Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Let Them Both Grow Together

Everyone, I suspect, has their favorite parables of Jesus. I tend to favor the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. I'm probably not alone in this.

Another favorite parable of mine is the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The version from the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 13.24-30
Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed.

‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’”
To be sure, later in the chapter Jesus goes on to discuss the eschatological judgment at the end of the parable. And as I've repeatedly said, I have no problem with God's judgment. It is critical that such judgment exists to have any coherent notion of God's love and justice.

But as with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and Jesus's teaching as a whole, I don't think the parable here is about Judgment Day. What Jesus is doing is using judgment--the pathos of God--to illuminate this day, right here and right now. The focus in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats isn't about the ultimate fate of the goats. It is, rather, about what God wants the Kingdom to look like today, in my life and yours. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is about calling us to the works of mercy.

So what is the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds calling us to? What is the parable trying to say about our behavior today?

I think the answer is found in the question of the workers: "Should we pull out the weeds?"

Should we pull out the weeds?

This question goes to the heart of one of the greatest temptations amongst religious people wanting to serve God: the impulse to sort the good people from the bad people, the saints from the sinners, the church from the world, the saved from the damned.

Churches are full to the brim of this sort of thing. Righteous crusades to weed out the sinners.

But what does the farmer say? The farmer says, Don't get into the weeding business. If you do you'll pull up the good with the bad. Weeds are no good, but weeding? Weeding is worse. So just let the good and the bad live alongside each other. Trust that God will sort it all out in the end. Sorting saints from sinners isn't your job. So let it be.

Wouldn't it be amazing if Christians and churches heeded the farmer's advice?

And let's be clear. The farmer has lost his mind. What farmer doesn't weed? What the workers are suggesting is the right thing to do. From a farming perspective the farmer is an idiot.

Against all logic the farmer says, Leave it alone. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together. On this farm we aren't going to weed.

But isn't this a recipe for disaster? Doesn't God need our help in sorting out the good guys from the bad guys? Doesn't God need Spiritual Minutemen to monitor the borders of the Kingdom?

Apparently not. Our job, it seems, is simply to live alongside each other, wheat and the weeds.

And truth be told, I think a part of the logic here is that we're horrible, often tragically so, in making these distinctions. Who are the real good guys? Who are the real bad guys? Are churches getting this distinction right?

My take: I think the churches get this wrong more often than they get this right. Churches, way more than they'd care to admit, get into the weeding business only to discover that they can't tell the wheat from the weeds.

More, I'd go on to make this provocative claim: To get into the weeding business is what marks you as a weed. Weeding is what makes you one of the bad guys. Exhibit A: The religious authorities of Jesus's day and their exclusion of "tax collectors and sinners." 

Robert Capon in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus has an interesting observation about this parable. Specifically, he notes that the root of the Greek word--aphete--translated as "let" in the command of the farmer ("let both grow together") has two related meanings in the bible. One meaning is the meaning found in the translation above (NLT), the notion of "to permit" or "to allow." But the more common meaning of aphete in the bible is "to suffer" and "to forgive." This is the word Jesus utters from the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

This really amps the meaning of the parable. Rather than weeding the farmer is asking the workers to forgive the weeds, to suffer their existence.

We might say the parable is presenting us with two visions of Kingdom life.

On the one side are the weeding Christians, those wanting to identify, sort out and burn the weeds.

And on the other side are those Christians who live alongside the weeds manifesting forgiveness and patience.

And we do know this: the weeding Christians will have all the best arguments on their side. Weeding, we know, is good farming practice. It's the sensible and right thing to do.

But the logic of forgiving the weeds and allowing them to grow alongside? That's no logic at all.

It's only the foolishness of the cross.

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