My wife, it seems, has a bit of a reputation… In the days following the clearing of the trees and shrubs in the vicarage garden, to reveal that there was indeed a vicarage, hiding behind it, June was asked on more than occasion whether she personally had done the cutting and the felling.
Now, truth be told, any tree of a certain height or width probably feels some degree of apprehension as June drives up and down Walmersley Road. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Forestry Commission has a ‘most wanted’ poster with her picture on it. But the vicarage garden was probably a little beyond even this one woman and her axe – though it is a little less of a challenge now for any aspiring priest to hack their way through to the front door and bring our sleeping benefice back to life with true loves kiss.
However, if you’re Lady’s Mantle, or English Ivy or Crocosmia (better known, ironically, as Lucifer), then beware. June doesn’t like plants which don’t know their place, and which have a tendency to wander.
Wheat and the tares
So, I do wonder what would have happened if June had come across the field in our parable today with the wheat and the weeds – or, in old money, the wheat and the tares. I rather suspect she would have pulled the lot up, got rid of the evidence, and either then told the landowner what she had already done – or not told him, so that she could wait and see how long it took for him to notice…
Anyway, today gives us the second parable in two weeks about sowers and seed. Last week the seed had a hard time because of the different types of soil. This time, the soil is healthy enough. The trouble is that it’s not the only seed to be sown. Presumably some rival landowner, a competitor, was up to mischief.
Now, one person’s weed is another’s wildflower, but in this case the Greek word used for weed was thought to refer to a poisonous grass called darnel. This grows in the same areas as wheat and is very difficult to distinguish all the while it’s growing until finally the ears appear, which are black rather than light brown.
The servants are keen to resolve the problem there and then. But the Master, presumably for fear of destroying the crop of wheat, tells them to hold off. The reapers, grim or not, will sort it out later.
And for the second week running, Matthew has Jesus helpfully explaining to the disciples what it all means – and here, at the end of the age, the angels will: “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil doers.” 13:41.
I think we should be troubled by the implication that there are just two sorts of people in the world: children of the kingdom and children of the evil one. And that, on the face of it, some seem destined for a furnace of fire, come what may. Though note that it is not us, nor any human being, who are authorised to separate those weeds from the wheat. That’s a job for the angels.
But the parables are rarely what they seem – and I think we need to look at the rest of Matthew’s Gospel – and how Matthew uses words and the variations on one word in particular.
In Greek, the word used here for sin is skandala. It’s worth thinking about that word, skandala, from which we get the English word, ‘scandal’. Later in Matthew, Jesus warns that if your hand or foot or eye causes you to sin (skandalizo) then better to cut it off or pluck it out. 18:8-9
It’s meant to shock us into realizing the seriousness of anything that leads us or others into sin. To realize that what we do actually matters. To take some responsibility for our actions, rather than blaming something or someone other than ourselves. But we know it’s not really our hands or feet or eye that cause us to sin. Sin comes from the inner self, the mind and the will. It’s something inside us rather than our exterior body.
A little earlier, Jesus uses the word skandalon. This time he’s talking to Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me…” Now we know that Jesus didn’t cast Peter aside – he kept faith with him despite his repeated failings. He didn’t give up on Peter. Peter didn’t end up in a fiery furnace. Indeed, instead, Jesus entrusted the future mission of his church to him.
And as Matthew also points out (5:44) we are told to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This should give us a great deal of pause for thought: If these enemies are apparently destined for a “furnace of fire” (13:42), then why should we love and pray for them in the here and now? And would we be asked to go into the world and make disciples and baptise and teach (28:19-20) if there was a pre-determined conclusion?
Free from sorrow
No. In the light of these other readings in Matthew, rather than saying who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ I think instead that Jesus means here that the angels will collect and burn everything within us, everything inside us, that causes sin. As our later hymn puts it: “all will be safely gathered-in, free from sorrow, free from sin’.
And that should give every single one of us incredible hope. It means a second chance for any who stumble – and even for those, like Peter, who are a stumbling block to others. The bad which is inside will go, to leave the good.
Although we’ve had it 2 parables on the run, it’s fairly unusual to get an explanation from Jesus to go alongside a parable. And I wonder if Matthew had some specific overzealous weeders in mind from the early church who were determined to root out what they perceived as being a bad crop – and he wanted to make the message very obvious that it wasn’t down to them to decide.
Down the millennia, we’ve seen that happen time and again within the church. We even saw it recently in General Synod. People with power determined to rid themselves of those who have a different interpretation of scripture and who disagree on liturgy or on a particular issue. Or they have a view on people who don’t come to church or on people of other faiths.
A bit of a mix
But before we get all self-righteous, aren’t we all a bit of a mix of wheat and weeds? All a bit good and a bit bad?
Perhaps we have things in our lives that we think of as weeds, as distractions, as being wasteful. Maybe, for now, they need to be kept in with the rest of what we do. That eventually they’ll serve to clarify, to put into contrast, what we’re really about. And then, in God’s good time, they’ll fall away, burnt in the fire that comes when we focus on what’s important.
Let’s leave the weeding up to the angels. The ambiguity and complexity are their problem, not ours. That does not mean that we sit idly by when we see oppression and injustice – sometimes we are the agents used by God to make things right.
Hidden and mysterious
Our Lectionary misses out two short parables in the middle of our reading. That of the mustard seed and that of the leaven. Along with our parable about the weeds they all speak of a triumph in the future – but for now there will be something hidden and mysterious. That what matters is not the beginning but the end. And that’s as true for us as it is for anything and anyone else.
It’s tough for us to recognize all people as bearers of the image of God if we’ve already pre-labelled them as children of the devil. So, let’s leave that judgement to God. Let’s entrust the present and the future to God and the angels. And let’s get on with the job that Jesus left us to do, to be fruitful – to proclaim God’s kingdom to everyone and to make disciples, in whichever way we feel led to do that.
And in the meantime, if you want any serious pruning done, then I know just the person to help you with that. Amen
- Davies, W.D. and Allison, D.C. (1991). Matthew. T&T Clark.