November 16, 2014
“Who’s in? Who’s Out?”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And 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?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.
I just returned from a week of continuing education. One of the sessions was on the power of stories and storytelling, how stories hit us not in our heads but in our hearts, and when they hit us there, they have the power to transform us.
So let me tell you a story. It involves my grandfather who was a great storyteller but also in his heart of hearts, a Norwegian farm boy. My sister and I were visiting him for a week when we were young, I was probably ten or eleven.
And my grandfather lived in suburban Charleston, WV but had found a farmer to give him manure for his gardens. So my sister and I piled into his tiny Toyota pickup truck and drove with him out to the farm. And my grandfather and I got out and started shoveling the manure off the ground and into the back of the truck.
I’ve tried hard to think where my sister was during all this – but clearly she was nowhere near the poop. I had a shovel and my grandfather had pitchfork and as we were both swinging up to put the manure in the truck his pitchfork went straight through my hand.
But that is not the best part of the story. My grandfather pulled out the pitchfork and said, “Well, would you like to go to the hospital now or should I finish shoveling the manure?” And I said , “Finish shoveling the manure.” And went and climbed into the cab of the truck and passed out.
My grandfather wrote a letter later about what happened, and he wrote that he was proud of me for not crying. And honestly that was the thing I was most proud of too. It proved I was tough, a true tomboy, not one of these weepy types.
Stories paint a picture for us, about what was true or important for us, back then or right now. By now hopefully you know that Jesus was a storyteller – his stories paint a picture, they spark our imaginations – parables are Jesus’ way of giving us heart-knowledge, not just head-knowledge.
So Matthew, who brings us these stories that Jesus tells, calls the stories “parables,” from a Greek word meaning “something cast beside,” meaning that the story is not just a simple story, there is a deeper meaning that we need to search for; there is a truth beneath the surface. The meaning is “sub-versive.”
For a long time, in the early church, these stories were read as riddles to be decoded – all you needed to do to understand the meaning was to figure out what everything in the story stood for, and then, just like that, the truth would be revealed – you just needed the right code.
But then there was a shift, scholars started to understand that these stories aren’t meant to be moral or religious instruction – if they were, Jesus could have just taught them the way we see him teaching in the synagogues. Instead he told these parables to show us what the kingdom of God is like.
A parable tells us about things that can’t be described with simple language. A parable is like a musical composition or like a painting or like a poem. One scholar gives this explanation of parables: “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor . . .drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
The first people who heard this parable would have thought it was a very strange story. The setting is a large farm or plantation owned by a master and run by slaves. The first strange thing is that the master sows the seed (unlikely), the reapers do the harvesting, and the slaves only ask the questions.
The weeds in the story were likely darnel, which looked similar to wheat. My favorite description of it is “cheatgrass.” It was nasty stuff because it harbored a toxic fungus that could cause illness or death. There were Roman laws against sowing darnel in a neighbor’s field. Even so, there are easier ways to destroy a crop, and the cheatgrass is expected just as weeds usually are.
But the slaves are still surprised to find weeds. The slaves ask then the silly question – do you want us to get rid of the weeds?
Of course the answer would be yes – leaving the weeds is bad agricultural practice – they suck up the nutrients intended for the cash crop – they crowd out plants that need space to grow – and this particular weed is really bad news. But the farmer’s answer is surprising, and sub-versive: leave the field alone until harvest time.
The good and the bad remain until the end. And what does it all mean?
A parable generates new meaning in new situations. That’s how God’s Word works – it is a living, breathing thing in every time and every place. It doesn’t mean that a parable can mean “anything.” When the parable begins, it sounds familiar: a farm, the wheat, the workers, the tilled soil. And then it opens up a whole new vision for the world.
In Jesus’ day this parable was likely heard in the context of a people who looked around their world and saw people in spiritual black and white, as good or bad, belonging to God or not – so hopefully they would have heard this as a declaration against trying to create a perfect community, a pure religious expression – which is God’s business, to be settled by God at the end of things.
Matthew takes this story that Jesus’ spoke and places it in a biography about Jesus, which was written for a particular group of Jesus followers, a particular church, who were struggling with who was in and who was out, who was a true follower of Jesus and who was false.
Matthew’s church was involved in an intense relationship with the dominant Jewish community. So the questions on their minds were: “Who is us? And who is not us?” So we can imagine them hearing this parable as reminding them to just be God’s people and leave the rest up to God.
So how does the Holy Spirit bring this parable to life for us in our time? I think there are two big take-aways, so two things to remember and chew on.
First one is that there is grace in doing nothing. I borrowed that phrase from theologian H. Richard Niebuhr when he was writing about this parable and trying to make a case for not engaging in the Sino-Japanese conflict in the early 1930s. He wrote: “The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good: it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. It is not the inactivity of a resigned patience, but of a patience that is full of hope and is based on faith . . . But if there is no God, or if God is up in heaven and not in time itself, it is a very foolish inactivity.”
The inclination of our hearts is something quite different: to judge, to divide, to keep out, and to think we are being good Christians when we do. We know that the world is not simple and not simply divided, and that even within ourselves there is good that needs to grow and there is evil that needs to shrink away.
One blogger writes, “When we start going down the road of making our lot in life electing what is good and evil we may very well discover that others will make similar conclusions about us . . . Frankly, I don’t want that job. I don’t trust myself. But I do trust God. Our presence in the world as Christians is to be the good. To live the Gospel. To be the light. To be the salt. Because we are, says Jesus to his disciples. This should be good news. This parable calls us simply to be. To be the good in the world with the full awareness of what the resistances will be.”
The grace is in doing nothing. For Niebuhr, ‘doing nothing’ is not the same thing as ‘not doing anything.’ There is a need in our lives for patient faith, a faith that knows when to wait, what to worry about and what to let go of.
This parable reminds us that we might be turning our attentions in the wrong direction. As for my grandfather, perhaps his focus was in the wrong place – his focus was on the work to be done, when perhaps there were things more important at stake.
The second take-away is that while there is grace is doing nothing, there is in fact something for us to do, and that is to grow. And I was thinking about this as I was walking underneath these beautiful old trees, tall and strong and unshakable.
Growth for a tree means deep roots, beneath the surface, roots of prayer and discipline and knowledge and understanding our history and our Bible. And growth means branches stretched up high to heaven, and wide to embrace the wide world.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes “that growth interests [God] more than perfection and that [God] is willing to risk fat weeds for fat wheat. When we try to help him out a little, to improve on his plan, he lets us know that our timing is off, not to mention our judgment, and that he does, after all, own the field.”
We are to grow in God’s field and the question is, are we in fact growing? Amen.