Matthew 13:24-30 The Weeds and the Wheat Part 2
Reflection by Mart the Rev
We are in a season of thinking about how to do and be church by using the parables of Jesus as a guide, and we are having a second look at the parable of the weeds among the wheat. Last week we compared the anxiety of the servants – so keen to pull out the weeds to protect the crop, and the more relaxed, even playful response of the farmer, who wasn’t willing to risk the loss of the wheat crop in the effort to get uproot the weeds. Leave it alone, he said. Let the two grow together – we will sort it at the harvest time. Sort it at the harvest time.
It is that phrase that has led the church over the centuries to read the parable as a parable of judgement. The parable even has bundling the weeds together and a bit of burning – people who like to fasten on the judgement side of things really like bundling and burning imagery! The church has had a long fascination with judgement and fiery pits. On far too many occasions the church has even endorsed burning.
Fire was the way the people in the time of Jesus attended to sanitation. In Jerusalem, for instance, is the Valley of Hinnom (or Valley of Gehinnom) where the city fire pit is located. There people throw their waste into a ravine – leaves and stalks and animal waste – feathers, beaks and legs, bones, innards, offal and all kinds of thing you don’t talk about. In the Valley of Hinnom is a vision of hell – the smell, the rats, the smoke of the fire that never goes out, and the sound in the night of bones cracking as the animals feast on whatever has been left there. It is rumoured that child sacrifices were once carried out in that ravine.
It is no accident that almost every reference to hell given by Jesus in the New Testament is named in the original Greek as Gehenna and this Gehenna has a location – the ravine in the Valley of Gehinnom where a vision of hell is happening everyday right before them. You can spook your children when you have a valley like that – ‘if you do bad things, you will end up in the valley where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth forever!’
Sort it now, say the workers. Sort it at harvest time, says the farmer. Sort it now, say those quick to want to pass judgement. Relax, says Jesus, and stop meddling. In God’s time things will be sorted.
Have you heard what people out there say about Christians? Among other things, they find us to be incredibly judgemental. I have been told by people that they have found the church community they have tried to be part of to be the most judgemental group of any they have participated in. How about that! What is that about? It seems that many Christian people aren’t simply being judgemental about the community around them, they are also having a go at one another. I see this occurring regularly enough and recognise that while it is hard being in community with one another, we can sometimes behave as if the teachings of Jesus have nothing to say about our life together!
Judge not, says Jesus. Forgive, says Jesus. Turn the other cheek, says Jesus. Love as you are loved.
But the church of Jesus… oh it can be an ugly thing. The church attracts some mighty strange people, doesn’t it! (And exceedingly strange ministers!) In a recent American study called ‘What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters’ research interviews were carried out with hundreds of 16- to 29-year-olds. Among the things nearly half of the respondents were especially bothered by was Christian conservative political activism, hypocrisy, anti-homosexuality, and judgmentalism. Heaven help us if that’s what people believe that’s what we are about! Do you recall that story we told over several Sundays in January – about the monk and the rabbi and how the phrase ‘the Messiah is one of you’ led to a trans-formation of the community at the monastery – who began to treat one another with reverence and respect, and how it became incredibly attractive to people watching on. That’s how we are meant to be. Our love for one another is to be a key platform for our witness to God’s life in us in Christ. The greatest gift of the Spirit is love.
I wonder if the church has got all hooked up on the separating of the weeds from the wheat. What is the wheat, is, of course, easily identifiable. It is us – we Christians – we read the parable and have no problem identifying who we are. We are the righteous, and that identity seems to be a licence for the self-righteous judgement of others. It is there in our language.
In Christian circles you hear wheat and weed language like this: Christian and heathen, saved and unsaved, churched and unchurched, born again and the rest, Spirit-filled and the rest, traditional vs happy-clappy, liberal/conservative… protestant/catholic, true believer/believer. On and on it goes – always, of course, with a lofty emphasis on the first word you use in the pairing, and a judgemental tone on the second word. Us and Them. Judge not, says Jesus, lest you yourself be judged!
Let’s play this out a little more. I want you to think about the communities around us and the attitudes in them. Who is in in our society? Who is out? Who is wheat? Who are the weeds? Surely we know. We know who the weeds are. And our society, for all its openness, has some pretty sophisticated systems for keeping the weeds apart and even making sure they can’t get out of their corners.
Can we picture in our minds what type of people our society considers to be the weeds among the wheat?
I wonder how many times these people feel categorised and demonised, and neglected by the majority of their fellow citizens. I wonder to what degree they are really just like the rest of us, wanting someone to accept them, to listen to them, to help them, and befriend them.
I think about what we are trying to do in The Village. A lot of what we are trying to do, I think, is about being bridge-builders in our community rather than playing the games of labelling and separating and neglecting.
But I do believe that the dominant societal winds blow quite strongly around us, and we can get drawn into their rhythms, and this can make life quite hard for people who don’t fit the mould. And it is all too easy for us to get caught up in the ugly business of dividing people off that is quite prevalent around us.
I can think of some of the name-calling that goes on and how offensive it is when any people out of work and needing support are called bludgers, and how some people who truly struggle to manage themselves are labelled so harshly and cruelly by the rest of us, as if those calling out the names know even a thing about what life is like for them.
I think of other name-calling that goes on – one of the ugly ones is the accusation made that parliamentarians have their noses in a pig trough. What an astounding and nasty dismissal that is of these people who are mostly, if not entirely, committed to making a contribution to better our country. It is right that we as a church pray for our leaders and encourage them to listen, and care, and do their best. I think of the name-calling that is spoken by the rich against the poor, and the poor against the rich, and I see a role for the church in bridging those divides by inspiring generosity and encouraging gratitude.
Anne and I have a friend who has been working in the women’s prison for some years, and is now a part-time chaplain. There are all sorts of reasons why these women end up there, and it is a confronting and challenging place that the vast majority of us don’t care to have anything to do with. Our friend told us that in all her years of work there she has never met a woman who has not been physically or sexually abused in some way. I don’t think name-calling and categorising is the appropriate response to people so broken. I think we can do better than joining in the chorus of those who insist on harsher sentences for these broken people, and get all resentful about the kind of food they receive on Christmas Day!
I see some of the name-calling that identifies people by their ethnicity but in a derogatory way. I cannot understand where that comes from. I haven’t been in any cultural setting where I haven’t been inspired by what these people are about. I make a point of asking people who have an accent different to mine how they are finding things in Aotearoa and how are they managing having family members so far away. They all have interesting stories to tell, as do all of us.
Often the church has played a role in helping people find their feet when they have first arrived here. One of my teachers at Knox College was Rev Ned Ripley. Ned, I found out, took a team of people from his church in Auckland to the airport to meet every in-bound plane from Samoa through the 1970’s. That was a season when New Zealand was actively encouraging migrant workers to come here and work in the factories. But there was a lot of racist language being bandied around because they were present here at all. Ned and his team were not there to simply recruit people into their church, but to welcome these people and demonstrate that there was a community of people who genuinely were interested in their well-being and welfare. Ned’s work in building caring communities,
along with the work of his colleagues, has provided the backbone for a significant proportion of our Presbyterian family all these years later. What an impoverished church we would be if we didn’t have our Pacific sisters and brothers in our life! Ned and those others were practicing exactly what the church is meant to be about.
God makes space for all and any of us, so that is what we also do. Yet, at the same time, many misguided people were quietly cheering on the dawn raids for over-stayers.
I’ve been wondering about the way the word Asian has become a pejorative word in contemporary New Zealand. It is baffling to people from India, Cambodia, Indonesia and Japan to all be lumped in under one word that seems to think it can define them? Apparently, all Asians are poor drivers, but no Kiwis are bad drivers. Um, what do you mean by Kiwis? Do you mean white kiwis, or Maori kiwis, or Pacifica kiwis, or fourth generation Chinese kiwis?
Do you know that in some countries Christians are seen as the weeds – they are seen as the difficult ones?
Wasn’t Jesus seen as a weed to be extracted from Roman occupied Israel?
We are thinking about what this parable might say about how we might do and be church in this next season.
I wonder what we are to do about how people out there consider us to always be standing in judgement against them. I wonder if Christians with their judging of others, and the society around us that always seems to want to divide people off into wheat and weeds, needs to learn from the farmer in the parable, who encourages the workers to calm down, take a deep breath, and give things room, and find out, just maybe, what good there will be in what they have so far failed to see.
We take time out, not to escape, but to re-orientate.
We put space around things. We put space around people.
Most look better for the extra room.
We want to be slower to react and faster to pause.
These spiritual disciplines will keep the fissures of grace from closing.
The grace will still be there, but without the space around things,
we risk no longer seeing.