In the Service of Love
Matthew 13:24-29; 36-45
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”…
36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear….
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
Initially, I could only read this parable as a parable of judgment and it really interfered with my seeing how grace filled it is. I have a visceral negative reaction whenever I read about fire and an end time. Though it certainly did not match my family or my early church experiences, the concept of ‘Be good or Else’ is embedded in my psyche. The ‘or else’ was eternal damnation, eternal fire— the religious version of ‘scared straight’. I am all too aware that there are many times I am one of the weeds of this story. I can be selfish and self-serviing. There are other times, when I think I am doing ‘good’ but I am wrong. In both cases, my life is a prime candidate for kindling.
It doesn’t help at all that in Jesus’ explanation of the parable he says: ”40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. This is scary talk and emotionally consistent with the way most of us grow up.
In many ways this thinking is an ordinary carry over from childhood. Children are constantly trying to be little adults. They are expected to make ‘good’ choices. The fact that they are in the process of learning how to do those things does not protect them from frustrated and sometimes angry parents. Mistakes, as well as open disobedience, bring scolding, distance and punishment. Even when the parents are patiently trying to show the child ‘the way they should grow’, children cannot really differentiate the parent’s good intention from the effect of disapproval. When children compare themselves to the ‘big people’, they will almost inevitably feel inadequate and not enough. They will almost inevitably expect punishment when they fail. It is no wonder we think of God in similar ways. The rewards and punishments just have bigger stakes.
But though the language is vivid, I do not think this parable is primarily about judgment. I believe it is about trusting God. The owner’s servants could see that weeds were in the fields. Their first reaction is to eradicate them. But the owner of the field counsels patience. (The weeds in this story are almost certainly darnel. This plant is nearly indistinguishable from wheat in its early development. It is not until maturation that the two are easily separated.) The owner says, ‘Wait and see which is which. I don’t want you pulling up good wheat because you can’t tell the difference.’
The same is true of us. We are all too quick to imagine we can tell what is weed and wheat—both in the world and in ourselves. We know weeds are in us and among us. The urge is to immediately rip them out. To use a different biblical metaphor, our desire to be ‘pure and acceptable’ leads us to the human error of deciding what is good and what is evil. That is not our prerogative. Ironically, our urgency makes us more prone to error.
The Christian criteria, is: “Is our living in the service of Love”? But that criteria is often very difficult to discern. Every human trait we have can be used in service of self as well as in the service of love. If we based our ‘weeding’ upon adolescent behavior, or a two year old’s defiance, there would be far fewer children on this earth. But many, if not most, of these same children grew to be responsible caring adults. But at the time, Who knew?
The reverse is also true. We can take a virtue and transform it into self-aggrandizement. When is our anger, jealousy, passion or even our sacrifices in the service of love and when are those same traits in the service of our pride or wounded ego? Service and sacrifice can become ways to demonstrate righteousness rather than reflect gratitude. Humility can cross over into self-negation. Our anger can be used to protect and just as easily become self-righteous indignation. Weeds and wheat grow side by side. It takes a while to see the difference. Sometimes we can not even make those distinctions in our life times.
Human judgment is notoriously flawed and our ability to vision the future, even more so. And that is the grace note in this parable. It is not up to us to decide who is in or who is out. It is not up to us to decide what in others or in ourselves is wheat or weed. That is God’s prerogative. There is great comfort and discomfort in that knowledge.
Rather than think of us as weed or wheat, think of us as the field. God plants; even the ‘enemy plants’ but the promise is that God will use what he will. It is not up to us to decide what God can or will use. (Even the ash from the weeds can be used to provide nutrients for the soil).
The discomfort is that we must rely on the Lord to decide. And perhaps the greater discomfort is that we have to rely on his promises to love us as the sinners we are. We are dependent on him. We are left to trust his promise of care. That sounds so appealing but in real life, it is so difficult. We are hardwired to fear that the weediness of our lives will damn us. It is very difficult to trust that God will winnow out what does not serve him. And in real life, each time we wonder if we are enough, we need to confess to God how much difficulty we have actually receiving God’s grace. Though we are promised that we are safe in his embrace, we constantly fear our ‘failures’ will disqualify us.
In real life, we will make many mistakes. Some of them will harm us or others. I review my parenting, my marriage, and my mindfulness of the word. And left to my own devices, I evaluate and judge. Some of my mistakes (when I meant well but failed), some of my selfishness (when I just wanted it my way regardless of my impact on others) are not reversible.
I have made bad choices and by human reckoning deserve to be punished. In fact the child in me expects to be punished. But once in awhile I let go of my human way of thinking. I trust, ever so briefly that God seeks the best for me and in me. God will find and preserves what can be used in his service. It is not up to me. That is a relief I can feel deep in my soul. That promise is like a fine pearl worth everything I own, or a hidden treasure I will pay anything to keep.
Do your best to follow the Way of the Lord. Trust God to love us and to use us as he will. Trust that God seeks our good. Let it be so.