We describe Jesus in many ways – as Emmanuel, the Son of God, the Word, the Light of the World, teacher, Savior, Messiah. Another word we can use to describe him is storyteller. Jesus often used parables to illustrate the point he was trying to make. According to Amy-Jill Levine, a pre-eminent Jewish scholar of Christian scripture, “Parables would have been told at home in the evening after dinner, or in the workshops and the fields and the synagogues.” Although they were a familiar means of telling stories, they were not meant to be entertainment for children or fables illustrating morality. The people of Jesus’ day would have known, Levine says, “that parables and the tellers of parables were there to prompt them to see the world in a different way, to challenge and at times to indict.”
Today we have such a parable, which Jesus begins, as he often does, by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” He is indicating that the mystery of the kingdom of heaven cannot be reduced to just one image. It is a mystery so vast and difficult to comprehend that it requires multiple examples to try and convey its meaning. Parables are not a means of proclamation in which an idea is taught that can be passively received, like a lecture. They require participation on the part of the listeners. We have to work to find the meaning.
The majority of Jesus’ parables deal with everyday situations that would have occurred in the lives of the people to whom he was speaking. He spoke about a merchant buying pearls, a woman searching for a coin, a wounded traveler who was the victim of robbers. Today Jesus uses an agricultural example. Unlike most of us, the people in first century Palestine were intimately acquainted with all aspects of agriculture. For example, parables about wheat and weeds speak of a slow, silent growth. It is almost a secretive process, as the seeds are planted in the ground and crack open to allow just a sprout of new life to take hold. By the time the tiniest green shoot is visible to human eyes, a vast system of roots has firmly established itself below the ground. Nourished by those roots, the plant grows and grows, transforming into something that can produce fruit and perhaps even grow big enough to provide shelter.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like that, it is marked by slow, silent growth, and it flourishes only after a solid system of roots has been established that might not be visible to the eye. In this story, the famer had an enemy so diabolical that he went sneaking into the fields at night and deliberately sowed the seeds of weeds which would presumably choke out the wheat. Yet when the slaves want to pull the weeds, the master tells them to leave the weeds alone, that it will all be sorted out at the time of harvest. The slaves seemed very sure that the weeds should be eliminated, but the master had other ideas. Perhaps he was thinking that often, we mistake good plants for weeds. A good example is the “three sisters,” the crops that Native Americans always planted together in a symbiotic relationship. To the untrained eye, the beans growing up the corn stalk that support them can look like a parasitic vine, and the squash leaves that guard the moisture of the soil can be perceived as blocking the sun.
Thanks to the repetition of the parable for the benefit of the disciples, it is pretty easy to figure out that the wheat crop represents the good people, and the weeds planted by the enemy are the bad guys. Like the slaves, some of us would be judgmental and quick to get rid of those we consider undesirable. Just as they wanted orderly fields full of one specific crop, so we sometimes want to be surrounded by others just like us. But the master, Jesus, says “No! No weeding allowed. Wait until the harvest, everything will be OK.” In other words, it isn’t our task to weed out those that we deem to be undesirable. Perhaps in modern day terms we might think about diversity, and whether it is really life-threatening or if it just challenges a particular vision that has developed over time in society.
These parables can be difficult for us because we don’t get the humor, the agricultural jokes that were apparent to the people of Jesus’ day but escape us. Yet no matter the context or time in history, we understand that Jesus says the kingdom of heaven grows like a weed, may even look like a weed, and there are people who would just love to pull it out of the ground and destroy it. The tendency might be to become frustrated, to be able to fix things so the kingdom of God is as it is intended to be. We don’t want to sit around waiting for the end time when things will be sorted out.
The answer is found in our second lesson for today, from Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Rome. Paul is encouraging the people and giving them hope by describing the mystery and power of the action of the Holy Spirit that takes place within each one of us, and therefore throughout the kingdom of God. Paul tells us that the Spirit lives in each of us, gives us life and frees us from our slavery to sin. We know we have limitations, we know we can’t be perfect, but as Thomas Merton once prayed to God, “the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.” The Spirit draws us beyond our limitations and works in us and through us for the grace we can’t fully describe, perhaps we can’t even fully imagine.
In the August, 2017 issue of Sojourners magazine, there is an article titled “Confessions of a Former White Supremacist.” It is the story of Tony McAleer, a former neo-Nazi who has learned that there is life after hate. He, with others, founded a nonprofit group called Life after Hate, dedicated to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. He explains that sometimes it takes a seed, planted by a brave person, that may take years but will eventually grow into good fruit. The journey away from a life of hate groups began for one of his co-founders of Life After Hate when he was being served at a McDonald’s by an elderly African-American woman. She saw the swastika tattooed on his hand, looked at him and said, “Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.”
McAleer says, “The hardest thing in the world is to have compassion for those who have no compassion.” Our instinct is to weed them out and eliminate them if possible. Yet Jesus says, “No weeding, be patient and wait.” The Holy Spirit works through us, through folks like that woman working at McDonald’s,whose words took root and had a slow, silent, but positive effect on his colleague. McAleer’s story is fascinating and illuminating about the world of hate groups, but too long to be told in full today. The essence is that the Holy Spirit is hard at work, often through ordinary people like us, not punishing these people who dwell in hate but instead offering them something beautiful. That is the point Jesus was trying to make – instead of having a hostile reaction, make a pre-emptive offer of grace. The Holy Spirit works at the most unexpected moments through the most unexpected people and empowers us to help other people reconnect with the humanity that they have left behind in their zeal to hate others. Thanks to the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we are all so much better than that. Amen.