Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Unlike certain golf clubs, or some gentlemen’s clubs in St James’s, or even some of the sectarian movements in first-century Judaism, the circle around Jesus was truly open. To be sure, some in that circle, such as ‘the Twelve’, were invited to join it, but not because they had already shown any aptitude or inclination for the kind of life they would subsequently lead. Others, having met Jesus in dramatic circumstances, decided to stay with him. One example that comes to mind is Bartimaeus, a man who could not see, was healed by Jesus, and then subsequently decided to ‘follow Jesus in the way’, as the Gospel puts it. Others, out of curiosity, simply tagged along with Jesus and, because he got on rather well with them, they included a disproportionate number of reprobates, rejects and dubious characters. Hope for us all, don’t you think?
But even to speak of the group around Jesus as a ‘circle’ is misleading, because a circle has a circumference, and to draw a circumference you have to draw a line. Jesus’s refusal to draw lines was one of the things about him that infuriated his opponents. Needless to say, you didn’t have to attend a course of preparation classes or take part in some ‘rite of passage’ before joining Jesus on the way. The group around Jesus of Nazareth had no name, no organisation and no hierarchy. By all accounts – Gospel accounts – it was all very ad hoc and unsystematic, light years distant from the ever more obsessively managed institutions which today make their competing claims to represent him.
I reckon the parable of the wheat and the tares/weeds might primarily be about how God puts up with all of us. It certainly doesn’t tell you how to run a farm, or even an allotment. What the farmer does, letting the weeds flourish alongside the wheat, is about as daft as a shepherd abandoning the rest of the flock for the sake of a single sheep that has wandered off. But the parable is not about farming, it is about ‘the kingdom of heaven’, as Matthew calls it, or ‘the kingdom of God’ as Mark describes it. Both these designations refer to how God works here and now, not to a place you go to when you die. And it seems the way God works is not the way we do.
Sensible farmers would, of course, weed out the weeds, but this farmer doesn’t. What he does is an example of what St Paul came to call ‘God’s foolishness’. The eccentric way God works is not to weed out anyone. That’s how crazily hospitable the company of Jesus is. And anyway, how could you do such a thing when everybody carries within them somewhere the divine image – no matter how much they might do to hide or even destroy it.
I think the gist of this story is found in the words, ‘Let them [wheat and weeds] grow together’. This is a notion the followers of Jesus have always found hard to stomach. Repeatedly across the centuries the Church, confident that it knows which are the weeds and which is the wheat, has sought to incinerate (sometimes literally) the former in order to maintain the purity of the latter, whether it be through classifying people as infidels, subjecting them to Inquisition or condemning those ‘not like us’. This is, of course, about judgement. And the parable does use images of barns and bonfires. But that is not the same as saying it is down to us who is for the flames…
This parable is surely about the all-embracing inclusivity of the kingdom of God. It recognises the reality that productive and non-productive things both have a part in our lives. That this is a story for our times hardly needs to be stressed. The parable contains two questions. The first gets only a partial answer: ‘Where did these weeds come from?’ the servants ask. You might ask it of your own garden. More profoundly, we all might ask it of today’s world, the world which God first looked upon and declared good, very good, but which we are in danger of choking with weeds of many kinds. The only response to this question is that an enemy has done it, clearly maliciously. But who is the enemy here, and who is the enemy now? Then the servants have a second question: not ‘Why is it a wicked world?’ but ‘Do you want us to go and gather the weeds? In other words, ‘What should we do about it?’ Now that question, I think, can be answered more fully – though not at all easily.
Two agricultural parables: last Sunday, the parable of the sower; today, the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Parables are not ends in themselves, not answers. Rather, they offer a beginning, pose a dilemma, present a story to inhabit, a story which somehow gets inside us and leads us to ponder a new way of doing things and ordering our lives. The thing about a parable is that it has the power to go on and on and on disclosing its meaning and truth to us in every context of our lives. Just for a moment, forget the interpretation given by Matthew (probably a later addition to the story anyway, according to many scholars). Instead, let’s ask: What does the parable mean for you and me? I have a few ideas of my own, but I can’t answer for you, because the parable can only make sense in your hearing. It is only you, in the context of your own life, who can open up the secret of the story and hopefully discover something of the kingdom which yields a hundred fold. Jesus did not leave us with all the answers, he left us with parables.
In today’s, what are the contemporary weeds which grow up purporting to be a good crop, but which actually, in the end, block the cause of the kingdom of God and cause us, or others, or the world, harm and injury? Is this parable for you? Or this church? Or for our community? Or nation? Jesus leaves us with a story and he invites us to take it away with us in the hope that in our lives we will discern those things that choke our full human potential, so we can bundle them up and be rid of them, and those things that lead to a good harvest and the flourishing of both our humanity and the welfare of all creation.