Proper 11A: The Wheat & The Weeds
By: The Rev. David Henson
When my children were little, I would often have them help me pull weeds in our vegetable garden. Now, for me, I have been trained over three decades to know what’s a weed and what’s not. I can look at my tiny plot of dirt and I can see in a second what’s not supposed to be there. I know what belongs and what doesn’t.
My young children, on the other hand, weren’t so sure. Their little hands would grab along the base of a plant and then they’d ask, “Daddy is this a weed?”
Sometimes they had an errant weed that needed to be uprooted. Other times, they were gripping precious tomato saplings. They needed to learn which plants were valuable and which were expendable. They needed to learn what was good and what bad. They needed someone wiser to tell them what belonged and what was to be cast out into the compost bin. They had no innate knowledge that some plants were worthy of the garden and others were not.
So it is with us. By now, most of us have learned the rules of who belongs and who doesn’t. We know who belongs and who doesn’t belong — in this country, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, and in our jails.
We know who deserves life and who deserves to die.
We know who the weeds are that need to be uprooted and thrown into the fires of judgment.
In other words, we know where our borders are. And who is allowed to cross them. And it’s often the case that in the crossing of a border — into our territory — that a harmless plant suddenly becomes a weed to us. A patch of clover in the field across the street is a fun place to spend an idle afternoon searching for a four-leafed lucky charm. But put that patch of clover in my garden, and suddenly it is an enemy, soaking up the needed nutrients in the soil that rightfully belong to the vegetables I planted and it must be eradicated.
As a result, life becomes a game about insiders and outcasts. In fact, many of us believe we are doing the world and God a great service when we decide amongst ourselves who gets to belong and who doesn’t, when we decide what constitutes the weeds and the wheat.
We are very much like the Master’s servants in the parable who see weeds and hurry back to the person in charge. “Uproot them and throw them into the fire! They don’t belong in our gardens!”
Now, as someone who loves gardening, I have uprooted my fair share of weeds. I get the servants’ attitude. They are ready to blame someone. The field has gotten completely out of control, and the Master is powerless to do much (or refuses to do much!). As concerned for the field as the servants are in the parable, it seems almost equally important to them that they let the Master know the error of his way and that his beautiful field has gone terribly awry.
The Master’s response to his servants is understated, but quietly revolutionary.
“Let them grow together,” he says.
It’s not your business, or even my business, to go around pulling weeds.
Let them grow together.
This is a gentle rebuke to the servants who try to go around naming what represents a weed and what doesn’t, a rebuke to the servant who tries to tell the Master what belongs in the field and what doesn’t.
Imagine how different our world — even our churches would be — if every time we saw something that we didn’t think belonged, every time we perceived a weed among the wheat, we took the Master’s attitude rather than the servant’s.
Let those that don’t belong to each other grow together. Let those who don’t fit into each other’s neat fields of categories grow together. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.
Let them grow together because the line between the weed and the wheat is much, much blurrier than we’d like to think.
Just as it’s the crossing of a border that turns a plant into a weed to many, so it is that simple cultivation — love — transforms a weed in our eyes into a valued plant.
When I was a child, I loved dandelions, the tiny pops of bright yellow erupting in our lawn, the clouds of seeds that I could blow into the air to watch drift away lazily on a summer day. But as I started to mow the lawn, those patches of childlike joy became onerous weeds that needed to be uprooted. Then, as a young adult, fresh out of college, imagine my surprise while eating at Chez Panisse in Berkeley to find that odious weed overpriced as a featured part of my meal!
A dandelion in a garden, when viewed differently, when cultivated, becomes a delicious salad green adorning plates at the fanciest restaurants in the world.
In the Master’s garden, the Master errs on the side of growth rather than punishment. Our tendency is to read a great deal of punishment in all this; the eventual burning of the weeds becomes for us a metaphor for the fires of hell and judgment. The introduction of flames in the last few sentences colors the entire parable.
But, to me, it’s not a promise of judgment. It’s a promise of harvest. Harvest is about feeding people. It’s about sustenance. It is about bounty and abundance. Our rapture-warped minds and end-times infected spirituality, however, have turned the theological idea of a harvest into something to be feared, a terrible separating of those who belong and those who don’t.
But that’s not what a harvest is about. Harvests bring together communities. Harvests are hard work, to be sure, but they are to be celebrated, not feared. In the end, by the time the harvest arrives, no one is concerned with the weeds anymore. They are concerned and thrilled at the bounty and abundance springing from the land. They are concerned about putting up food for the lean months. They are excited about a season’s work bringing forth fruit.
Weeds are a concern only for those who can’t see the joy of the harvest.
One day, the harvest celebration is coming, the Master says, and all this business about weeds and wheat will be settled. But it’s an afterthought, really. It’s a notion designed to help us let go of our desire to decide who is in and who is out. It functions to help us release our desire to uproot and to throw into the fire and bomb.
And, in doing so, it should refocus our attention on the command of the Master.
“Let them grow together,” the Master says.
My children will one day learn who is in and who is out. As much as I will try to rear them, the world will teach them to judge their neighbors, to draw borders between friends and foes, to create clear boundaries about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
One day they won’t need me to tell them which plant is a weed. They’ll know, because I taught them, not to let the weeds and the wheat grow side by side.
And our world will be poorer for it. It always is, whenever the children of God learn to see a difference between the wheat and the weeds.
The Rev. David Henson is a priest in the Episcopal Church. The father of two boys and the husband of a medical resident, he lives in Western North Carolina and is perpetually behind on the laundry and lawn mowing. While he has a couple of degrees to his name, it is more important to know that he once chased his stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee at dangerous speeds down an Interstate in California. He didn’t catch it. Which is pretty accurate metaphor for his entire life.