What impression did today’s Gospel story leave you with? What feelings did it evoke in you? If the answer is “anxiety” then I think you wouldn’t be alone. All that stuff at the end about weeping and gnashing of teeth, fiery furnaces and so on, is very vivid. There are the righteous shining like the sun too, of course, but bad news tends to stick in our minds more stubbornly than good, and deep down I suspect all of us know that we can be a bit more weedy than wheaty at times.
Back in the Middle Ages, when churches were often brightly painted with scenes from the Bible, there was often a painting over the chancel arch called a Doom painting. Doom paintings depicted the end of the world, as their name suggests, with the blessed going up to heaven on the right hand side of the picture, and the damned being dragged down into Hell, often in graphic detail, on the left. The message to those who sat in church face to face with it was clear. You’d better behave, or else!
It was a message which was often used to control and coerce people into doing what the authorities of the time wanted. Be good. Do what you are told, or this could be you. Make sure you are wheat not weeds…!
But when we read the story in context in Matthew’s Gospel we find that’s not really what it’s saying at all.
When he told this story Jesus had been on the receiving end of harsh criticism from the religious establishment, those who saw themselves as experts. He’d been healing people who others thought didn’t deserve healing, forgiving them in God’s name. He’d been eating with tax-collectors and prostitutes. He’d been telling all and sundry – and some of them were very sundry – that God loved them. He’d been inviting those who “laboured and were heavy laden” to come to him, not just those exhausted by the normal trials of life, but also those who were being crushed by trying to keep impossible religious rules. With two thousand years of hindsight, we might applaud Jesus for his message, but many in authority at the time thought he was a scandalous troublemaker, who was being disrespectful to their time-honoured values, dragging God’s name into the mud by suggesting that these sinners and outcasts were part of his kingdom, accepted and welcomed.
So Jesus tells a series of stories about the kingdom of God, God at work in the world. And in these stories, like the parable of the sower which we thought about last week, we hear of God’s kingdom being freely given, open to all who want to be part of it. The sower we heard about last week threw his seed about with reckless abandon, on the off chance that some of it might find good soil amidst the stones and thorns. Jesus talked about the kingdom being like yeast hidden in the dough – you couldn’t see it, but it was there, working away in secret- or like treasure buried in a field, underground, not obvious, something you have to go looking for, maybe getting pretty mucky in the process. God is at work, said Jesus, in places, in ways, in situations, in people that his tidy minded critics never imagined.
Today’s parable continues that theme. It’s another story of seed sowing, but this time, something’s gone badly wrong. The field has been sown with a mixture of wheat and weed seeds, but no one realises this until the grain starts to ripen. Why does it take so long to spot the problem? It’s because the weed in question is darnel, It’s a type of grass, and, like most grasses, like wheat itself, it’s green, narrow-leaved – grassy, basically. It’s only when the seeds start to appear that you can tell the difference, because darnel seeds are black. The problem with it isn’t just that it competes with the wheat for space, water and food, it can also be dangerous, because it’s often infected with the ergot fungus, which can cause severe illness and even death.
So it’s no surprise that when they saw it, the slaves who tended the crop panicked and came straight to their master. “Master, did you not sow good seed…?” they say. Actually I’d be pretty sure that the master didn’t sow the seed at all – you don’t keep slaves and sow the seed yourself. They are probably terrified that he’ll accuse them of sabotaging the crop, by accident or design. They’re frightened, and they want to deflect the blame away from themselves. But they needn’t have worried. Their master seems completely unbothered. “An enemy did it…” he says, in an off-hand manner. There’s no blame for them - and no suggestion of revenge on this enemy either. It is what it is. It happens. There are bad things in the world, Jesus seems to be saying, and in each of us too – it’s an inescapable fact of life. But what should we do in response?
“Shall we rip up the weeds….?” say the slaves, seizing the opportunity to look good in their masters eyes, since he seems to be in such a good mood. “No” he says, “just leave them– you can’t pull up the weeds without destroying the wheat as well” Darnel has a sneaky habit of tangling its roots around the roots of the plants it grows among.” We’ll sort it out at harvest-time…” he says. I wonder how those slaves felt about that answer? It was one less job for them, but what about his reputation? What would other people think of him when they saw this contaminated crop in his field? What kind of farmer was he?
The answer is that he was a farmer who didn’t want to risk losing one precious grain of wheat by wading in too early, a farmer who was passionately concerned to preserve every little bit of good that he possibly could. That was far more important to him than what anyone else might think of him, far more important to him than apportioning blame or seeking revenge, just as it was far more important to Jesus to rescue and love the battered and burdened people, than to look good in the eyes of respectable religious leaders, those who had set themselves up as arbiters of what was right and wrong.
Of course there are times when we need to make judgements about people, for our own safety and the safety of those around us, but this story tells us that we’re never called to declare anyone beyond redemption. For a start, in doing so, we condemn ourselves, because there is not one of us who is all wheat and no weed. It isn’t our job to sort the world into good and bad, friend and enemy, and decide that some people aren’t worth bothering with. It is God alone who searches us and knows us truly, as today’s Psalm reminded us, God alone who knows how his broken creation can be made whole again. And if those other stories Jesus tells are anything to go by, in his limitless, indestructible love he will be far more generous than we can ask or imagine, despite our fears about fiery furnaces and gnashing teeth – and I think they are our fears, not God’s intent. Our job is to nurture what’s good. Our job is to bless our enemies, and not to curse them, because they’re God’s children too. Our job is to look for God’s presence, in others and ourselves, and discover - maybe to our surprise, certainly to our delight - that God is at work where we least expected to find him.