Jesus told the crowds another story: “The Kingdom of Heaven resembles a farmer who plants high-quality seeds in his field. While he and his farmhands were sleeping that night, his chief competitor snuck into his field and planted weeds among the quality grain. When the plants began to spring up, the farmhands noticed that weeds were growing in the field along with the grain. They asked the farmer, ‘Sir, didn’t you plant high-quality seeds in the field? Where did all these weeds come from?’
The farmer answered, ‘My competitor is trying to sabotage my crop.’
The farmhands asked him, ‘Do you want us to go out and pull up the weeds?’
The farmer said, ‘No! Let’s leave well enough alone. If you try to pull up the weeds, you may accidentally pull up the grain as well. Let both grow together and we’ll separate them when we harvest the crop. At that time I’ll tell my farmhands to go out and pull up the weeds, bundle them together and burn them, but put the grain into the barn.’” (As Matthew Tells It 13:24-30)
The weeds growing are not simple weeds; they are a type of weed that, in its early stages, looks like wheat. This counterfeit wheat not only just looks like wheat, it is poisonous. Darnel looks so much like wheat that in some places it is called “false wheat.” It is only as time passes, as the wheat and the weeds mature, that a clear difference can be seen.
We tend to read and hear this parable from a judgmental point of view. We conclude that we are the wheat – regardless of who we are and how we live, we all think we are the wheat. Those who oppose us, or who are different, or who do not share the same views or doctrines as us, are the poisonous weeds.
But my question is: Since the poisonous weeds look so much like wheat, do the weeds know that they are weeds? Do the weeds believe themselves to be wheat? And since weeds traditionally rob the soil of nutrients and are aggressive at taking over the space in the plot of land, and since the weeds are often said to “choke” the plants, wouldn’t aggressiveness be a sign of weedness rather than wheatness? (Yes, I just made up my own words.)
Too often we read the parables as allegories. Allegories are stories that are like stories in code. This thing in the story represents this thing in real life. That thing in the story represents that thing in real life. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory of the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. Satire often comes to us in the form of allegory. But a parable is a parable. The whole story is the lesson, not the pieces of it. Jesus tells parables with qualities of allegory (i.e. the Parable of the Sower), but it is the whole story that is the point. And the point of the whole story is this thing called the Kingdom of Heaven, which is Matthew’s version of Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God are the same Kingdom. Kingdom of God is the original and most attested version of the statement. Matthew uses Kingdom of Heaven because he was Jewish and was following the Jewish practice of not using the Lord’s name in empty or unflattering speech, and since the Lord is God, Matthew, like many Jewish people of the time, found ways to talk around the word God. The logic was that if you never say the word, you never can use it incorrectly.
But what is this Kingdom regardless of which locution we decide to use? The Kingdom would be better translated as “reign,” so that “Kingdom of God” becomes “Reign of God.” It is not the domain of God, but the power of God to rule. This means that the Kingdom of God is simply “The way God rules” – the way God rules the world, the universe. So when we are praying the Lord’s Prayer, and we say “Thy Kingdom come,” we are saying “Let the way you rule manifest itself here and now.” The manifestation of that ruling power of God is of course expressed by God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
This parable is answering a question: “How does God rule?” or “What does the way God rules look like?” Jesus says that one of the ways God rules is like a man who planted a crop and these counterfeit, poisonous weeds that look just like the good wheat he planted started growing alongside the wheat. The two plants could be distinguished by the trained eye and the farmer quickly spots the poisonous weeds. The servants have varying degrees of skill – some may have vast experience and can easily distinguish between the plants, others may be working the farm for the first time and to them, all the plants look the same. So if the servants are sent out to “weed” the field now, a lot of the wheat will be destroyed and a lot of the poisonous weed will survive and the farmer will be worse off than he is at the moment because his crop and profits will be diminished, and he still may end up poisoning himself and others. The farmer displays experience and wisdom by deciding to wait for the harvest. At the harvest, the wheat and the weeds will be different enough to be easily distinguished. The wheat will be collected into the barn and the poisonous weeds will be destroyed by fire.
So what does all this mean for us? We are not the farmer and we are not the servants. We are the crop. This is not a parable about the church versus the world, but it is a parable about the church. In the church itself there are poisonous weeds. They look like the good wheat. A time will come when we will all be easy to spot for what we are, but for the moment, we cannot tell who is wheat and who are weeds. We may be the poisonous weeds ourselves.
I know that will bug everyone. Aren’t we supposed to have the confidence of faith that we are saved – that we are wheat? I again point to Jesus’ description of the Judgment in chapter 25 of Matthew. A lot of people are surprised at the Judgment. Those who thought they were saved turn out to be damned, and those who thought they were damned turn out to be saved. I am sure this can be used by those who subscribe to Predestination, but it can be as simple as the fact that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.
It is the nature of weeds to be aggressive. It is the nature of weeds to choke the good plants. It is the nature of weeds to take what it needs for itself and leave the other plants to starve. Those in the church who are aggressive, who are abusive, who attack others, who are indifferent, who tell others: “We are doing okay, you should work harder, be more assertive, and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps like we did” are demonstrating that they follow the practice and method of weeds – and if you behave like a weed, you are probably behaving that way because you are filled with weedness and not with wheatness.
The parable is about tolerance. The parable is about accepting that the plants are not the ones who get to judge – and we are the plants. We do not get to judge other people or other Christians or other anything. We are the plants. We may be the weeds! If the poisonous weeds were judging who was the good crop and who was not, the poisonous weeds would choose the weeds! Only the farmer knows what the plant is supposed to look like and be. Only the farmer gets to judge the quality of the crop.
So, all of that is to say this: God rules in a way that allows all of us to express ourselves and mature and show who we really are. We show who we are, and by our actions, we show if we are good wheat, or if we are noxious weeds. God rules in such a way that allows both to grow because God does not want those who are wheat to be harmed, so God tolerates the weeds. Therefore, since God is tolerant of the weeds, then so should we be tolerant.
The wheat grows and lives to feed others. The weed grows and lives to persecute the wheat and to live for itself. The wheat and the weeds look the same, but over time, it either bears the healthy fruit of the grain or the poisonous fruit of the weeds.
Yet, after saying all this, maybe the way to read the parable is to decide that the world or the church is not the field, but that each of us is the field. It is a parable about who we are and how God rules in relation to each of us. Within me, there are good things and bad things. Within me, there are healthy fruit and poisonous weeds. Once in confession, my fellow-priest who was listening expressed, in response to my frustration of committing a particular sin again, that maybe God allows me to commit this sin because it keeps me humble. So knowing that I am fertile soil in which good crops and poisonous weeds grow is just a way of growing the better fruit of humility. I have to not only tolerate those outside in the world and in the church that I may decide are poisonous weeds, but I also have to learn to accept the parts of me that may be unprofitable and dangerous.
God accepts the whole crop, the good and the bad, the wheat and the weeds, and allows the whole crop to grow. The weeds within me will someday be collected and destroyed, and the only thing that will be left is the wheat within me – but today is probably not that day. Until that day, I have to keep working on keeping myself as fertile soil. I have to keep the wheat within me alive and healthy even when the weeds within me are aggressive. I have to trust the Lord of the Harvest to know when the time is right to remove the weeds, but in the meantime, I have to keep the wheat alive, so that when the weeds are destroyed, there is nothing left.
The lesson here is tolerance and patience. I have to tolerate even myself, offering up the good and the bad within me to God, knowing that at some time, the harvest will separate out the good from the bad within me, and only the good will remain. But I have to be patient and wait for the time when that happens to me, not try to force it to happen now. If I try to weed myself, I may damage the good along with the bad. I do not need “self-help,” I need God-help.
This lesson of tolerance and patience extends to others as well. I do not get to decide who is wheat and who are weeds because I do not know if I am wheat or if I am a weed. I know what I like to think I am, but that does not make it so. The wheat and the weeds have to live and grow side by side. I have to live side by side with others, regardless of what I may think about them. I am not the farmer. I am not even the hired hands. I am a plant judging other plants based on what I think plants should be. If I am a weed, I’ll think all plants should be weeds, and I will call the weed that I am wheat, not knowing that I am wrong until the time of the harvest. So, instead of judging others, I should do what I can to exhibit the qualities of wheat rather than exhibiting the qualities of being a weed. I would rather be collected and sent to the barn than be gathered up and thrown in a fire.