Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
It’s fair to say I’m not much of a gardener - not someone you’d describe as “green fingered” - but, like many people during lockdown, I’ve come to look a bit more carefully at my garden and have begun to take greater pride in it. I’ve been a bit more enthusiastic about keeping it tidy since having it re-designed by a family friend last year something, which given the amount of time I’ve spent in it in recently, has proven to be a good investment.
In recent months, particularly after periods of rainfall, I’ve noticed just how quickly weeds can grow and spread and how back-breaking the job of removing them can be. I’ve also noticed how some weeds are far easier to remove than others. At times it’s been quite difficult to extract some of them as they’ve become entangled with rose bushes and other shrubs or with young emerging plants that I’ve been anxious not to ruin. There have also been times when I haven’t actually been certain that what I’ve been pulling up are weeds (conscious that I left a fair amount to the garden designer’s discretion when it came to putting in new plants and that I didn’t take a careful enough note of what went into the ground!).
So when I came to our Gospel reading today and the parable of weeds among the wheat, I could readily identify both with the desire of the slaves to rid the crop of weeds as well as the desire of the householder not to uproot them for fear of damaging the wheat itself.
The parable is one of a number we find in this chapter which point to the kingdom of God and some of Jesus’ listeners will have recognised that Jesus was applying the familiar image of harvest to the end of the age as adopted by some ancient Jewish scholars.
Sandwiched between the parable of the sower, which Richard spoke of in last week’s sermon, and the well known parable of the mustard seed, both of which remind us that the coming of God’s kingdom begins not with some grand spectacle but rather through an organic process, it also reinforces the message that appearances can be deceptive, that it’s not the servants’ job to determine what is the real wheat but rather the Master’s, and that the difference between true disciples and others can be difficult to discern. The ultimate test comes not in present appearances but in final judgement. Good and bad grow up and live together in the world .
Whilst those of us spending more time in our gardens might now have a greater understanding of the difficulties some weeds can present, Jesus’ audience, living as they did in a predominantly agrarian culture, would have been keenly aware that weeds could, in fact, present a considerable danger. In those times it was not uncommon for rival farmers secretly to sow poisonous plants in one another’s fields in order to sabotage their crops.
The weed thought to have been referred to by Jesus in the parable as growing amongst the wheat is bearded darnel, sometimes known as wheat’s “evil twin”, which, in a big enough dose, could kill a person. When people eat its seeds they become dizzy, off-balance and nauseous. Indeed its official name comes from a Latin word meaning ‘drunk’. Early on in its growth, it closely resembles wheat and by the time its difference is evident it can have become so entangled with the wheat itself that to attempt to separate it out would cause significant damage to the young crop. It was thus sensible for farmers to wait until the crop was fully grown before separating out the darnel, (which then would be burned as cheap fuel) and gathering and transporting the wheat for threshing.
Jesus explains to his disciples that, like the weeds, all causes of sin and evildoers will, at the end of the age, be gathered up and thrown into the furnace of fire.
I don’t know about you but I find that scenario quite terrifying and an image which doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably with my understanding of a compassionate, loving and merciful God, nor with a life experience which has taught me that human beings are rarely properly categorised in such binary terms. It’s with that in mind, I think, that I found myself asking “what is it that actually makes something a weed?
I looked at some definitions in a few dictionaries:
A wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with a cultivated plant.
Any wild plant that grows in an unwanted place where it prevents cultivated plants growing freely.
A weed is a plant considered undesirable in a particular situation, "a plant in the wrong place".
The last definition is the one which particularly caught my attention.
Undesirable in a particular situation. A plant in the wrong place”. The wild plant itself is not inherently evil or bad but only becomes so when growing in the wrong or unwanted place, when it is poisoning, stifling or affecting the growth of other plants one wants to cultivate. It becomes a weed in relation to the plants it grows amongst.
Darnel isn’t, in fact, useless. It isn’t valueless, to be used only as cheap fuel. Indeed, in times gone by, it was used in Europe as a medicinal plant, as an anaesthetic and to slow menstrual bleeding. It was also baked into certain breads or brewed into beer to give them an extra kick!
Walking through the woods close to my home I stop to admire the white trumpet flowers of the bindweed, the purple ornamental spires of the rosebay willow herb and the bright golden yellow of the dandelions that I wouldn’t tolerate in my garden. They have their place and bring much needed colour in certain areas. In the right place they can be left to thrive without impacting adversely on the environment around them. They’re only in the wrong place when they stifle the growth and potential of other cultivated plants.
Whilst the parable of the weeds, like that of the mustard seed, reminds us that appearances can be deceptive, that the building of God’s kingdom requires time and patience and that it’s not always so easy to identify true disciples, I wonder what it might also be telling us about our tendency to compartmentalise, and about our relationships with each other and those around us?