Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 23, 2023
Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
If you have a garden, or a yard, or lawn, you likely find yourself once again engaged in the perennial summer battle against weeds. I myself have a brick patio in the backyard upon which the battle has been fiercely fought. I don’t like using chemicals, especially in an area we use a lot, so that isn’t an option. Organic solutions haven’t worked very well. Picking the weeds out from between the bricks by hand is time-consuming and leaves my fingers scraped and sore. But this year I found a solution to all of this. For my birthday this year I got a flame thrower. (It’s actually called a weed burner, but flame thrower sounds cooler.) I fire that baby up and in minutes I have those weeds torched into oblivion. I sweep up the ashes, and my patio is clean and weed-free. It is a great feeling. I take great pleasure in it. Nobody likes weeds. Even when the weeding itself isn’t fun, like it is with my flame thrower, it feels good to get rid of them.
Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell a parable about a sower who scattered seed far and wide, and while many of those seeds failed to sprout for various reasons, the seeds which landed on good soil brought forth an abundant yield. This Sunday we return to that yield. Jesus tells another parable, another allegory from agriculture. Those seeds which were scattered last Sunday have become a full-fledged crop of wheat in the parable we hear today. But there’s trouble in the fields. There are weeds growing amongst the wheat.
How did those weeds get there? Did the landowner not plant good seed, some ask? No, that’s not it. The weeds are the result of what we might call an act of ecoterrorism. “An enemy has done this,” Jesus says. “While everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.”
Those who work this land want to get rid of the weeds. We can understand the impulse, right? I sure can! “Do you want us to go and gather them?” they ask. They’re gearing up to pull them, torch them, clear them out. But the landowner in Jesus’ parable tells them to leave them be. “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them into bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The weed mentioned by Jesus in this parable is a specific kind of weed. In the Greek the word is zinzania, and it is a specific plant commonly known as darnel wheat, or false wheat. This particular weed is especially troublesome to wheat farmers because in its early stages it is virtually indistinguishable from real wheat. And not only is it troublesome because it is hard to distinguish from the real wheat, but beneath the soil its roots tend to intertwine with the roots of the wheat, making it impossible to pull out. If you were to try to weed out this false wheat, you’d pull out the good wheat out with it.
And so the workers are told to just leave them alone. They are to let the weeds and the wheat grow together for now. Those weeds will be gathered and burned, but it isn’t their job to do so. They are instead to wait with patience, trusting the landowner to bring in the harvest.
We don’t have to guess at what this parable is about. We don’t need to speculate about what Jesus is describing here. This is one of very few parables where Jesus tells us exactly what it means! He explains each part of the allegory for us: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Mon,” that is, it is Jesus himself. “The field is the world,” Jesus says. “The good seed are the children of the kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are his angels.”
This image of a field with both wheat and weeds growing alongside each other is put to us in this parable as an image which describes the world we live in. It describes the age we live in, the age between Christ’s first coming and his final coming. And I think we can all see that this image of a field with both wheat and weeds is a starkly accurate description. On the one hand, the world is a beautiful place, filled with wonder and delight. There is beauty and there is goodness and there is love. On the other hand, the world is full of weeds. There is also much cruelty and corruption and violence.
This field of both wheat and weeds growing together is a good description of the church too, which exists, for now, in this field, this world. Luther liked to say that wherever Christ builds a church, the devil builds a chapel. The same sacred institution which has safeguarded the precious words of the gospel has also at times been the source of intense disappointment and pain for many. At times it is bravely and boldly faithful and at times it is a den of blasphemy and betrayal. At the congregational level, the same community of faith which so often envelopes us in love and care can also be the source of some of our deepest wounds.
And we find that the weeds and the wheat even grow alongside each other in our own hearts. One of the great insights of the Lutheran Reformation is that human beings are simul iustis et peccator, we are simultaneously saint and sinner. The Old Adam or Eve still dwells in us even as we have been declared righteous on account of Christ. Our lives are not without sin. Our hearts have not yet been made fully clean and pure. There are weeds that grow in us even now. Our sanctification is never quite complete in this life, on this side of heaven.
When we encounter the weeds of this world, we naturally want to pull them. We want to go after them and get rid of them. And in some ways, we should. Scripture teaches us that God works through earthly authorities to restrain evil, to create a measure of order in this world, to limit the damage the weeds might do. Scripture teaches the church to be on guard against false teachings. Matthew 18 gives us instructions on how to deal with problematic weeds that might crop up among believers. There are some ways in which we sin against each other that can’t just be ignored. Scripture tells us as individuals to strive against sin, to watch our behavior and to be careful about the company we keep. So we are not to be entirely passive in dealing with the weeds.
The problem comes when we want a pure field – whether that is the world, or the church, or us as individuals. The problem comes when we try to pull out every weed ourselves. The problem comes when we start torching everything that looks to us like a weed, and, in our self-righteousness, kind of enjoying it as we do so. That’s a problem because we can’t always tell the difference between weeds and wheat! We don’t have that kind of discernment! Furthermore, the roots of the weeds and the wheat are often entangled just beneath the surface! And so, in our burning desire for purity, some of Christ’s precious wheat ends up getting burned.
We can just think about utopian social movements like communism which have justified bloodshed and killed millions in the pursuit of a perfect society. We can think of how in the church our efforts towards theological purity have sometimes led to inquisitions and people literally being burned at the stake. Even our own personal efforts to weed out our every imperfection can become counterproductive and spiritually harmful as we start to trust in ourselves rather than in Christ.
The enemy continues to plant weeds – in the world, in the church, in our hearts. We shouldn’t become complacent about these weeds, these troubles, but we also shouldn’t think that we are the ones who are going to fix it. In this parable Jesus is describing how things are going to be for us as we live in the age between his first coming and his final coming. He is telling us to be patient. He is telling us to back off on the weed burner. “There are going to be weeds,” Jesus says. “They have been planted there by the evil one. But you are to leave those weeds to me.”
And so this parable ends as a parable of hope. Any field plagued by darnel wheat would be considered doomed in the ancient world. A farmer wouldn’t know it was there until it was too late, and come harvest time, it would be a total disaster. It would be beyond hope. Sometimes we think of the world in the same way – that it is beyond hope. Sometimes we think the church is filled with too many weeds to continue to bring life. Sometimes we think we ourselves are too weedy to be worthy of God’s love. But the punchline of the parable is that the Son of Man brings in a harvest! Even in a field where there is false wheat all tangled up with the good wheat, there is a harvest! Jesus, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Savior, sends in his angels to deal with the weeds at last and to gather his precious grain into the barn.
We live in a hard time, an in-between time, where weeds and wheat grow right alongside each other – often indistinguishable from one another, often entangled in a complicated mess. As St. Paul writes in our second reading for today, the creation, in its bondage to decay, it its futility, groans in labor pains, even as we ourselves groan inwardly. But, Paul concludes, “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
Jesus’ parable is about patience too – patience with our troubled world, patience with a compromised church, patience with yourself, patience with God, who will redeem it all in the harvest that is yet to come. Jesus gives us a glimpse of this harvest at the end of his parable when he says, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” This righteousness is not something you will achieve yourself by your weeding efforts. It is a gift given to you who have been planted in good soil. It is a gift given to you who have been adopted as children of the kingdom through Holy Baptism. It is a gift for you who have been watered by his grace so that you would grow in faith, trusting the promise that one day you will be gathered as good grain into the barn.
In the meantime, we live in hope for what we cannot yet see. We wait with patience, trusting that the harvest is coming.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church