at. And we are most certainly not qualified to determine what is a weed and what is a useful plant. Because when we try to do that, we become kind of like me in my garden—indescrimately yanking out whatever I don’t recognize or understand—whatever I didn’t intend or plant—or remember planting. We don’t get to decide who and what belongs and who and what doesn’t.
That’s good news because that also means that no one can tell you that you are no good. No one has the right to tell you that you don’t belong. No one—priest or pastor or church member or American citizen or terrorist or bully or your own lying mind—gets to identify you as a worthless weed.
We like to joke that when Noah filled the ark with animals, we wish he would have forgotten the mosquitos. But the mosquitos are food for birds and bats. Thistles are food for sheep. Clover and dandelions provide luscious nectar for honeybees. In God’s beautiful, wonderful, very good creation, God did not create weeds—God created diversity. Weeds are only weeds when they wind up where they didn’t belong or weren’t intended. And that becomes more of a problem when we get more and more insistent on designing and boxing in our lawns and our homes and our lives and the church and even the gospel.
When we get so compulsive about how things should be done, how things used to be done, how things have never been done, and how we’d like things to be done in the future—we start identifying as weeds what God planted as good and abundant and nourishing. When we use our moral values as a standard for what life and love should look like, we undermine the very seed of faith and grace that God is planting among us.
Just like last week, this parable isn’t about us trying to control the outcome of the harvest. We can’t control the soil of one’s heart. And we can’t recognize weeds from intentional goodness. Instead, our job is to enter into the surprising abundance of a harvest completely and utterly out of our control. Our job is to rejoice in what God is doing and plant the seeds of faith. If anything, our job is to behave like a noxious weed—growing anywhere and everywhere, cracking the concrete assumptions of polite society, and letting the wind of the Spirit scatter the seed of the Word far and wide.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church