|A wheat field overlooking the English Channel near Omaha Beach, Normandy|
Today's Gospel Reading from Matthew
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is one of my favorites. Honestly, I think this is mostly because I grew up, uncomfortably, in a family that over the generations professed to believe that if someone doesn’t behave the right way, it is incumbent on "someone" to kick this person out of the family. It might be a temporary thing - sort of like shunning or ostracizing - just until the person gave in and started acting right again or it might be more permanent - being disowned. Mostly it was used as a threat, I think, but it was just one of the things that my forebears thought meet and right so to do.
It was not until I was an independent adult that someone said to me, incredulously, when I casually mentioned this family tendency, “People can’t just kick someone out of their family!”
“They can’t?” I replied, just as incredulously. “No!” was the answer. “You’re born into a family and that can’t be undone, just like you can’t become unbaptized.”
Well, this created some cognitive dissonance, I’ll tell you. My understanding and experience was that “kicking someone out of the family” was a thing. I’d seen it and I’d never questioned it. But it felt so wonderful to hear someone say, “Hey, that’s not right. No one can kick you out of your family!”
And so I love this parable. I love that Jesus (Jesus! not just somebody on the internet) says, “when you try to pull up the weeds, you risk damaging the wheat. Your zeal to dig out the bad can hurt the very roots of the good. So leave it alone and let God sort it out.”
When I began to study the Gospel of Matthew, I began to understand why this parable is only told in that Gospel. Matthew’s community - the Jews who were followers of Jesus - seems to have been kicked out of the synagogue after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. This was a fragile community that had suffered the pain of separation from its family and by turns seemed plaintive - and also vindictive. We are a small minority here, and so yes, let God sort it out - and take heart that those who hurt us are going to be the ones in the fire gnashing their teeth!
Well, I can relate.
And then there are the purity issues. From ancient times, there have been purity movements to rid communities of those with different beliefs or customs or religions or whatever. Spain expelled first the Jews and then the Muslims and then the Jews or Muslims who had converted to Christianity under duress; Crusades were launched against Infidels in the Holy Land and the Inquisition was popping up all over Europe; and in the 20th century, horrific ethnic cleansing was unleashed in Bosnia, Sudan, Germany. Efforts to “cleanse” a community tore it to pieces, and for what?
Is this what God wants?
Nonetheless, I recognize that some thorny issues arise when I try to move the application of this parable from family and community to a larger scale. The other day I saw the side by side satellite photos of Mosul taken before and after the 9-month siege to oust ISIS from the city. Buildings reduced to rubble everywhere. And I saw the photos of the children and elderly men and women who were trapped between the two sides and suffered injury, terror, and death.
I remember the phrase from the Vietnam era. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
When we were in France in June, standing next to a wheat field overlooking the English Channel near Omaha Beach, listening to our guide relate the events before and during the D-Day invasion, I was struck by the enormity of the number of civilian casualties caused by Allied bombing in Normandy. And yet, we spoke with French citizens who still welcome Americans and British visitors so warmly, saying, yes, many innocents died along with the many soldiers, but it couldn’t be helped. Thank you for coming to our aid, thank you for liberating us from captivity.
And hear the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who turned around from his safe haven in the United States to return to Germany to work against Hitler in 1939 because, he said, “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
So this is complicated and messy. Are we really not called to root out evil? I am uneasy with the implications either way.
I honestly don’t know. I know we are called to resist evil - our baptismal vows require it. I know that we are called to build up the kingdom - Jesus says this every day. I know that Jesus said he had other sheep he must call into the fold with us. I know that God does not desire the death of anyone, including the wicked - that crazy prophet Ezekiel, who is not known for his warmth and fuzziness, says so. I know that some people cannot tell a potato vine from poison ivy.
And I know that killing makes us killers, that the trauma of violence tears people and communities and society apart. The ripples created by trauma spread out far and wide to lap on very distant shores.
Getting involved with evil can damage us so that in the end we might not be able to tell if we ourselves are wheat or weeds. Think of our soldiers who have been traumatized, who are unable to cope with life at home after what they have been through. Think of the bitterness that takes root in the lives of people who have kicked someone out of their family in order to distance themselves from what they believe to be immorality. Think of the hate that people spew towards one another as they proclaim the other to be a weed. It becomes hard to tell the wheat from the weeds, and everything seems so messy and tangled up.
This is not to be taken lightly.
I don't think Jesus is suggesting we just sit there and do nothing, though in the face of evil - certainly we are called to do justice and love mercy. And people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa and Mohandas Ghandi have shown us that non-violent resistance or working for positive change is not rolling over and doing nothing.
What Jesus does say is that, yes, there are always weeds but we've got other things with which to concern ourselves. Tending to the weeds is not our job.
Our job is tending to the business of bearing good fruit ourselves. Elsewhere in this Gospel, Jesus emphasizes the necessity of bearing good fruit. By their fruits you will know them, he says.
It's a matter of focus, perhaps, but this is an important distinction. We can spend our time focusing on bad people and bad things, of the distraction of “what if’s” and “yeah buts,” or we can spend our time focusing on bringing forth good fruit ourselves.
So how do we do that?
Well, as I said, it begins with focus and moves forward with action. Looking for what God is doing in the world, where God is bringing good out of disaster, and then doing what we can to work with God in that endeavor. We have to develop the eyes to see God at work instead of allowing our gaze to fixate on the stuff or people we wish would go away and thus infecting ourselves with bitterness and hate. We have to learn to listen for God, to see God at work and then join God in that work.
Perhaps we regularly give blood in times of war (which is always). Perhaps we work in preventative care for our environment, for public health, or education. Perhaps we focus on feeding the hungry and befriending the stranger and visiting the sick and providing sanctuary. Perhaps we work on developing the courage to stand up for the least of these in the public square against those who would mercilessly shove them aside.
Perhaps we let go of our need to protect God from the ungodly. (God doesn't need our protection.)
Perhaps we let go of our need to be saviors. (We already have one.)
None of that is sitting idly by.
Our job is to work at building up the kingdom as well as we can, to bear good fruit ourselves, knowing that we are broken people living in a broken world and that we may not be able to live up to our ideals, but nevertheless trusting that in the end, truly, God will make things right.