- Parish House
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Do you remember spelling tests in school? They might be a distant memory since we now have spell check and communicate through emojis and just letters like LOL. But think back to learning how to spell “laugh” for the first time. How the letters “gh” sound like an “f” is strange even to the more advanced English speller. So it’s no surprise that spelling can be anxiety producing for kids. Which makes the story of a particular spelling test the perfect way into the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
There once was a first grader who was smart and confident. But she was worried about a particular spelling test coming up, because the words on the list ended with “gh.” The day of the test came. Maybe it was a new found curiosity about her ability to get away with something. Or maybe it was a sudden burst of self-doubt in the face of a tough list. Whatever her reason, she decided to copy the words on a small piece of paper and smuggle it into the test. And since this was her first brush with criminal activity, her tactics were a little lacking. The teacher thought it was suspicious when the student moved her chair back and looked down into her lap before writing each word. She got caught, of course, and cried, a mix of shame and guilt and fear. I think we all know that feeling. But there was mercy. The teacher saw her distress and hugged her before any conversation about the misdirected behavior. I hope we all know that feeling, too.
In Gospel terms, you might say that this student, like all of us, is a mix of wheat and weeds, of sin and goodness. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is about this reality, about the coexistence of good and evil in the world and even in our own hearts. That’s not a surprise to any of us. But the twist comes in what Jesus asks us to do about it.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.” The first thing to say about these particular weeds is that they are a kind of tall grass that looks just like wheat. So when the well-meaning servants ask the sower about getting rid of the weeds, he says no, “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” In other words, when we try to judge what is good and what is evil, we will get it wrong sometimes. That judgment ultimately belongs to God, to the sower. Who, we should note, is not the one who planted the weeds. That was the work of an enemy. The parable doesn’t solve the mystery of evil in the world; it simply names its presence alongside the kingdom of heaven. The two seem to thrive side by side, which I think is a pretty accurate way of describing the world.
But when the servants ask about taking out the weeds, the parable takes a strange turn. The sower replies, “Let 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.” What strange instructions: let both of them grow together, until the final judgment. At first glance it sounds like Jesus is saying to let the evil be, to do nothing. Which, of course, seems to fly in the face of other teachings. Scripture is full of injunctions to fight against injustice, to alleviate suffering, to help the outcast and the oppressed, which are faithful responses to evil in this world. But the sower said to let it be. There must be something we’re missing in the sower’s advice.
And there is. Robert Capon says the crux of the parable is found in that little word, “let,” “let both of them grow together.” The original meaning of that little Greek word is enormously important here. It can be translated as “let,” but also as suffer, permit, even forgive. It’s the same word Jesus used when he taught us the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us.” And, it’s the same word Jesus spoke from the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for the they know not what they do.” The root of that little word seems to have more to do with forgiveness than with simple tolerance or inaction.
The spiritual implication of that little word is huge, and here it is. The malice, the evil that manifests in the real world and in the lives of real people is not to be dealt with by attacking or abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells. Rather, it is to be dealt with by a letting that is a forgiveness (Capon). As followers of Jesus, we are called to take the same posture toward the world that he took from the cross when he asked God to forgive the crowd. The cross is a symbol of the worst the world can do. Jesus’s words are a glimpse of God’s response. John Chrysostom once said that on Easter morning, forgiveness rose from the grave. Not retaliation or annihilation, but forgiveness.
It is also important to name that the message of mercy and forgiveness should never be reduced to the idea that anything goes. And the parable is not really about what we do or don’t do, it’s about how we are saved. Our salvation does not depend on how much evil we personally eradicate, how many weeds we pull. We could never pull enough if God was keeping score like that. Salvation has already been accomplished through grace. We don’t have to defeat evil and death, that’s God’s job.
But as scripture reminds us, we have work to do. We are to help our neighbors in need, to fight against injustice, and to care for our little corner of this beautiful world. And as we do, we can trust in the mercy of God, a thoroughgoing mercy that runs through whatever grand judgment awaits this world. It’s a mercy wide enough for the world and close enough for each of us.
There is a teaching in the Talmud that captures this. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” God will complete the work. In the meantime, we must tend to the good and learn to love mercy.
Remember that little girl and her spelling test? I’d like to think that when the teacher hugged her, it was a glimpse of how divine judgment will be. The teacher had full knowledge of the cheating incident, and loved the student through her remorse and fear. The student was welcomed back into the classroom. So, too, will this world be judged. It will be judged with truth, yes, but also with grace and mercy, fully welcomed back into God. Until then, O Lord, may your mercy be our guide.