Saturday, July 16, 2005

Don't pull out the weeds!

This week we continue with Matthews series of Jesus’ pithy stories that we call parables.  Like the good editor that he is, Matthew weaves them together so seamlessly that each story seems to grow out of the one we’ve just finished – and this week’s story of the weeds gets a very similar treatment to the story we heard last week about the not-so-bright sower who reaps a bumper crop.  But it’s got a very different emphasis, and a very different point.  Where last week the emphasis was on inclusion and surprising abundance, this week we hear the disturbing news that all is not quite right in God’s empire.  God isn’t the only sower.  There is a secret enemy at work.

You can imagine how this story would go over with the peasant farmers in the villages of Galilee.  Weeds are the bane of every farmer’s life – when I was working on the wheatbins as a young university student I quickly discovered that some farms had a major doublegee problem – we had sample books with coloured photographs of every known sort of foreign seed that might contaminate a load of wheat.  Most of the farms in our district produced good clean ‘A’ grade wheat, but I quickly got to know which trucks needed to be checked a bit more carefully and – just once – I had to reject a whole truckload which forced the farmer to drive an extra 40 miles to another wheatbin that could accept his load as ‘B’ grade wheat.  My commentary tells me the weed in question in Jesus’ story was probably darnel – a poisonous plant so closely related to wheat that you can’t tell them apart until the heads mature.  Jesus’ listeners would shudder at that – for ancient farmers without pesticides the only way to deal with weeds was literally to separate them by hand when the harvest was brought in – and I bet it would not have been unheard of for feuding farmers to do a spot of late-night sowing in one another’s fields.

This story resonates with anyone who has ever listened with fascinated half-belief to the latest conspiracy theory.  There’s a sense in which we need to know there’s somebody responsible for what goes wrong, we need to know it’s not just blind chance, there’s a sense in which human beings need to create images of who the enemy is – it’s a mild form of paranoia that helps us to define who we are and who we aren’t.  It’s as though the universe seems more predictable when we divide it into ‘them’ and ‘us’.  You used to hear that the CIA was behind everything.  Nowadays you’re more likely to hear about Islamic jihad movements.  Of course some of the enemies are real, some of the paranoia is justified.  But when it gets too simplified, too black and white, our fearfulness can tip over into prejudice.  Already, in the aftermath of the bombings in the centre of London, media reports from Britain are beginning to tell of backlash attacks against Pakistani residents in the UK.  An enemy did this, we know that all too well.  But are we so good at telling who the enemy is?

But, right here is the surprising thing about today’s parable, and it shocks the farmer’s servants just as much as it shocks anybody who finds it out for themselves, first-hand.  ‘What do you mean, an enemy did this?  Aren’t you supposed to be in control?  The tsunami wasn’t your idea?  Well, whose was it, then?  Who’s running the show if you aren’t?’  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in the Nazi death camps in 1945, tells us we don’t need an omnipotent and powerful God who could deal with evil but for some reason decides not to – what we do need to believe in is a God who is powerless and vulnerable in our world, a God who continually gets pushed aside, an irrelevant God who always ends up on a cross.  A God who is for us and who chooses to be with us, a God who chooses to share our vulnerability and to suffer with us.  That’s the sort of God we have, if God is like the farmer in the parable of the weeds. 

The problem of the weeds is the perennial problem for people who believe in God.  It seems to have been the problem for Matthew’s struggling community of Jewish Christians at the end of the first century, and it’s the problem for us as we look around the world we live in, and as we look around even inside the church, and we see conflict and hurtfulness, competitiveness, isolation and greed – we see all this and more right where human beings are trying to live out of their best intentions and their most noble motives.  People who aren’t at all religious are often pleased to point out the irony that the world’s religions - which are all based on some appreciation of the spirituality and the value of human life - are also responsible for some of the grossest, most misguided and violent human behaviour.  Political ideologies maybe come a close second.  But the point is well made – right alongside the very best that human beings are capable of flourishes the very worst that we can do.  The weeds are growing right alongside the wheat.

The weediness that particularly concerned Matthew’s community was the problem of purity.  Who was going to be regarded as belonging and who wasn’t?  Did you have to keep to the Jewish food laws?  Did male converts have to be circumcised?  Maybe the problem of weediness for the Christian community in the 21st century is not so far removed.  Who’s in and who’s out?  What about people who belong to non-Christian faiths, or to the large number of people in our Western society who claim to have no faith at all?  Are they included in the circle of God’s love?  What about people inside the Church who challenge the traditional models of family life, what about gay people?  Should homosexual Christians have full communicant membership of the church, should they be allowed to hold teaching positions in the church?  What about people who don’t hold to the same beliefs about God that I have always held on to?  Does God reject them if they don’t believe the right things about God?  And the sad thing is that, all down through the ages, the Church has said the same thing to God: should we be pulling out the weeds, God? 

But the parable seems to suggesting we shouldn’t.  That’s not the same thing as saying that we should avoid confrontation or that we shouldn’t resist evil – but it does mean that we should always be inclusive.  ‘Never write people off’, is what Jesus is saying here.  ‘Leave the weediness of other people to God’.  And because this story follows straight after the story of the sower we also hear him saying, ‘don’t worry!  It’s still going to be a bumper crop’.  Well, but how’s that?  If God isn’t as much in control as we’ve always wanted to believe, how can we be so sure all this is going to come out right? 

The great psychologist, Carl Jung, would have loved this story.  You see, Jung believed that we each have a part of the unconscious that he called the Shadow, the part of ourselves where we push all the things that we don’t want to know about, things like unexamined greed, selfishness and inappropriate desire.  Things that our conscious minds have learned are not acceptable.  But Jung says they’re there all the time, that we spend a good deal of energy pretending that they’re not, pushing the lid back on them – and that what human maturity is about, is learning to integrate our conscious selves with the parts of ourself that we are normally unconscious of - in other words, Jung suggests that both light and shadow are at home within us, woven together into the very stuff of being human – or as Jesus’ parable suggests, that the weeds and the wheat are entwined at the very level of their roots – and that is the level at which God works on us.  Don’t pull out the weeds – they’re part of how you’re made.

Unfortunately, Matthew’s interpretation of the story – pretty standard judgement day sort of stuff that was very popular at the time – tries to nail tightly shut what Jesus’ parable has left tantalisingly open.  You might remember I suggested last week that Bible scholars doubt the explanations of this parable, and the parable of the sower, really go back to Jesus.  They might be more about how the early church wanted to interpret Jesus’ stories.  And the reason in this case is that Matthew’s interpretation seems to suggest God doesn’t want to be inclusive after all.  God doesn’t really want to work with us in all our contradictoriness and all our weediness, God’s love and compassion is just an interim thing until the Day of Judgement comes, and then - wham!  It’s just a matter of timing, the weeds get good and pulled up in the end.  I think this explanation is OK, insofar as it says that the end God has in sight brings everything together for good – both our weeds and our wheat.  And it’s an interpretation that reminds us about our accountability, that in the end we do need to answer to God for whether or not we are fruitful, whether or not grow in the way that God intends for us.  But it’s an interpretation we need to be careful of – an interpretation that has the potential to feed into our desire to be judgemental, to pull out a few weeds after all – and it’s an interpretation that we should never focus on so much that we overlook the most important point of the story – don’t pull out the weeds!  They are part of the field that God is working in – quietly, lovingly, and in ways we haven’t dreamed of.