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Wheat and weeds…

July 22, 2008

The gospel lesson for this past Sunday was the parable of weeds among the wheat.  In the story Jesus tells, the slaves of the householder see this unexpected circumstance–weeds among the wheat–as one that requires action.  “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”  They offer to go and remedy the situation–to gather the weeds from among the wheat.  A reasonable proposition.

I went to live with my future in-laws in Louisiana during the months leading up to our August wedding .  That summer I was introduced to the thankless work of pulling red rice.  July in Louisiana is typically a sweltering sauna, so the crew heads out to the field quite early to escape the fields by late morning as the sun begins to beat down more intensely and the heavy air stands still.

Workers pick red rice just before harvest, so the rice is tall–the golden heads reaching up to your waist.  The rice stalk has a finely serrated edge which cuts through even denim as you walk through the field.  So we put on old jeans and tied sacks to the outside of our jeans with pieces of cloth to protect them from ripping.  We pulled on rubber boots that reached almost to our knees.  Although the water (irrigation) is cut off, the soil is still muddy underfoot.  Each step requires extra effort as the mud sucks in your boots and the rice stalks cut against your body.

And then there is the whole point of this task–to find the red rice…the counterfeit crop.  This too, for the untrained eye, is no easy task.  Even after repeated explanations from the crew-leader, my future brother-in-law, I was never quite sure if what I was pulling was red rice.  For a rice farmer, there is value in this labor-intensive step before the combines beginning cutting.  Particularly if a field is being harvested for seed rice, the level of red rice diminishes its market value.

This seemed to be thinking of the slaves as they approached the householder, “do you want us to go and gather them (the weeds)?  The master replies, “No…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.”

What is the main point of this story?  Judgement?  Burning?  Hell?  These are the presumptions many of us bring to the reading of this text.  Perhaps it is these presumptions that keep us from seeing the main point Jesus is making–we are not the judge, God is.  God is the judge who will determine the good from the bad, the true from the false.  It is Jesus and his angels who will sift out the chaff.  We, as human beings, are not to judge the heart and actions of others.  This is Jesus’ role as the final judge.

This reading of text deconstructs some of our conclusions of nice and neat divisions between good and evil this side of judgement day.  If we place alongside this reading of text, the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25), we may also be more hesitant to exercise presumptuous judgment against people.  We may be slower to judge what is wheat and what is a weed in this world–or at least to somehow artificially separate these categories.  From the Matthean text, we observe that there will be surprises on judgement day–that some who thought they were among the wheat discover that Jesus judges differently.  “I never knew you.”  A proposition that should at least produce humility for those seeking to allow the good seed of the kingdom of God to grow in their lives.

How often do we usurp the place of Jesus as judge?  We make judgements against nations (axis of evil), we judge the content of books.  We may even, like the slaves in the parable, see our task as to destroy these weeds.  Pulling them out.  Burning.  Killing.  These are weeds.

Perhaps we Mennonites have been particularly determined to get read of the weeds in our attempt to be faithful…to be the church without spot or wrinkle.  Julia Kasdorf captures this impulse in her poem entitled Mennonites:

We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.

So what shall we do with the weeds?  What shall we do with our impulse to identify the weeds and pull them out of the world and burn them?  All in an attempt to do what this parable says we should not do–implement the judgement of God reserved for Jesus along.  He is the one who is worthy to judge the scroll of history.  The lamb we see in Revelation is the only one who is worthy to do this.

How would we live differently if we did not see ourselves as the ones called to judge and separate the wheat from the weeds?  How would this impact the way we relate to people?  Culture?

“…the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age…”

Judgement comes at the end of the age, not now through natural disasters (i.e. some who say Hurricane Katrina was God judging the sin of New Orleans) or terrorist attacks (Jerry Falwell’s initial assessment that the 9/11 attacks were God’s judgment on our nation for particular sins).  Judgement is reserved for God–the lamb that was slain.

The line between good and evil runs through the human heart.  To externalize that in some kind of categorical way is to participate in an illusion made possible by pride and power.  Through Jesus God identifies with the whole world (cosmos) from a position of weakness and vulnerability–not power and domination.  The logos of the cross is one of mercy triumphing over judgement.  We too are called to make visible the same kind of justice and love.  It requires a cross.  Daily.

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