WERE THERE WEEDS IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN?
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
July 20, 2014
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
Matthew 13:24-30, 35-43
The Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat
Studying Scripture is an art, not a science. Things aren’t always clear-cut.
There are two vastly different Creation stories in Genesis, one in which Eve is created out of Adam’s rib and a second in which Adam and Eve are created at the same time.
Adam and Eve have two sons: Cain and Abel. Cain gets married. Where did Mrs. Cain come from?
In the Gospels, Jesus can be as frustrating to the reader as he often was to the disciples. There were questions he wouldn’t answer or that he answered with stories or tantalizing but incomplete comparisons.
In today’s Gospel, the disciples ask how to cope with the mess that is their world. In the early church there was the delicate problem of assimilating Gentiles into Jewish congregations. In the larger world, the Romans were constantly harassing them. In response, Jesus presents The Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.
There are two parts to this parable; the story itself is the first part, and the explicit interpretation of the story is the second. Not everyone agrees that Jesus actually said the second part. This is when I am glad to be an Anglican since we believe that revelation comes through Scripture, reason and tradition. My own common sense as well as the best traditional, scholarly opinions I have found agree that while the first part of the parable is directly attributable to Jesus, the second part, probably is not.
In this second part, whoever wrote Matthew interprets what Jesus meant in the first part by defining everything: “The field is the world, the weeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy who sowed them is the devil….”
Jesus never defined his terms like this. He didn’t say, “The Samaritan in the story is the good person. The traveler represents the vulnerable child of God, the robber stands for Satan.”
And Jesus certainly never said that humankind could be divided into two groups: good people and bad people.
Make your own conclusions here but it is important to keep these qualifications in mind.
A parable poses a question to be answered, a comparison to be made, a riddle to be figured out.
The topic of the parable is how to find hope in a time of discouragement, in a weedy world, ripe with evil influences, and loaded with challenges that can seem insurmountable, both on global and personal levels. Hello, last week newspapers. We live in a world that is exploding with violence and human pain – in the tortured Middle East, on the southern border of our own country, as passenger airline shot out of the sky by political rebels and maybe even in our own lives as we learn of a friend in trouble or a sickness that worsens.
The parable is a conversation between slaves and their master. The slaves in the story want to yank out the weeds in the master’s field, so as to rescue the crop.
This impulse to weed out is a universal one.
I have been weeding out my basement for years, “simplifying” my life. My children observe that if I keep buying stuff, the weeding will never end. I get that.
When antibiotics arrived on the medical scene in 1914, they were seen as a Godsend to treat pneumonia, meningitis, strep throat, and a host of other conditions. But this also built up stronger strains of bacteria that can be resistant to treatment. The weeding out of disease produced bigger and stronger weeds.
Following 911, the United States entered Iraq to weed out weapons of mass destruction supposedly held by Saddham Hussein and to root out Al Qaeda. This effort to weed out weapons and terrorists resulted in a U.S. military commitment costing thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and an outcome that is far from certain.
However, sometimes an institution is criticized when it is resistant to “weeding out” the perpetrators of crimes, especially those that affect the most vulnerable. The Roman Catholic Church, schools that downplay questionable incidents to protect their reputations, and even our own failure to deal with our bad habits or hurtful behavior are a few examples.
The weed metaphor is challenging for the 21st century mind. We can over-complicate it so easily:
With definitions: “a weed is only a plant out of place,” “a weed is a plant whose purpose has not yet been discovered.” There are degrees of weeds: some weeds are harmless like dandelions, others troublesome like poison ivy; a few deadly like nightshade.
We can also get excessively theological, posing a question like Were there weeds in the Garden of Eden? Perhaps our rector could dig into this and we can all enjoy his conclusions in the next Evangelist!
Someone said that we don’t read a parable; a parable reads us, and where we find ourselves in the story is important. We can’t find ourselves only in the weeds OR only in the wheat because we’re each one at different times. However, on a primal level this lesson speaks to our fear – the fear of being irrelevant, weeded out because of job loss, weeded out because of age or physical capability, weeded out of the lives of people we counted on being there for us, and suddenly aren’t.
Another fear is that we’re not good enough wheat! Are we lackluster in faith, lazy and self-indulgent, and completely insignificant in the big picture? Then we remember the words of today’s Psalm about the intimate, persistent God who won’t let us escape:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
The Psalmist tells us that we cannot escape from God’s concern for us even when we resign ourselves to insignificance or despair.
Fortunately, the parable tells us, it is God that makes the final call on everything and the God we have come to know in Jesus will use the yardstick of love.
Sometimes people will say, “Well what about Hitler? If there’s not a hell for HIM, I give up.”
Well, maybe hell for Hitler will be a loving God taking him gently by the hand and showing him in great detail the cost of his failure to love, even as God embraces him in love. The deep knowing may be the punishment. Thank heaven we are not in charge. As the master might say to the slaves in his field, Hitler’s fate isn’t your call.
This parable is not a call to complacency in any sense. We know that Jesus hated injustice, was furious when the moneychangers set up shop in the temple, and always sided with the downtrodden. The parable is a call to us to be good wheat and bear good fruit, even in the weediest possible plot of ground.
So in the part of the world we call the Holy Land, Israeli and Palestinian parents are meeting to talk as a result of the recent murders of teenagers from both sides. An Israeli family agreed to give the kidney of their dying son to a Palestinian child. And in the heartbreaking humanitarian and political crisis at our southern border, churches and individuals have opened their doors to exhausted, hungry, terrified children, welcoming them with enthusiasm and love.
While most of us can’t respond in a sustained way to global and even national crises, we have considerable personal power if we listen.
I’ve been part of a group of women who have met for four decades on each of our birthdays. We have been through divorces, the loss of two of the group to cancer, child problems, substance abuse issues and much more. We’re down from eight to four of us now. We eat, we talk, and the birthday person gets girl-gifts: ceramic napkin holders, grandchildren-friendly picture frames, organic hand lotion, cookbooks.
Even though I’ve struggled for years with the present thing at these events, the last time we gathered and the birthday person opened her gifts, I felt almost sick for a moment and heard myself saying to myself, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do the present thing.” The fact is that there are always at least $75 worth of presents and not a one of us needs them—in fact, I don’t even know what to buy for anyone anymore and then there’s the basement issue.
So when January comes around and it’s my birthday I’m going to make a request with some trepidation because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or take away their fun, and I don’t want to be the goody two-shoes church lady. I will ask them for my birthday to bring cash instead of presents and donate it to Kiva.com, which provides loans for people in poor countries who have little businesses. I have my eye on Florence in Zimbabwe who is seeking a loan to buy more chickens so as to expand the egg business, which supports her family.
I understand how trivial this incident is, in light of the horrific suffering going on in the world, the flaming injustice that is epidemic, the loss of life. Birthday presents? Really? But I decided to tell you this story anyway, not so much because of the outcome, but because of the strength with which that voice of conscience came to me.
We talk about the love of God a lot but today’s parable presents the hard fact that some people may not experience much love from anyone in this life. The world can be that cruel, that harsh.
But Jesus says that we are not to make ultimate judgments but to listen: Let all who have ears listen … to what? To the voice in your gut, in your conscience, in your heart and to accept and use your God-given power. Your authority as a child of God. Even if it’s to help someone who needs to buy more chickens.
Bishop Stephen Charleston:
“You are the love some other heart seeks,
you are the healing some wounded life needs.
You are hope for some broken spirit,
you are peace for some frantic mind.”