“Jesus Didn’t Know Beans About Gardening”
Matthew 13: 28-30, 36-43 & Psalm 85: 8-13 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Seudfeld ~ July 19, 2020
Jesus didn’t know beans about gardening! Imagine suggesting that we wait until the harvest to get rid of the weeds in our gardens. By that time, all the good stuff would be choked out. But then, what can you expect of a city boy? Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, his father was a carpenter, not a farmer. Mary probably got her vegetables from a stall in the market square, not out on the back forty. So maybe this story is a little bit off. Or is it? We need to take a closer look at what this parable has to tell us, about the Kingdom of Heaven, and about our own lives. A farmer sowed some good seed, and, exhausted after his long day in the field, retired for some well-deserved rest. A sneaky enemy came in and sowed weeds. When both sprouted, the man’s servants were alarmed. They offered to pull up the weeds, but the farmer told them to wait until harvest time, when the weeds could be separated and used as fuel, and the good grain would be stored. This is a simple story, and one which would be well understood in that region. In the Middle East, there is an annual rye grass called darnel, which looks exactly like wheat until the heads form. Its roots grow around the young wheat plants, and if it is pulled up, it will take the wheat with it. The only solution is to let them both grow for awhile, and when the wheat roots are strong, carefully separate them, or wait until threshing time, when the seeds can be easily separated by hand, since darnel has a characteristic grey colour. Maybe Jesus did know something about gardening, after all. So, back to the field. At first, it may seem as though the enemy is a central character: We may even be tempted, as Matthew is, to make this being into the devil, or something evil. But the “enemy” simply sows the weeds, and then leaves the scene, never to return. It’s a walk-on part for a first-time actor. No lines, no song and dance routine. Just wave your arms around, scatter the seed, and exit, stage left, in the dark. Hardly worth top billing. I did a really fun Bible study once, on the parables. One of the participants offered a humorous and creative story in connection with this passage.
In the United States, football takes on the same importance as hockey in Canada. College football is an occasion for competition, cheerleaders, and expressions of loyalty. At one point, the University of Texas reseeded its football field – this was in the years before covered domes and astro-turf. As the grass grew in, those on campus were dismayed to observe that in the centre of the field, a second kind of grass had been sown, displaying the letters A & M. (Texas Agricultural and Mechanical) Students from a competing university had crept in, and seeded their own initials in the turf! Think of UBC, proudly displaying a field in which the letters SFU were prominent. Not an evil intention, just a humorous, creative jest. Still, the shadowy figure in the parable intrigues us. Who is it, and why is it in the story? If the enemy is an evil figure, it is depending on the confusion of the faithful servants to get its way. They’re nice guys, concerned for their master’s crop. They offer to help, maybe even work overtime, to correct the mess. And by doing so, they will be doing evil, uprooting the tender seedlings, destroying the good along with the bad. The enemy doesn’t have to do a thing but sit back and laugh. The good guys are going to do all the bad work. Robert Capon says: “Goodness itself, if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind.” (Parables of the Kingdom, p. 102)
A friend once called this “the helping hand strikes again!” The enemy sows the seeds in darkness and waits for the confusion of the children of Light to finish the task. Maybe it is evil, after all. And isn’t this true? How many times, in the course of human history has the zeal for destroying evil turned us into evil beings? We may think of any number of historical figures who began as heroes and turned into oppressors. The Christian church throughout the ages has not been immune to this contamination either. We can hardly be proud of the inquisition, who killed many in order to save their souls, or the destruction of indigenous cultures by well-meaning missionaries. Before we sit back and compliment ourselves because we don’t do those things anymore, let’s remember that we are members of a society which struggles with a variety of moral issues, and doesn’t always separate the good from the bad in its actions. We still have a long way to go in our prison reform, welfare legislation, immigration policies, first nations issues, treatment of those with addictions, and a host of other concerns. Most of us remember the terrible events of 9/11, and the destructive actions in the Middle East that followed as a consequence. Pull it all up, smash it all down, kill the axis of evil, and then everything will be fine. Well, it wasn’t. War doesn’t eliminate evil, it just causes more misery, fear, distrust and hatred, much of it involving innocent civilians. Evil doesn’t have to do much, to get a hold on us.
Now, this service is being recorded in mid-June. We are getting used to unusual circumstances because of Covid-19, so what is happening in this time may not be as pertinent in mid-July, but the parable leads us into some important issues about how our society and our individual lives have been impacted, how we have reacted, and how we have all been changed. Several things may come to mind when we consider what messages we are hearing from the Gospel of Matthew today. One is the idea of patience. Jesus counsels his followers to remember that good and evil are often intertwined, and that waiting for just the right moment to act may be the best way to handle some situations. And that is true of some of the things that have gone on during this pandemic, at least in B.C. It’s been hard to wait for this to go away. It’s been difficult to be isolated, to stay apart from the people we love, and the people who need our care more than ever. It’s caused economic hardship, anxiety, and worst of all, bored children! But Dr. Bonnie Henry is right. Staying apart, observing health measures, has worked. We are on the mend. Patience is hard, but it has paid off. Her approach has been beneficial and led to healing. Sometimes, we have to let things take their course. We have to wait for things to grow – both plants and people – and we can’t force results. Babies finally sleep through the night, children learn table manners, adolescent skin problems and door slamming ends, and adults acquire wisdom. The Kingdom will come in God’s good time. But sometimes, in what seems to be contrary to the parable message, patience comes to an end for all the right reasons, and we have to act. Coming alongside the good news of improving health conditions has been violence and death arising from racial discrimination, inequality, and the lack of action by people who have failed to listen and respond to the injustice all around them, who have counselled patience for centuries, who have continued to wait for someone else to do something, who have turned away from the misery because they can afford to do so, who have pretended that it doesn’t exist so that they can continue in their comfortable lifestyle. They have not done anything wrong. They have not done anything at all. Mark Davis in his blog Left Behind and Loving It (July 14, 2014) calls this “The Politics of Doing Nothing”, of standing back and not taking control. The death of one man at the hands of the police in Minneapolis set forth demonstrations in cities all over the world. Not only because of that single death, but because of years of accumulated injustice. And suddenly, we have been shaken out of our complacency and forced to consider this parable from a different point of view. Because parables are an art form, always challenging us to find new ways to bring in the Kingdom. While we think Jesus is saying wait maybe we are also being told as in the last words of Matthew’s interpretation, that we must also listen. Listen to the stories of the people who have been held back, stifled in their actions, had all their dreams denied, been broken in spirit over years of oppression. Look around, and see the instances of racism. Don’t close your eyes to the truth. This parable calls us to action. Maybe not to be part of demonstrations, but to be part of the change that must take place within us and within our society.
The issues in the United States are not always the same as those in Canada. I grew up with the civil rights movement always before me. Some of the things going on now are, for me, a replay of the late 1950’s and all of the 60’s. I remember as a teenager, watching 9 black teens being escorted by police into a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, There on the path leading to the school were hundreds of people lined up shaking their fists, shouting obscenities. Out of fear, out of misunderstanding, out of a deep seated hatred that was centuries in the making. It was part of the infrastructure of a country that was committed to democratic principles. Later, I went on marches, too, and joined organizations that supported black people. Then came the California grape boycott, at the request of immigrant farm workers who were toiling under terrible conditions. We listened to their stories, we wrote to political leaders, and sometimes things changed. But never enough.
When I came to Canada, I thought I had left that kind of conflict behind. But here we are today, with the same issues before us, and a call from racialized and indigenous people to take action to finally eliminate systemic racism. Some of the demonstrators have called for radical measures – get rid of the RCMP, defund the police, fire the leaders, recall the Indian Act. It’s kind of like what the servants in the parable want to do: get rid of the weeds, pull it all up, destroy the evil. Now! I find I can’t disagree with the demonstrations. Their aim is to reform a social structure that is outmoded and harmful to the world. We had good intentions, but they are not working. I have been involved with First Nations groups throughout my ministry, and sometimes, I too, would like to tear up the Indian Act. It’s a nineteenth century, paternalistic document that reflects the attitude that white Christian society is better for everyone. Industrial methods and management are better than tribal government. Ah, the helping hand strikes again. Although there have been some changes made, it really needs to go. Yesterday! It’s as fine an example of systemic racism as I can think of. It is built into the land, literally, and has kept First nations subservient and unable to determine their own course in life for decades. And yet, we can’t just pull it all up, without doing damage. We can’t just eliminate the RCMP, or stop funding police departments or get rid of leaders we don’t like because that would leave a hole in the fabric of democracy. We have to develop an infrastructure first, that replaces outdated systems of prejudice and injustice. It’s hard, but we may have to suspend those hasty judgements and the zealous uprooting, so that we can listen, and work together to build a firm foundation that includes everyone. We can’t bring in the Kingdom until we sit down together and work this out. The marginalized need to have a voice, and we need to sit back, shut up, and listen to those who have been oppressed. Everyone needs a chance to grow, because we are all the good seeds of God’s grace. Our job is to take the problems we face and look for creative solutions, not to rant and rave about the wrongdoings. Yes, we must first identify and name the injustice in the world and work to correct it, but sometimes it seems as though an awful lot of energy goes into accusations, blaming others, and running around in circles, rather than in sitting down together, offering a prayer, and finding ways to heal the brokenness so that we can get on the path to the Kingdom once again.
Tearing down statues, renaming streets are expressions of righteous anger, and we need to pay attention to those who are calling out for change. We need to value the people who are standing up to oppression. They are opening the door to a new way of life. Can we set an example for the rest of the world? Will cooperation for the common good bring about change and prosperity, or are we going to continue to see evil before we see the possibilities for redemption? We are being given a choice here: how do we see God’s actions in our lives? Is the main thrust of the gospel judgement or redemption? If the Kingdom of Heaven is like the farmer who sowed good wheat seeds, doesn’t that tell us that God has confidence that we will grow, in spite of the negative things that surround us?
This parable is full of Good News, about the Kingdom, and about how we live our lives. It is full of promise for the future, for humanity and for the world. This week, let’s try to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and celebrate in our hearts, the coming of the Kingdom. This week, let’s try to support what may seem hopeless situations, be a little more patient with those who are still growing, be careful about labelling people as good or evil, and instead find ways to work together and see them as part of God’s family. Let’s stop looking for enemies in the moments that thwart our plans and start seeing God’s grace in the gifts we have received. Let us be confident that we are heirs of the Kingdom, and behave with the assurance that it will come as God directs. As it turns out, Jesus not only knew a whole lot about gardening, he also knew about human nature. He counseled forbearance, tolerance, and an extravagant belief in trusting God. “God’s purpose is not wrathful judgment. God’s purpose is redemption and the road to redemption is by way of reconciliation. Only in that way will the world finally be saved.” (Martin Luther King Jr.) So just keep on being the wheat, growing tall and straight, reaching to the sun, spreading healthy roots deep into the ground, to provide the food of healing and love for the world.