Where do weeds come from?

“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”

When I was in high school, my dad served on the faculty of an Episcopal boys boarding school in a rural, farm setting south of Asheville, North Carolina. I remember mom and dad participating one summer in a faculty garden in a small corner of a nearby field that produced corn for the school’s dairy cows.

Each member of the faculty was invited to cultivate one or more rows of fruits and vegetables. Mom and dad planted at least one row that I can still picture in my mind near the bottom of a gentle slope. I remember visiting the communal garden with dad on at least one or two occasions. What struck me was how different dad’s row was from many of the others as I passed them on my way to his row at the bottom.

Whereas many of the rows on the upper end of the field had obviously been weeded on a regular basis, dad’s row was a small jungle of green vegetation. Dad, noting my desire, written in the furrows of my brow, for an explanation why our row was different from the others, cited today’s parable as a warrant for his gardening approach: let the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest, he told me, because if you weed, you may uproot a small squash or cucumber plant in the process. And this was especially true in the case of Jesus’ parable, because the weed that Matthew refers to is a specific type of grass called darnel that grows in cultivated fields in Europe and Asia, and is nearly identical in appearance to wheat, making the likelihood of uprooting the wheat practically unavoidable or a huge waste of time carefully inspecting each blade.

As it turned out, dad’s harvest of squash, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and corn was very impressive, even though we had to hunt for our produce buried under the weeds.

Last Wednesday the mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, commemorated a wall on Proctor’s Ledge with 19 slabs of granite inscribed with the names and dates of those who were hung as witches on that site 625 years ago. Those New England Puritans who left England, in part, to form a Christian community that might be more homogeneous than the Church of England, were impatient to do some premature human weeding, fearing that the presence of people who looked like them but who were nonetheless suspiciously different, needed to be rooted out and even destroyed by them before the angels of God did it at the final harvest.

These well-meaning but misguided Christians did not recognize the potential for collateral damage to their own community of faith in not trusting the Lord of the harvest to help them persevere in the presence of spiritual weeds that they should have known could never compete with the fruits of the Spirit produced in their own lives when shared with others, no less than my mom and dad had plenty of fresh corn and other vegetables to offer to others, who received it gladly and thankfully as produce whose flavor and nutritional value was not degraded and cannot be tainted by the weeds.

This parable also explains why my brother, Chris, and two of his colleagues at Yale University, resigned their tenured faculty positions in the department of religion many years ago, when the administration permitted Wicca, a modern form of witchcraft, to take their turn in the Christian chapel to worship according to their neo-pagan beliefs. In effect, the administrators were suggesting that the wheat of Christianity that founded Yale University is no more nutritious or vital to the sustained health and growth of the university than Wicca. For my brother and his colleagues, the enemy that Jesus refers to in his parable, namely the devil, the great slanderer of God and deceiver of human beings, had succeeded in planting evil seeds of arrogance in the minds of those administrators with the effect of defaming the goodness of God by suggesting that a weed has the same nutritional value as wheat, or that God is simply incompetent or even cruel to create bad seeds along with the good or to allow them to be planted and to be passed off as equivalent to wheat.

Rather than attempting to weed out these misguided administrators, these professors of Old and New Testament and Christian ethics removed themselves in order to be transplanted elsewhere where they could be more productive, shaking off the soil of a proud and venerable institution, but knowing sadly, that in the end, Yale University would be the weaker and the poorer for not making a clear distinction between wheat and weed.

In our contemporary culture where tolerance is so highly valued, we must remember that while Jesus is urging tolerance and patience with the weeds that the enemy has planted, he certainly is not asking us to eat the weeds! That’s what makes a weed a weed: it has very little value, except to be burned as fuel.

The Bible teaches us that Adam’s tragic rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden was the opening the devil needed to introduce weeds and thorns into God’s good creation. They are now a fact of life. God’s good seeds must compete with aggressive, worthless and detrimental seeds by an enemy that we granted access to God’s good earth through our own sin. 

But it is also a fact, as Paul is trying to explain in his letter to the Romans, that the death and resurrection of Jesus has allowed him to pour out his Spirit on this fallen world, with the prospect of gathering a fruitful harvest into his Father’s barn. We are in the green season of the Spirit, that long period of the Spirit’s work from Pentecost to the Final Harvest at the Lord’s Second Coming in the purple season of Advent. The sighs and groanings that we experience as Christians between now and then are not sighs or groanings of despair, that the weeds are going to take over and win, but just the opposite, that we can persevere, despite the weeds, and produce the fruits of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control that Paul enumerates in another of his letters.

The prayer of St. Francis is relevant here. Rather than trying to weed, we should be sowing: Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where the enemy has sown the seeds of hatred, let us so love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

Paul compares us and the whole creation to a pregnant woman laboring to deliver the new life of Christ’s love, pardon, union, faith, hope, light and joy into this world, and in the process, uprooting the weeds from below the surface rather than trying to yank them out from above.

We do well to remember that no one was more determined to uproot Christianity right from the start than Paul himself. He recognized immediately what a virulent threat Jesus and his followers were to Judaism. Jesus confronted Paul with the fact that he cannot and will not be uprooted, despite all the weeds and all the evildoers and enemies of the gospel. Christ helped Paul see that Christianity is the fulfillment of all the promises of Judaism.

In contrast to the kingdom of God which cannot be uprooted, Jesus declares elsewhere in the gospel that every plant that has not been planted by his Father will be uprooted. The seeds that others sow are the seeds of blind guides, and those who follow them will fall into the same pit.

The kingdom that Jesus now presides over is a kingdom of both wheat and weeds. He reassures us in his parable this morning that the day will surely come when he will return to harvest the wheat and burn the weeds and turn over his kingdom to his Father, where there will be no weeds.

As undesirable, unattractive and troublesome as weeds are, and the fact that they grow where they are not wanted, that they often spread fast and take the place of desired plants, and that they are useless, worthless, and often detrimental, Jesus is urging patience. What we long for, a world without weeds, a world where the fruits of the Spirit can grow unencumbered, is a world we shall have, a world worth waiting for and hoping for, even as we share the fruits that the Spirit produce in each of us as a foretaste of that perfect kingdom, fruits that that only premature weeding can stop. AMEN.