Genesis 28:10-19a, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Ring the bells
It’s good to be home. Rosemary and I got back yesterday after nearly 6 weeks covering the leave of absence of 2 Korean doctors at LAMB Hospital, Bangladesh, where we used to work some 30 years ago. Times have moved on, as they do. The project has grown hugely, now employing some 1700 staff in hospital and community activities. Medicine has changed too, and these two retired GPs found themselves frequently out of their depth and it was with relief that their Korean colleagues arrived back from leave and they were free to literally fly away. Thank you so much for your prayers and support over this time, we have needed it.
A couple of weeks in, we came across this short verse from the song ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen. You may know it, you may even think it’s a bit clichéd, but it spoke to us: Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in. It’s funny how a few words can really help, and they did. Instead of being overwhelmed by what we couldn’t do, we did what we could – we rang the bells that still can ring and forgot our ‘perfect offering’. I want to try and tie that in to today’s gospel reading, what is known as the parable of the wheat and weeds.
A parable is a short story that conveys a deeper meaning, often spiritual or moral. Jesus told 46 parables that we know of, and most of his teaching is tied up in them. His stories used images that would have been very easy for his hearers to connect with, even if understanding them was another matter. But the stories stuck with people, as good stories do, and the hearers would mull them over, talk about them, trying to mine the real meaning. Jesus’ disciples often missed the point, and with this parable they couldn’t work it out and asked Jesus directly to explain it to them. I believe that this parable confronts us with a very relevant and up to date question: why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it?
First though, let’s understand the context. In ancient times, there were often rivalries between farmers. One way of ‘getting back’ at your rival might be to sow weed seeds in his fields. So Jesus is hitting on his hearers’ experience here, and there were probably a few wry smiles and mutterings along the lines of ‘that so-and-so did that to me last year’ and perhaps a few red faces too, of people who had done exactly that. It’s thought that the weeds might have been darnel, and you can see in the picture that they do indeed look like wheat. So, a farmer and his farm hands wouldn’t know until it was too late that this had happened. In the parable, the farm hands report that there are weeds in your fields! Shall we go and pull them up? No, says the master, you’ll uproot the wheat as well. Leave it until the harvest, then we can sort them out. Well, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what the parable meant, so they asked him to explain it. In a few words, Jesus tells that the one who sows the good seed is Jesus himself; the field is the world and the good seed are the ‘children of the kingdom’; the weeds are the children of the evil one, the one who sowed them was the evil one, and the harvest is the end of the age. He goes on to explain that there will be a fierce and fiery judgement for them. In black and white terms, it’s about how can it be that good and evil exist together, and what do we do about it?
Now I am going to put the judgement bit on the ‘back burner’ for now, and I want to stick with the question, why is everything such a mess? And what do we do about it? First to explain a bit about the ‘children of the kingdom’. The ‘Kingdom of God’ is the dominant theme of Jesus teaching. Despite that, there isn’t universal agreement about what it means. Here’s the explanation, in a nutshell, that at least fits with this story! At that time, the Jews were expecting or hoping for the arrival of the Kingdom to do away with the Roman occupiers and re-establish a King in Israel, a bit like in the times of David and Solomon. That was not what Jesus was about. What the Kingdom, according to Jesus, may mean is that God’s sovereignty and presence was made real in the ministry of Jesus and in those who followed him, the ‘children of the kingdom’. But there’s an ‘already but not yet’ quality to it; although that’s true, the full reality of the kingdom has not dawned. That is still in the future.
So, if the followers of Jesus, the children of the kingdom, are the good seeds, the real wheat, who are the seeds of darnel, the weeds? Everyone else? Other religions? Men with long beards and women with headscarves? Heretics? Islamic terrorists? Climate change deniers? People who don’t agree with us? Atheists?
The first point of this story is that you can’t tell. The wheat and the weeds look the same. The second point is that even when you can, you are not allowed to do anything about it. You simply wait. Who really knows who is a child of the kingdom and who isn’t? Who knows if this person is wheat or weeds? God alone is the judge of that, and the parable tells us that sifting out will happen, just as at the harvest the weeds can safely be separated from the wheat. I used to be so sure who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. And now, I have no idea. Our recent time in Bangladesh, meeting Muslims and Hindus who all ‘walk the talk’ – live lives of sincerity and integrity, who forego considerably higher salaries to do their best for people who have next to nothing – makes me realise that the kingdom may be bigger than I thought.
We Christians – and for that matter, people of other religious traditions as well – we are at our worst when we draw lines, when we say, ‘I’m in, you’re out’. When we make subtle or not-so-subtle judgements like this, and then start to act on them, we fall into the trap of the farmer’s servants who wanted to start ripping up the weeds right away. It’s too soon. We risk our own downfall by failing to behave as children of the Kingdom. And the King, like the farmer in the parable, is patient.
On a large and horrible scale, we can see the folly of drawing lines between people being played out in the Middle East and then across the world in London, Manchester, Paris, Nice, Madrid, Berlin and New York by misguided people who have been overtaken by an ideology that sees the world only in terms of black and white and believes that it is their role to enact the judgement of God on people they deem to be ‘out’, however violent that is. And then there’s the knee-jerk reaction of drawing our own lines. That reaction is behind the travel ban in the US, and closer to home, creates pain amongst communities and individuals who do not share our way of life. This is not the way of the Kingdom. And look, could there possibly be a clearer proof of how destructive pulling up the weeds can be? Just think of what is politely called ‘collateral damage’, the vast numbers of innocent civilian casualties as various military powers – including our own – attempt to ‘root out’ terrorism. ‘Root out’. How ironic.
The Kingdom of God can be an uncomfortable place. The rules we play by are different. In his parables, Jesus lays before us simple stories that paint a different picture. There’s a temptation to think the parables are purely a sort of tale with a moral, a bit like Aesop’s fables. They are much more than that. The parables each have a twist, a point where the story turns towards the unexpected, not at all what the listeners were thinking might happen. In this parable of the weeds and the wheat, it’s at the point where the farmer’s servants come charging in, breathless with the announcement that an enemy has sown weeds in your field and just look! I guess at this point the farmers in the crowd listening to Jesus might have expected him to say something like this, ‘Go and find that enemy and bring him here, I will deal with him! And get to it, get rid of those weeds from my field!!’ In fact we don’t hear a word about the enemy, and the servants are just to do nothing and wait until the harvest, because it was so much the opposite of what they expected. Just what kind of a farmer is Jesus? I wonder if that’s why the disciples couldn’t understand the parable at first. What kind of a doormat is Jesus, letting his enemies walk over him like that? Can we even see here a prefiguring of the cross? For Jesus let the story play out in his own life, he did not fight his enemies back, going to his death which turned out in the end to be not the end.
This is the Kingdom. The sovereignty, the rule of God, manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus, is not played out by going for the enemy, or by drawing lines: ‘I’m in, you’re out’, or by trying to uproot those we perceive to be ‘the enemy’. No, we are to continue doing what wheat is supposed to do: stand straight, grow, and bear fruit. Sometimes we will find that very frustrating and paiful. It is difficult to be faithful, to hang on, in a world with so much mess and violence and pain.
So I come full circle. I know it’s a bit trite, a bit of a cliché, but these words of Leonard Cohen’s contain a profound truth, a message to us, the wheat struggling to grow in a field full of weeds. Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.