About Those Weeds…

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;  25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.  27 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?’  28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’  29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  30 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.’” 

36  Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”  37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;  38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,  39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.  40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

In 1965, William Youngdahl, the pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska became convinced that racism was a pernicious evil, a spiritual cancer destroying the soul of America.  As he thought about how he might address this in his parish, it dawned on him that most of the people in his all-white congregation simply didn’t know any black people—that many had never had an actual conversation with a black person.  Youngdahl thought that a logical first step in confronting racism and white supremacy would be for white people and black people to simply meet and talk to each other.  To introduce the idea to his community, he invited youth from the nearly all-black Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church to join in worship with his all-white congregation.  That went reasonably well so he prepared to move to the next step in his plan which was to ask couples from his congregation to have dinner at the homes of couples from the Presbyterian congregation.  That’s when polite smiles faded and attitudes surfaced.  He quickly discovered that while the Presbyterians were willing, the members of his own congregation were resistant, passively at first, then more actively so.  At first they simply said they didn’t think people would be comfortable dining at the homes of their black hosts.  Then they said they didn’t think “our people” were quite ready for such a big step.  The more Youngdahl encouraged them to try the idea, the more his Council and other members of the congregation found reasons to object.  They began to accuse him of being divisive and revolutionary.  In the end, they forced him out of his position as pastor.  They saw him as a weed in their field.[1]

It seems that there always people eager to pull the weeds… or at least what they think are the weeds.  

“In Matthew’s day and in every generation,” wrote Robert Smith, “it takes little talent to finger members of the community who look like bad seed.  Where do they come from?  It is easy to lose confidence in the way God runs the universe.”[2]  

The weed Jesus refers to in this parable is almost certainly darnel, lolium temulentum, a poisonous grain that looks so much like wheat that it’s also called “false wheat.”  It’s easy to mistake it for wheat and vice versa if you’re not trained to spot the differences, especially when the plants are just beginning to grow.

Jesus says to let the weeds grow.  The reapers will take care of them when the time comes.  But almost from the beginning the church seems to have not been listening to that particular instruction.

The word “heresy” has cropped up rather frequently in the history of the church.  It comes from the Latin haresis which means “a school of thought or philosophical sect.”  The Latin comes from the Greek heiresis which means “to take or choose for oneself.” In Greek debate it was used to describe “a differing opinion.”  In church use, the conventional meaning of heresy is “a belief or opinion that is contrary to orthodox doctrine.”  Historically in the church, however, heresy”seems to have meant, “Look!  Here’s a weed!  Quick, let’s pull it!”

In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the teachings of the British Monk and theologian, Pelagius, were condemned as heresy.  Fortunately for Pelagius, he had died in 418 or he might have been in for a rough time, not that he hadn’t been roughed up a bit while alive.  After all, you don’t go toe-to-toe with powerful bishops like Augustine and Jerome without getting a few bruises to your reputation…or your body.  Theologians fought dirty in those days.  And what was the great sin of Pelagianism?  Pelagius had dared to question St. Augustine’s idea of Original Sin, the idea that all of humanity was perpetually wounded by Adam’s sin.  Augustine said that from birth we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. No, said Pelagius, we are born innocent.  True, we are born into a world where sin is nearly inescapable, but we have the gift of free will which is one of the gifts of grace!  We can choose to move toward the love of Christ and Christ’s grace brings us the rest of the way in.  No, said Augustine, our human will is entirely degraded.  The human will is not free.  Pelagius is a heretic.

On the 6th of July in 1415, Jan Hus, a Czech academic theologian,  philosopher and priest was burned at the stake as a heretic for condemning indulgences and crusades.  He had also advocated, like Wycliffe before him, that the scriptures should be translated into the languages of the common people so that everyone could read them for themselves. 

On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy and cross dressing.  The church’s case for heresy was weak and Joan answered the inquisition’s questions with pious intelligence. But they had her dead to rights on the charge of dressing like a man.  It didn’t help her cause that she was an inspiring military leader and no slouch as a military strategist.

In 1521, Martin Luther was condemned as a heretic and sentenced to death for his widely circulated writings suggesting church reform.  Some of the reforms he advocated had been proposed by Jan Hus a hundred years earlier.  Luther had developed a large popular following and his denunciation of indulgences hit the church right in the wallet.  Fortunately, because he was under the protection of the powerful Duke Frederick the Wise, the death sentence was never implemented.

In 1633, Galileo Galilei was declared a heretic and forced to recant his assertion that the earth moves around the sun and not the other way around.  He died under house arrest 9 years later.  He was vindicated 359 years later in 1992 when Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo was right, the earth does move around the sun.  A mere 8 years after that the Church issued a formal apology.  Galileo was unable to attend.

In his book Parables of the Kingdom, Robert Farrrar Capon reminds us that the enemy doesn’t have any real power over goodness. The wheat is already sown.  The reign of God is already in the world and there’s nothing the enemy can do about it.  But, “he can sucker the forces of goodness into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work for him. That is why he goes away after sowing the weeds. He has no need to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway–having no real power to muck up the operation–he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him.”

All these heretics, all these persons with differing views, were seen in their time as weeds in the field.  Some were pulled and burned, ignoring the advice of Jesus: Let both of them grow together until the harvest.  He tells those who are eager to yank up the weeds that they’re likely to pull up the wheat, too.  Jesus also leaves a cautionary question hanging in the air, a question that echoes through this parable and our history: What makes you so sure you know the difference between darnel and wheat? 

Today, Pelagius is being reevaluated. A fair number of theologians are thinking that maybe he wasn’t entirely wrong and maybe Augustine wasn’t entirely right.  Jan Hus is regarded as a martyr whose ideas planted seeds that flourished in the Reformation.  Joan of Arc has been canonized as a saint and nobody much cares that she wore pants.  Martin Luther is acknowledge as a titanic figure who not only ignited the Reformation but set the stage for the Enlightenment.  Galileo opened our minds to the notion that religious dogma should not stand in opposition to empirical observations.  

Persons and ideas that were thought to be weeds in the field turned out to be wheat.

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.

Do not judge and you will not be judged.  Don’t be in such a hurry to yank those ideas or persons you think are weeds out of God’s field.  Grow and let grow.  In Jesus’ name.

[1] For a thought-provoking look at this story see the documentary A Time For Burning by William Jersey.  Available on YouTube

[2] Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew; Robert H. Smith, 1998, p.178

2 thoughts on “About Those Weeds…

  1. Thank you Pastor Steve! I appreciate you and your thoughtfulness. I have been reading some of your newsletter columns that I had saved! So glad you became a pastor!


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