I love that in Jesus’ parable someone sneaks into the field and sows weed seeds. That must have been one pure field before, because the owner immediately knows, “An enemy has done this.” Cue the music: duhhh, duh-dun dun! And I imagine some evil person with a huge sack of seeds: dandelions, bindweed, thistles, tansy ragwort, milkweed, blackberries, nettles. And this person flings seeds with wild abandon, smirking and rubbing his hands with delight at the thought of the havoc this will cause for the virtuous and upright field owner and his servants. Heh-heh-heh.
Now my garden comes with weed seeds included. Special bonus feature. It’s a package deal. I don’t need an enemy sneaking in at night; those weed seeds are just there. Here’s a photo of some of the things growing in my garden: at least one of these is a weed, at least one is something I planted, and the rest I’m not so sure about. Unlike the people in the parable, after I took this photo I did pull the one I was sure was a weed, but I’m waiting to see about the rest. Things could go either way. In the meantime, they keep growing up together, spreading roots, competing for water.
How do we define what is a weed, anyway? It is something that spreads too aggressively, that takes over the whole yard. It may be beautiful, but if it spreads too far out of its bed, then it becomes a problem and a headache. It is something that insists on growing in places where we don’t want it.
Every flower in this vase was a volunteer. Some of them we call weeds. Others we just say, “Oh, how pretty!” and let them grow wherever they want. All of them have a place in our ecosystem. Tansy ragwort, for instance, is toxic to cattle and horses, but it produces a lot of nectar for pollinators, and the cinnabar caterpillars ingest the toxins and use them to make themselves taste terrible to predators. So the very thing that makes these plants undesirable in your pasture is also what makes them essential to survival for the cinnabar moth. And those hungry cinnabar caterpillars help keep these plants in check.
It turns out that nettles are full of iron. When you cook them like other greens, they lose their sting. You can make nettle tea, use it for soup, or saute it like spinach. And as aggressive as we know blackberry vines to be, they provide a safe nesting place for robins, and rabbits use them as cover when running from predators. Most of us are happy to eat those berries come August and September. Blackberry pie, blackberry cheesecake, blackberry jam, blackberries with yogurt, blackberry syrup over ice cream, blackberries picked straight off the vine and popped right into your mouth. Hungry yet?
Then there are the things we actually plant on purpose that end up producing so abundantly that we get kind of sick of them. Zucchini comes to mind. On the farm where I live with my friend Catherine, we ate our first zucchini of the season this past week. And then the second zucchini. And the third. And those plants are just getting warmed up.
Some of us read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver earlier this year. Kingsolver writes, “Garrison Keillor says July is the only time of year when country people lock our cars in the church parking lot, so people won’t put squash on the front seat. I used to think that was a joke.” [Barbara Kingsolver et al., Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, tenth anniversary edition (New York: Harper, 2017), 188.] So we may reach a point when zucchini seems to be growing like a weed—zucchini everywhere and more coming all the time.
If we recall that God does not make junk, then we may understand that we are invited to view weeds in a new way. What is this plant really good at? Or good for? Who depends on it to survive? Farmers have gotten very good at wiping out milkweed from their fields. What they didn’t realize is that monarch butterfly caterpillars eat only milkweed. No more milkweed, no more monarch butterflies. Careful what you weed out.
So what is this parable about the weeds and the wheat trying to tell us? Let’s look at it in its original time frame. At the time that someone we call “Matthew” wrote this gospel, probably between the years 80 and 90, the temple in Jerusalem had fallen. Jews and followers of Jesus had scattered throughout the region. An early Christian community arose in Antioch in Syria, and Matthew may have been a member of this community. Imagine that in this urban setting on the sea, the population could include people from everywhere. And in that early Christian congregation, there may have been a wide range of theologies developing about what it meant to follow Jesus—just as there are lots of flavors of “Christian” today.
It seems possible that Jesus told this parable, but the interpretation part—the part where Jesus’ disciples ask him to interpret the parable—that appears to belong solely to Matthew. And Matthew is the only gospel writer who throws in all the weeping and gnashing of teeth. He’s very into judgment.
So imagine studying this parable in Antioch, perhaps gathered with other Christians in someone’s home. As you think about the weeds and the wheat, you look around the room. Who might be weeds here, you wonder: people you wouldn’t mind weeding out of the community? Maybe the widow with four kids, all of whom depend on the church to provide for them. Maybe it’s the immigrant guy who sits in the corner and doesn’t speak the language well, doesn’t interact much? Or the woman who used to support herself and her drug habit with prostitution? Or the person who keeps getting into debates with you about what Jesus really expects of us? So annoying.
It would be easy to weed out some of these people, have a more homogeneous group, fewer conflicts, more in the treasury because you wouldn’t have to dole out so much to help the ones in need. It would be more comfortable.
And Matthew has Jesus say, “Don’t presume to judge who is the weed and who is the wheat.” Be careful to cultivate your garden so that all may thrive. Maybe others think you are the weed. Yikes. Leave it to God to make that judgment.
So you keep having the theological debates, keep helping that widow feed and raise her kids, reach out to the immigrant and find ways around the language barrier, invite the former prostitute to join fully into church life. Water the whole garden. Let God be the one to decide what gets to bear fruit.
There was a debate about weeds and wheat this week in Portland, Oregon—did you notice? Protestors have been active there since a police officer murdered George Floyd, and finally the federal government sent in agents from various agencies, some in camo, some in unmarked cars and not wearing uniforms. These agents started weeding with great vigor, pulling peaceful protestors into vans without explanation, intimidating people. And the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon both said to the federal government, essentially, “Get your agents out of here. They are actually the weeds. They are escalating the problems, harassing our citizens, and acting illegally. This is not how we cultivate democracy.”
As we consider the wheat and the weeds, the fruitful and the disposable, the good and evil, we can keep in mind this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. ... And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.” [Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.] We are all part weed, part wheat. It is a continual wrestling to see which will bear seed.
Perhaps you have felt disposable at some point in your life, or less worthy, less smart, less capable, less productive, evil, somehow not measuring up. This message is for us in those moments. God will not weed us out. Ever. God wants us to stay in the garden and bear whatever fruit is our own unique offering. We might be milkweed, and the monarch butterfly caterpillars love us and need us. We might be zucchini, slipping surreptitiously onto churchgoers’ car seats when they’re not careful to lock their doors. We might be blackberries, so sweet, feeding humans, birds, and rabbits in abundance.
This weekend we celebrate the life of John Lewis, who died on Friday at age 80 after decades of work for civil rights for all. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma so that all people could have the right to vote. He was beaten by police who tried to weed him out, and he bore those scars for the rest of his life. He continued to agitate for civil rights over the years as he joined the House of Representatives.
Sometimes weeding is required. In recent years we have needed to do a lot of weeding of our news. Fake news has become a thing, and if we’re watering those kinds of weeds in our gardens, we will cultivate hate, fear, paranoia, and racism. We know, just as those early Christians in Antioch knew, that Jesus calls us to cultivate justice and love.
But if we get compulsive about making our gardens completely weed free, we will never see God’s amazing beauty in, say, this vase of volunteer “weed” flowers. Our gardens are never going to be completely weed free. Neither are our hearts. And that’s okay. We will always be flawed, striving to do better, never completely perfect. There will always be suffering and trials to endure. And as we read in Romans, when we are part of God’s family—or God’s garden, to stick with that metaphor—we carry on with hope and with patience, faithful to God’s promise to love us always.
So we must be mindful of what we cultivate. Do we bear more wheat than weeds? Do we cultivate justice in our garden? Do we cultivate inclusion? Forgiveness? Radical welcome? We won’t ever be perfect at it. We won’t ever be weed-free. But with God’s love and with great hope and patience, we will keep cultivating God’s garden so that it may bear abundantly: blackberries, zucchini, and all. Amen.