“Weeds and Wheat” Colchester Federated Church, July 23, 2017, (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

When living in Lexington, I often went grocery shopping right after church.  As I was waiting in the checkout line one morning, the man in front of me spotted a friend in the line next to us.  They struck up a conversation and it wasn’t like I could go anywhere with my shopping cart full of groceries, so I heard them catching up and complain about how crowded the store happened to be.  The man in front of me said, “I should have known better than to come shopping on a Sunday since you have to deal with all the holy rollers who just got out of church.”  And then both of them looked right at me.  I couldn’t think of anything to say and wondered if I missed a Scarlet Cross emblazed on my chest or something, self-consciously contemplating how they even knew that I had just come from church anyway!  I cringed to think how these men would react if they knew that in fact I was a pastor who had just led a worship service!  Instead I said nothing and probably began to blush a very deep shade of red.

On the short drive back to the parsonage, all these snappy responses came to me of what I could have said.  Does that ever happen to you?  You think of the perfect thing to say to somebody after the fact?  The best response may have been the old joke, “Oh right, because in the Church we’re just a bunch of hypocrites, correct?  Well, there’s always room for one more!”  Truthfully I wanted to go a little “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” all up in there.  But with the perceptions of Christianity out in the world today, we may want to first step back and contemplate why the negative view of Christians as apparently self-righteous holy rollers in the first place.

For Millennials in particular, the view is often that Christians are anti, well, everything.  Anti-science.  Anti-social justice.  Anti-women.  Anti-gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.  Anti-environment.  Anti-progress.  You name modern movements focused on human rights or social justice—the Church is probably against them.  That’s the all too common perception among people of my generation.  There’s a lot of folks who identify as spiritual but not religious or state they have no religious affiliation whatsoever.  Though let’s face it, many denominations and groups of Christians live up to those preconceived notions of being anti-everything and incredibly judgmental.  So it’s no wonder that some people have stepped back or even stepped away from the Church if that’s the image of Christianity they are seeing and hearing from all the time.

Though hopefully just now you were sitting in your pew thinking, well that’s not us.  That’s not Colchester Federated Church.  That’s not welcoming, inclusive churches within the United Church of Christ or the American Baptist Church.  You’re right, that’s not us.  But what happens when we don’t tell people and show people that there’s a different way of being Christian?  How will people know that we exist, that we’re real, that we’re here?  Now, I could have said something to those two men at that grocery store in Massachusetts.  Truthfully, I got flustered in that moment.  It’s hard to defend our inclusive and welcoming Christian faith when people already seem to have their minds made up about us.  However, our Christian voice increasingly matters and sometimes we’ll have to speak up even in the face of hostility at the grocery store as it were.

Now for long periods in our collective Christian story, we’ve sometimes emphasized who or what we’re against and that it’s all about us.  Our good works, our pure lives, our perfect way of being, our judgments about society and other people.  But let’s remember that grace is God’s gift.  We can’t earn it through being perfect “holy rollers” or even by doing everything in our power to make this world better.  None of us should be boasting about how awesome we are because it’s not about us.  If we truly accept God’s gift of grace, then we’ll do good works because we just can’t help it!  But it’s not about us, it’s about God.  It’s the opposite of that awkward (though sometimes true) break-up line: “I’m sorry—it’s not you, it’s me.”  No, that’s not how grace works.  When it comes to grace, it’s not me, it’s you—God!  God is the Giver of Grace.  He is the Giver of New Life.  She is the God of Resurrection and Salvation and Second Chances and there’s nothing we can do to earn that.  All we have to do is open our hearts wide enough to receive God’s grace, and that will transform us.  Our lives won’t be the same.

Which brings us to this parable that Jesus tells us of the weeds and wheat.  It seems a bit difficult at the outset because it appears to be about “us” versus “them.”  It plays into this perception that Christians are all about judgment and are anti-everything these days.  We are the wheat and those terrible unbelievers are the weeds among us ruining everything.  But what if there’s a different way to see it?

When researching this parable this week, I discovered that many New Testament scholars aren’t convinced that the “interpretation” section of the parable (verses 36-43) come from Jesus himself anyway.  Or some scholars say that these words come from Jesus with heavy edits from Matthew.[1]  That section of the parable that outlines that the sower is Jesus, the field is the world, the good seed is the children of the kingdom, the weeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels?  Yeah, New Testament scholars are pretty sure that was Matthew explaining Jesus’ parable from Matthew’s own perspective.  Not Jesus explaining the parable to his disciples.  Matthew was a big fan of the idea that bad people would get thrown into the outer darkness where there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Matthew uses that phrase six times in his Gospel though it’s only found in one other place in the entire New Testament.[2]  It ends up that Jesus himself probably didn’t say that.

Remember that we have four Gospels, right?  Each Gospel contains these sayings of Jesus and stories about Jesus.  But each Gospel writer brought their own perspective to the telling of these stories.  It’s not like Jesus wrote a Gospel about himself.  That’s why it’s important to know the historical context and the perspectives of these Gospel writers, so that we can figure out what’s authentic to Jesus and what represents the way someone tells us about Jesus.

Here’s the thing, if we all look outside right now and each of us would explain in vivid detail what we see out of that window, our explanations would not all be the same.  We are all looking at the same scene out the same window.  Though we’re different people who see the world differently and that will come out in how we describe what we see.  It’s the same with the Gospel writers.  They could all look at the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and would emphasize different things.  They would explain Jesus’ story in various ways—their literary styles, their theology would come through how they shared Jesus’ story with us.

Now, why this tangent?  Because it ends up that the hyper judgmental section of this parable has Matthew and his theology and writing style all over it.  As opposed to Jesus himself saying that people will be thrown into the furnace of fire “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[3]  Instead, the words we can more confidently trace to Jesus emphasize patience.  Here’s what would happen in real life, these weeds were actually a troublesome plant whose Latin name (which I’m probably mispronouncing) is lolium temulentum.  So much for four years of Latin in high school!  Anyway, these weeds that grew among the wheat were difficult for the farmer to deal with because they are similar in appearance to the wheat and can only be identified when they are ripe.  If this weed is harvested with the wheat though and the two plants are milled together to make flour, the flour ends up spoiled.[4]

In this parable, Jesus teaches that the weeds and the wheat are supposed to grow together.  Just let them be for now.  At harvest time reapers come along to gather the weeds and wheat separately.  So yes, there’s an “us” versus “them” moment in the parable, there’s no use in saying it’s not there at all.  However, judgment isn’t for us.  If there’s a judgment that happens, it happens on God’s time and on God’s terms, not on ours.  New Testament scholar Arland Hultgren says it best, “If indeed the kingdom is coming into being, or is imminent, it seems that the ingathering of persons into ‘a holy people’ should be taking place, and sinners should be driven out.  The teaching of this parable is that, no, the followers of Jesus are a mixed group, and they will be that way up to the end.”[5]

This is the very message that if I could turn back time, I would somehow convey to those two men in line with me at the grocery store.  The truth is we Christians are a mixture of weeds and wheat, saints and sinners if you will.  Let’s face it, even good people have moments where we do bad things, things we may regret, things we may apologize for later.  So it’s not so simple to label people as weeds and wheat, and the weeds are getting thrown into the fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The weeds and wheat grow together in the same field.  Maybe the point is that “good” and “bad” look a whole lot alike.  Moreover, people are neither totally good wheat or totally bad weeds.  We’re all a mixture, and every Christian community is a mixture.

And God cares for all of us in the meantime, calling us to be our best selves and to love God and love our neighbors the best we can.  In the Church we are perfectly imperfect, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.  Because we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus—a man who hung out with sinners and tax collectors and women of ill repute and all sorts of shady characters that other people wouldn’t give the time of day.  We are weeds and wheat, perfectly imperfect.  Thanks be to God for loving us anyway.  Amen.

[1] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 292-303.
[2] Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 298.
[3] Matthew 13:42, NRSV.
[4] Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 296.
[5] Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, 300.