PROPER 11, A
Matthew 13:24-20, 36-43
When I was very young, back in the 40’s, I spent big chunks of the summer with my Grandmother in a little town in southern Iowa. Now my Grandmother was a devoted Methodist and a life-long student of the Bible. While I didn’t realize this at the time, she had learned to speak in parable language.
There was a little boy who lived next door to Gram, probably three years younger than I. By the age of 5 he was already clearly a “geek,” by which I mean he was woefully lacking in physical coordination and he wore coke bottle glasses. His teachers had told his parents that he was “slow” and there was nothing much to be done about it. And being a small town, everyone else seemed to know this about him too. “Tsk, tsk, poor Joey.”
Gram, however, spent a lot of time with Joey. He would come over after school and they would read together, and I presume talked too, because she was so good at talking to children. When I asked her why she was spending time with him she just said, “Well, Lynn, there’s no telling the luck of a sick calf.”
I’ve never forgotten this, although I’m sure I didn’t really understand it at the time. But isn’t that what parables are like? We hear them and continue to wonder if we understand them or not. Sometimes they come to mean much more to us later on, or come back to us when our own experience reflects the content of the parable.
I hope you heard Sam’s sermon last week, because I heartily agree with her that including an “explanation” of the parable renders it rather lifeless and less meaningful. Today’s reading suffers from the same problem. The parable of the wheat and tares is followed immediately by an explanation that turns it from a parable into an allegory. Now, was this done by Jesus or by the writer of Matthew or by some later editor. We don’t know and probably never will, but I seriously doubt it was Jesus.
One of my issues with the explanation is that it provides such fodder for the hellfire and damnation preachers who use fear to keep people in line. I mean, who among us wants to be tossed into the fire amidst weeping and gnashing of teeth? Even if it doesn’t happen until the end of time?
So, for the moment at least, let’s ignore the explanation, and consider the parable for ourselves. We have a Master who sows a field with good seed to grow a crop of wheat. But someone comes in the night and sows weeds in the same field. By the time the servants discover this, it’s too late to pull the weeds without damaging the wheat — what today we call “collateral damage.”
So the master says to let them grow together until harvest time. Then the reapers will separate the wheat from the tares, and put the wheat in the barn and burn the weeds.
Clearly this is a parable about good and evil, with the wheat being the good seed and the weeds being the evil. But notice that the master leaves them alone to both grow, rather than ruin any of the good crop. Also remember that the rain falls on both equally. Also that there’s no telling one from another until they are mature plants.
Now traditionally the focus of this parable has been what happens at the end. But I find what happens during the growing more interesting. “No, no,” says the master. “Don’t tear up the weeds because you will tear up the nearby wheat as well.” In other words, it’s NOT our job to root out evil. In fact, in the explanation given that job falls to the angels, and only at the end of time.
Of even more interest to me is what is this field in which the wheat and tares are growing? The explanation is that the field represents the world. Andy Berry, the pastor at Littlefork Lutheran, asked us at text study, “What if the field represents a human being?” Oh my, that’s quite different.
Would that offend any of you? – the idea of good and evil both existing within you? It certainly fits my experience in life. Remember the recent reading from Paul, who asks, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do?” Why do I do evil when all I want is the good?”
If we think of the field as everyman, a human being, then the reaping at the end of time has a different sense as well. If the angels are going to separate the tares from the wheat, and get rid of the tares by throwing them into the fire, and store the wheat in the barn, that sounds to me like a process of refinement, of reconciliation, of God removing the wicked parts of me and just keeping the good. Need I say that I like this idea a lot better than that I might, all of me, be thrown in the fire because I was labeled as one of the tares.
My point here is that with a parable, there’s always more than one way to look at it. And just that fact gives the parable a richness and depth that is sadly lacking in an allegory. So do not accept any explanation that attempts to explain it to you in just one way, not even mine. Parables are meant to be thought about, mulled over, revisited as your own experience of life expands.
The part of this parable that grabbed me the most was the master’s command to let the weeds and the wheat grow together. That serves as a reminder to me, and one that I often need, that it is not up to us to identify, judge, and uproot evil in the world. Yes, there are any number of ways that we can stand against what we deem to be evil or unjust in this world, but we are not to judge or name –call other people. We can not know what harm that may bring to others, even if we are right about a particular person. And more importantly we may be, and probably are wrong or at least partly wrong about that person.
Live and let live seems to be at least one major point of this parable. We are only able to make judgments about ourselves, not others, but that’s not much fun, is it? And pointing out the faults of others is a convenient way of not looking at our own faults. Yet we all live in this world together and have to find peaceful ways of doing that. Not judging others seems to be one step in the right direction.
Remember the little boy my grandmother befriended? He earned a Ph.D in physics and spent his life teaching others. “There’s just no telling the luck of a sick calf!” AMEN