Sermon Lesson: Matthew 13:36-43 (NRSV)
Full Sermon Lesson: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 139:1-12 (NRSV)
When I was growing up (and dinosaurs roamed the earth)… I always viewed the Parables of Jesus as happy fairystories … One of my parents always read me a Bible story when I was going to sleep… and if God once sent down a plague, well, that didn’t happen anymore… and if the world hated Jesus so much that they crucified him then, well, my child’s reasoning decided that clearly we loved him now, so surely that made up for it?
Parables were fun, they were clever. If I couldn’t figure one out, someone always explained it to me.
Of course, I grew up, I realized that the Bible didn’t actually have illustrations normally (which, mind you, is a loss for the world). Words like “thou” and “thee” and “apostate” weren’t just fun to say, but actually meant something. And the parables, they weren’t just fairystories of a different land and a different time… they had hidden (and sometimes sinister) meanings.
The idea that Jesus knew and spoke of the dark realities of existence blew my mind at one point.
Think about it, he’s always predicting his own death. Wouldn’t that just be horrible to know how and when you were going to die, and doing nothing to stop it because of God’s will?
How terrifying would it be for a man like Jesus, God incarnate, to see the world and the cosmos as it is and not the thin veneer of society and civilization that barely clung to the folds of his vision?
… And this parable is an example of the horrifying reality that Jesus knew and Jesus saw and the people around him just couldn’t get.
An Allegory of An Allegory
For those of you who want to get straight to the Bible, please feel free to skip this section. For everyone else: you’ll see what a big Philip K. Dick fan I unfortunately am.
The idea that Jesus explores in his explanation of the allegory is one that people have grappled with over the centuries. It so goes against our worldview, its sinister undertones so perilous, that we often choose to forget about this parable or outright ignore it.
Both would be, in my mind, a crime.
(However, my life’s work involves reading the Bible and talking about it in ways that should make you, my congregation, think if not a little uncomfortable. I will admit that I may be an outlier in this regard.)
However, over the centuries, and most recently in the modern era, writers have grappled with various Biblical ideas and have created great and/or popular literature around concepts that we often find in Jesus’s parables. This parable, strangely enough, served partially as inspiration for Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story “Adjustment Team.” (The other inspiration was the idea of predestination, which is the main plot device.)
For fans of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, you may know that this story was turned into a 2011 romantic scifi thriller named “The Adjustment Bureau.”
And, yes, for anyone who is going to ask, it’s quite clear that the insurance type adjusters with suits and hats are angels, that the man upstairs is God the Father, and that poor Matt Damon has had his life planned out in predestination to the point where he can’t even fall in love without permission. Spoiler Alert: the man upstairs sees the errors of his ways, the angels back off with a few well-intentioned warnings, and Matt Damon gets the girl (and will one day be President of the United States).
But the entire thing is so sinister. Forgetting the main plot device of angels trying to ensure predestination while dressing up like faceless men from Wall Street, the whole movie sets out with the premise that when the man upstairs created his plan, something went horrifically wrong. The world went sideways. It might have been sideways from the beginning. Not only were people good, but somehow people were more than just a little bit bad–and their motives and maneuverings are because they’re not just clueless (like Matt Damon and Emily Blunt) but downright destructive.
It takes only a jump in imagination to know that the angels may not be the only ones with little predestination books operating on the streets of NYC. That even the “good angels”, well-meaning as they are, would toss you into the hypothetical furnace if you mess with a pencil chart that was sent down from the higher ups.
This is dystopia at its finest … and it’s not only Biblical, but it’s straight out of the words Jesus gave us two thousand years ago.
What (on the surface) may seem like sunshine and daisies is something far uglier and desperate when you actually get close enough to look.
The Weeds and the Evil One
We know from last week (mini-sermon #11) that the farmer (God/Jesus/Holy Trinity) plants the seeds of humanity in various soils (due to a variety of factors). Some thrive, others put up a good show at first, and still other seeds fail to germinate at all.
However, today’s parable tells us that that’s not necessarily all that is going on. It is simply one facet of the entire story.
So, what is going on?
Well, the disciples didn’t exactly know, so they asked, and (un)fortunately for us, Jesus answered.
So, there’s good seed and bad seed. Read into this: good people and bad people. This is a rather monochromatic view of the world (after all, last week we had four different types of believers; people are different and vibrant, so there seems like there would be more than two camps). Good, bad. Black, white. Up, down.
However, it gets a little more complicated.
These “bad seeds” aren’t the product of seed falling into the wrong soil. Instead, they are maliciously planted by the devil. This isn’t a vague hazy modern idea of a fuzzy concept that can be blamed for the sins of our fathers, this is an actual, physical intention made into reality. He is not only named “the evil one” but “the enemy.” The devil, here, is malicious. There’s nothing for it and one shouldn’t sugarcoat it.
According to this parable, there is an entity stalking the world who is purposefully sowing bad seed among the good, intertwining them, making them codependent in growth, and they are the weeds of humanity.
This is a heavy accusation on Jesus’s part.
He’s essentially telling his disciples (and anyone else who is listening) that some people were born bad and there’s nothing to be done… well, not until the day of judgement, and those who don’t know if they’re good or bad don’t want that day to come quickly…
The Grim Reapers (or, Angels)
And this is where it gets even worse. This is when I, as a minister, wonder, should I really be telling people this because it’s so clean cut and horrific? Do I want to admit that Jesus was right and this is the type of existence we’ve all been condemned to?
… since I am writing this, then the answer is obviously that I will talk about it. I will write about it. I will tell you what Jesus says, and seriously hope to God that he was mistaken or perhaps trying to scare his followers into believing him (not that Jesus would ever do that)… or that we, as believers, can make this work while still living here on earth.
The weeds grow with the wheat, interspersed, intermingled, and indistinguishable at first glance. (It’s an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers sort of thing, except it’s been happening since pre-history.)
However, with every parable about seeds and harvests, someone must eventually go to the field and actually harvest it. The angels come, they separate the good from the bad… and it’s not very pleasant when that happens. This is, clearly, imagery of the End Times, the Day of Judgement. The evil doers and sinners will wail and gnash their teeth (a very Old Testament sentiment) while the believers will actually shine with their virtue.
This is the happy ending. However, it’s not so happy for the weeds who were evil from the beginning and really had no choice in the matter. If you were Queen Anne’s Lace (which is somehow considered a weed despite its obvious beauty), is it your fault that you are not a rose bush?
That is a question theologians have been grappling with for millennia, and no one really has an answer.
A Word of Caution
It is so easy to read this parable and go, “right, well, that guy across the street with the incorrect political sign is clearly a weed, Jesus wouldn’t want him at the end of times.” It’s also easy to say, “I believe in Jesus, I am chosen, therefore nothing I can do or say is wrong…even if I like to live in the moral gray as well as on the moral highground.”
This parable is not an invitation to separate people according to what you believe is the right and the wrong of the world. Because, here’s the thing, the wheat and the weeds are indistinguishable while they are growing and approaching harvest time. You (and I) are among the growing plants, you cannot see, you do not have perspective. You may think you know, but how can you? You’re simply a seed, not-yet-grown. You’re not a beautiful plant, you’re not an angel sent to harvest, you’re certainly not the planter, Jesus Christ, himself.
Only Jesus, the Son of Man, has that perspective. Only Jesus can look out onto the field and know which plants need to be burnt and which will be harvested. Only Jesus knew you from when you were a tiny seed, which he may not have even planted himself.
He makes the judgement. He makes the call. He sends the angels (at the end of time itself) to do what needs to be done.
In the meantime, don’t point fingers. Don’t choose to judge your fellow plants (weed or wheat) because, honestly, when was it ever a good idea for a pot to call a kettle black?
Simply, live and let live, as the saying goes. You cannot know if you’re one of the “good ones”, not really. You can only be your best, be your most honest, be your kindest… make sure the voice whispering to your conscience is indeed the Lord God and not some persuasive and self-righteous demon meant to take you on the wrong path…
The world, indeed, has been infected by weeds, planted by the devil, ministered unto by the evil one… but God has a plan, a horrible plan, a plan of angels and destruction, and weeping, and burning. But the day of that plan has not come.
It is not today.
Don’t set the entire field on fire just to get rid of the supposed weeds you may not want to live and grown in your field. What would be left? Only ash and destruction… and even the most righteous wheat wouldn’t survive that.
Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. After all, God gave you free will. Use it wisely and take it as a symbol that he believes you are capable of being a good seed.