Sunday, July 17, 2011

Priorities: Wheat Or Weeds?

Today we continue reflecting on Jesus’ parables of the reign/rule of God, traditionally called the kingdom, or as my pastor, Fr. Daniel Green, calls it, “the empire of heaven”. He identifies that as the sharing in “...the new life in the Spirit, the indwelling power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead,...not just  a ‘religious idea’  [but] a reality...
Just as last week,  the theme of the Gospel (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43) is one of sowing seed. Matthew inserts a parable, found only in his Gospel, which we call the parable of the wheat and the tares/weeds. (The Greek word for weeds, by the way, is very descriptive: zizánia.) This parable likens the reign of God to someone sowing good seed in a field. The "someone", the sower, is a householder, with slaves who work his fields: obviously, a man of some status and wealth by ancient standards.  As any good farmer, he sows "good seed" in his field: something useful and beneficial, in this case, seed that will produce good fruit. That’s also a common way of describing, in the Gospel, someone who walks in the ways of God.  By extension, then, it refers to anyone who acts in a praiseworthy or noble way: in ancient terms, a person who leads a good, moral life.
An enemy comes along and sows weeds among the wheat.  The New International Version, as well as other commentators, include the pronoun "his enemy", probably more accurate here.  This isn’t a random enemy; this is personal.  Note, however, what Jesus says earlier in Matthew (5:43-45): "...I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous...". This may offer some insight into the householder's response to the situation. Again, in Chapter 10, Matthew’s Jesus reminds us: "'s foes will be members of one's own household", indicating possible conflict even within a domestic household as a result of following Jesus.  Therefore, it’s not too much of a stretch to liken it, by extension, to conflict created by brothers and sisters in Christ within the “household of the faith”.
The focus of Jesus’ message becomes clear in the exchange between the householder and his slaves.  The householder recognizes rather quickly who’s responsible for the weeds, but we hear nothing more about the enemy.  When the slaves ask whether the weeds should be pulled up, the householder instructs them to let the weeds grow alongside the wheat until the harvest.  That may seem puzzling to many.  What if the weeds, like the thistles in last Sunday’s parable, choke out the wheat? Possibly, yet the householder holds back for fear that some of the good wheat might be uprooted in the process of destroying the weeds. Which leaves the wheat, whom Jesus later refers to as “the children of the kingdom”, in a precarious position. It means they have to rub shoulders day after day with people who clearly don’t associate themselves with Jesus. Nevertheless, the passage quoted above from Matthew 5, about God sending the sun and rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous, indicates God’s unlimited generosity of spirit. Can the householder, or we, do anything less?
Jesus’ explanation of this parable is separated from the parable itself by two additional parables: those of the mustard seed and of the yeast in the flour. Like the parable of the wheat and weeds, they deal with growth.  They may be Matthew’s way of encouraging a beleaguered Christian community, beset by weed-like antagonists.  The parables also witness to the presence of God’s reign/empire, i.e., God’s presence through Jesus, in the power of God’s Spirit of Love, even though, in practice, you and I are often quite challenged to actually see it.  Possibly it’s also a comment on the wheat and the weeds: perhaps the householder’s concern, as so often in our lives, is that it’s not all that easy sometimes to figure out what is wheat and what is a weed, both in the kingdom and even within our own selves.
Matthew notes that “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing...”  quoting the words of the Hebrew prophet Asaph in Psalm 78. Twelve of the Psalms, 50 and 73-83, are attributed to Asaph, the son of Berechiah, who, along with his four sons, were assigned by King David to prophesy “to the accompaniment of lyres, harps and cymbals”. (1 Chronicles 25:1-2)  This is a transition point, as Jesus leaves the crowds behind and enters a house.  Even as, in last Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus left the security of a house in order to go out and speak a parable to the crowds, so now Matthew pictures Jesus returning to that safe haven, where He gathers only his circle of disciples to hear firsthand his unfolding of the parable. As Jesus had said to them earlier when he’d explained the sower parable: “To you has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given…” The crowds are left standing outside to think about the implications of the parable of wheat and weeds which they’d just heard, to evaluate what it meant for them personally.   Note, however, the curious question of the disciples to Jesus: “What is the explanation of the parable of the weeds in the field.” The parable itself says that the householder was most concerned with the wheat
Jesus identifies the sower of the wheat as “the Son of Man”.  In Matthew, that title refers to Jesus in his earthly ministry: for example, “...that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...” (9:6);  “...the Son of Man came eating and drinking...” (11:19); and “...the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes...” (20:18).  “Son of Man”, in Matthew, can also refer to the One who comes to judge: for example: “...when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory...judging the twelve tribes of Israel...”  (19:28); and “...When the Son of Man comes in his glory...all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another...” (25:31).   
Matthew seems to have both roles in view in this explanation of the parable. The good seed is identified with “the children of [God’s] kingdom”, while the weeds are identified as “children of the evil one”.  What Matthew identifies as evil throughout his Gospel account is, in one way or another, whatever breaks trust: the very basis for human relationships. By extension, that becomes an even more important element regarding one’s relationship with God and one’s sisters and brothers in Christ.
The harvest is a common image for judgment accompanying the end of the ages. References to the furnace of fire conjure up both images of destruction and the refiner's fire.   As the weeds are gathered at the end of the harvest, so the Son of Man will gather out of the whole world, "all causes of sin and all evildoers."  The New American Standard Version translates the latter as: "all stumbling blocks and those who commit lawlessness." (anomia - “no guidelines”)  The word for stumbling blocks, in Greek = skandala, hence, our English word "scandal."  It means those who create obstacles, who severely tempt or test others.  Jesus’ observation in Matthew 5:19 aptly describes a person who’s a stumbling block and who lives according to no guidelines, when he depicts Jesus saying: "...whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven...."  That suggests that until God renders judgment, you and I will, for the time being anyway, still run into stumbling blocks of all sorts in the kingdom.
But for those disciples, his own and those among us today, who are so preoccupied about the weeds rather than the wheat, perhaps Jesus wants to reassure them and us, too, that, in the end, all causes of stumbling will be swept away.  Utterly dependent as we are on grace, we can, with surest confidence, trust God's righteousness, which ultimately requires God’s judgment, but whose other side is always mercy upon mercy. Naturally, we just prefer that judgment when it’s others who are judged, not ourselves! The parable of the wheat and the weeds reminds us that, in the meantime, we all continue to grow together, side by side, and that it isn’t your business or mine to figure out who belongs to which category. Our task is simply to be faithful in living as a child of the reign, the kingdom of God.
Several questions suggest themselves for you and me to think about this coming week, as we continue to be challenged by events which surround and affect us: the serious situation of the political wrangling over the debt ceiling in our country, while countless of our citizens go jobless, homeless, hungry and without medical coverage; another upcoming pre-election “circus”; the endless wars which continue to sap our country’s resources and our women and men in the military; the various current concerns of this parish; and all of our own personal daily concerns.  

- As a disciple of Jesus trying to discern how you might be able to cope, what is your priority: the wheat or the
- What things or people are stumbling blocks for you and me, and for whom are you or I stumbling blocks?  
- What can you and I do to live more faithfully as committed children of God’s reign/kingdom?
...For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God...When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!‘ it is that same Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ -- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him…” (Romans 8:14-17)

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