+In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit+
My friends in Christ: When I was a kid I loved watching “Sanford and Son”. Poor old Fred was trying to make a living by selling junk. One of my favorite characters was Aunt Esther…she must have been a Black Pentecostal…waving her Bible around and hitting poor old Fred with her purse. I loved it when she’d squint and look old Fred in the eye and say, “God’ll get you for that, Fred Sanford!”
I have to admit that I think all of us have a little Aunt Esther inside. One of my favorite sinful pastimes is to think about what God should do to other people. I hate to confess that and, honestly, I’d like to pretend that I never think that way…but truth be told, more often than I care to admit I find myself thinking about what God’s judgment should be upon those who, in my opinion, are doing wrong…and I think we’re all guilty of doing so.
Our Gospel today deals with that sort of thinking. It’s a tough lesson…tough words and tough phrases…it’s uncomfortable, even in parable form, to hear what Christ is telling us today. Honestly, I’ve never really cared for this parable.
One of my internet pals, Molly Wolf, daughter of the late bishop of Maine, has written a series of books called “Sabbath Blessings”. In one of the books in the series she wrote this…and it pretty much sums up how I feel about this Gospel:
“We’ve taken this parable to mean that God will take the Good Guys (us, most likely), bundle us up and take us up into the Great Granary in the Sky, and God will take the Bad Guys (probably the other guys, unless we’re being neurotic), bundle them up, and shove them into that Great Fiery Furnace YouKnowWhere. I’ve always had a problem with this view of things, because I can’t seem to get away from two key realizations: (1) I’m a poor ornery sinner; we all are, and not one of us is truly good; and (2) God loves us anyway. Something here does not compute.”
As I studied this lesson, I realized that there’s a lot going on…the more I learned, the more fascinating it got! This Lesson only appears in Matthew’s Gospel. Christ isn’t just talking about weeds in general. The writer of this Gospel uses a very specific Greek word: zizanion. This is the name of a weed known as “bearded darnel”. It is also called “false grain” and “poisonous rye grass.” Though it grows profusely in Syria and Palestine, in the Bible it is mentioned only once…here in this parable. It looks like wheat until the ear appears, and only then can the difference be discerned. When a farmer looks at his field, when it’s growing, it’s practically impossibly to tell the wheat and the false grain apart. They are the same color, the same height, the same shape, and grow in the same soil. From all outward appearances are the same…but, when they bear their fruit – the grain– only then can you can tell the “bearded darnel” from the “wheat” . . . the “false” from the “genuine”.
I know I’ve just given you an unasked for lesson in horticulture, so I have to ask what I’m sure you’re all thinking: Why is this important? The seeds of the bearded darnel harbor a fungus called “ergot”, which is a strong poison…in small doses it causes intoxication and hallucinations. Like many plant poisons, though, it does have therapeutic use…it’s used to compound a medication called ergotrate, which is used in childbirth to stop bleeding.
So Christ is not talking about just some simple annoying weeds here…these are dangerous, evil things! Ergot-bearing bearded darnel mixed in with the wheat harvest would make it worthless – it would make people sick, maybe kill them, and economically ruin the farmer. So Jesus’ original hearers would have understood how awful a field purposely sown with zizanion would have been. His hearers would have understood why the farmer would tell his servants to wait until the harvest to collect the weeds. One of the characteristics of bearded darnel is that its roots grow into and entangle the roots of the wheat or rye amongst which it grows. If you pull up the darnel, you’ll pull of a lot of good wheat, too!
After telling the parable to the crowd, Christ goes on to interpret the parable privately to his disciples. Last Sunday Ron talked about Jesus’ almost subversive teachings and how those “in the know” understood the code that Christ spoke in…this pericope ends with Jesus saying, “Let those with ears hear.” Christ’s followers were under strain…”Who’s with us and who’s against us?” It is presumed in some commentaries that Jesus’ community was having some difficulty with “false Christians” – including some difficulty figuring out exactly who they were, who was a “true Christian” and who was a “false Christian.” The bearded darnel represents the evil forces enticing Christ’s followers away from the gospel, the church, and the kingdom.
By having Jesus tell and then interpret the wheat-and-weeds parable Matthew is, in essence, saying to his church (and to the church through the ages), “Don’t worry about that! Leave that up to God! If you try to ‘weed out’ the bad ones, you’ll do more damage than letting them stay.”
My friends in Christ, what happens to the field, and in the world, also happens within each of us. It is so easy to grow impatient with God when our prayers to uproot some personal weed seem to go unanswered…we become anxious…and that anxiety can lead to crippling fear. As a community gathered we should constantly remind each other: “Don’t give into fear…Give into love!” We’re not called to judge each other and we’re not called to judge those outside these walls. God is the judge…and he loves us…and our enemies. God and Jesus are still and always will be in charge…and I know, in my heart, that they are the same character and the same love…and that we are the charges that Christ proclaims. Let all who have ears hear this delightful and blessed assurance!