Bumblebees and Wheat
July 20, 2008
If you take a bumblebee and place it at the bottom of a glass tumbler, it will never find its way out. Even though the top of the glass is perfectly open, the bee will keep searching and exploring until exhaustion and eventually die in the glass. This is because instinct has programmed the bumblebee to search horizontally. Therefore once in the tumbler, it keeps exploring all the walls at the bottom. It keeps searching for a way out where none exists, and in the process it destroys itself. Now the glass provides a perfectly open and direct way of escape but the bee never sees it, because nature has directed it to constantly look around but prevented it from looking up. We are not like bumblebees. We can search in all directions. We can explore all possible avenues. It is important for us to do so, because if we were to limit ourselves to only one perspective, we could end up like that bee, continually striving towards the negative and the impossible until we exhaust ourselves.
Now this truth about us is important as we try to understand Jesus’ parable today in the gospel because the parable describes our world the way that it is. Our world is not the way that God made it. God made a good and perfect world but then evil entered creation. The present condition of our existence, then, is a mixture—a mixture of evil and good, of selfishness and generosity, of violence and of love or (as the parable states it) a mixture of weeds and wheat. God has promised us that on the last day the weeds will be destroyed. They will be burnt up. But until that time, the weeds and the wheat grow together, and anyone who would be a disciple of Jesus must learn how to live and how to serve in such a world.
As followers of Jesus, we cannot ignore the weeds in our world. We have to admit and recognize the presence of poverty and injustice and violence and greed. These realities influence much of our experience. We know that all of them are opposed to God’s will and we are called to fight against them. But even as we do that, we must not forget the wheat. We must remind ourselves of the presence of the goodness that is around us, the vision, the service, the generosity, the courage, the love that we can find in so many places and so many people. All of those examples of goodness are a reflection of God’s presence. Seeing God’s presence is a cause of energy and hope.
This week, nine teenagers from our parish are leaving for a week of service in Buffalo, New York. They will be working, serving in an Aids Hospice and helping to build a Habitat for Humanity House. For those of you who are going, I think that today’s parable carries an important message. You will see a lot of weeds this week, a lot of things wrong with our world. It is important that you recognize them. But as you work this week, do not forget to look for the wheat. Do not forget to see the goodness that is present in the situations in which you find yourselves, in the people you serve, and in the people with whom you work. All of that goodness is a reminder that God is with you. And with God’s help and power, you can be true servants and live in hope.
You see, it is all too easy for all of us to center on what is wrong, to focus on the weeds. We can easily say, here are the things that are wrong about my parents, or here are the things I want to change about my children. We can all point out the flaws in our marriage and the people who drive us crazy at work. We can come up with a list of the injustices in our world or the imperfections in our church. We are always aware of the burdens which we carry, the sickness, and the grief that we must bear. All of these things are real. They are the weeds of our life. We must recognize them and confront them. But if the only thing we focus on is the weeds, we become like that helpless bumblebee in the glass, aware of our predicament but unable to find a way out.
This is why we must do what the bumblebee cannot do. We must look up! We must see the wheat among the weeds. We must recognize the goodness and grace in the circumstances around us. When we recognize that goodness and grace, we find the strength to oppose what is evil and the joy to live as God’s servants. As long as we focus only on the weeds, we live a life of bitterness and die of exhaustion. But if we can see and embrace the wheat of God’s presence, then we will find the freedom to build God’s kingdom and the hope that comes from living in God’s love.
The Non-violent Farmer
July 17, 2011
We, as Americans, are accustomed to power. We see ourselves as militarily and economically superior to other nations. When you add this truth to our independent nature and our can-do attitude, it is easy to explain why for some of us power is almost an unqualified good. We see it as our birthright to live the way we want to live and to use our power to attain our goals. With this attitude it is easy to ignore or dismiss other people who get in our way.
Now of course the power we have is a gift from God. In itself it is a good thing, and we should use our resources for our own good and for the good of others. Taking all this into account, it is still amazing how often Jesus asks us in the gospels to hold back from using the power that we possess. He frequently teaches that we should refrain from doing things that we have both the ability and the power to do.
This is particularly clear in Jesus’ teaching of non-violence. He frequently teaches that when we are attacked or faced with evil, even though we might have the means and the ability to retaliate, we should not. We should hold back instead. This teaching of Jesus is found most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount where he instructs us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. But it is found in many other places throughout the gospels and one of them is in today’s parable of the weeds and wheat which we have just heard.
To see the non-violent message we must situate the parable in the setting of Jesus’ ministry. Farmers, at the time of Christ, were not the mega-industrial farmers that they are today. They were small operators with usually less than an acre of land. They lived in small agricultural villages with their families as tight-knitted communities. This background allows us to see the impact of Jesus’ message. In the small farming community in which this parable takes place, when the farmer notices that there are weeds among his wheat and tells his servants an enemy has done this, the farmer most likely knows who the enemy is. By examining his relationship with his close neighbors he can easily determine which one of them would have wanted to cause him harm and which one of them, therefore, tried to destroy his crop.
Knowing this, the reaction of the farmer is very telling. Even though there would be a strong inclination to retaliate, this is not what the farmer does. He absorbs the attack and he refuses to strike back. He turns the other cheek. Not only this, but the parable goes on to tell us that there was still a harvest. Despite the fact that the weeds were mixed in with the wheat, the farmer was able nevertheless to gather wheat into his barn.
This parable of the weeds and the wheat presents us with a counter-cultural, non-violent approach to life. At the same time it makes the point that such an approach is not irresponsible or weak. Choosing not to retaliate does not prevent us from supporting ourselves and our family and producing a harvest. The parable therefore challenges each one of us to look at the way we use our own power and authority. As parents, as employers, as friends, how often do we use our authority to coerce others? Giving a command or making a demand might seem like a quick and efficient way to get to what we want, but very often dialogue and persuasion are better.
To absorb the attack, to deflect the insult is not a sign of weakness. The parable tells us that refusing to use violence is not a lesser way or a cowardly way but Christ’s way. When we refuse to use our authority and power to coerce others, we are not settling for second best. We are showing that we are, in fact, disciples of the Prince of Peace.
July 23, 2017
Matthew 13: 24-43
Jesus often uses parables to make us think, to reveal something about the Kingdom of God and about our role in making that kingdom happen. In his parables, Jesus usually draws upon common human experiences that we all know—planting a seed, making bread, hiring workers. But Jesus is not a slave to our experience. In fact, he can at times introduce into his parables things that would never happen in our lives. He does this to make a point and to show us that the Kingdom of God is sometimes very different from the world in which we live.
Today’s parable of the weeds and the wheat is a good example of this practice. When the landowner finds out that there are weeds growing with his wheat, he tells his servant to let them grow together until harvest time. Now, no farmer of the ancient world or of today would say that. When you see weeds growing up with your tomato plants, you pull the weeds out. You know that if the weeds grow along together with the plants, they will sap moisture and nutrients from your garden, and the tomato plants will suffer.
So, why does Jesus say in the parable that the weeds and the wheat should grow together? What’s his point? A clue is given to us in the advice of the landowner to the servants. He says, “If you pull up the weeds, you might pull up the wheat along with them.” It seems that in the world of Jesus’s parable, it is difficult to separate weeds from wheat, to distinguish which is which. Again, this is not true in our own experience. In your garden, when something begins to come up out of the soil, you can tell almost at once what is a tomato plant and what is a weed, and you pull the weeds out. But in Jesus’s parable and in the Kingdom of God, it is not so easy. Therefore it is better to wait, to wait as long as we can before acting because something that appears to us as a weed might in time be revealed as wheat. This parable of Jesus is really a parable about patient vigilance. It calls us to wait and give time to circumstances and people in our lives as long as we can, until their true characteristics emerge.
There might be someone in your family who is making a mess of their life, one wrong decision after another, going along without purpose or guidance. But, before you cut that person off, this parable advises you to wait, to offer as much wisdom and love as you can and then see what might begin to grow. You do not need to pull up the weed today. There might be someone at work or in your neighborhood who is negative and difficult. But before you distance yourself from that person, this parable advises you to wait, to treat that person with honesty and respect and see what develops. There might be a circumstance in the church or in our government that you see as harmful and damaging. But before you give up, this parable asks you to stand for what you believe and wait with patience because the harvest has not yet come.
Now, there’s nothing in Jesus’s parable that tells us we should become indifferent to what is wrong or to tolerate injustice. But what this parable does tell us is that we can often make judgments prematurely and in a misguided way. And because we believe that God is always working to bring about what is life-giving and good in our world, it is better to wait with patient vigilance until we are sure that we can distinguish the weeds from wheat.
When the Weeds Come
July 19, 2020
We all want to live simple lives. For this reason, either consciously or unconsciously, we create patterns in our life that give us structure and comfort. We arrange our homes in a particular way that we find useful. We allot set times for work, family, and recreation. We know what to do when we need stimulation and what to do when we want to relax. The structures in our life make us sufficient, secure, and happy. We count on them. That is why it is so disturbing and difficult when those structures need to change, when the patterns in our life no longer work.
We certainly have all experienced this with the coronavirus. We are not able to gather with the people we love in the same way. We are not free to enjoy professional sports or concerts. We have to remember to wash our hands, to bring our masks, and to think twice before we enter any public space. The set patterns of our life have to change. Our ordinary expectations need to be rethought.
We might end up feeling like the man in today’s gospel who wakes up one morning to discover that there are weeds among his wheat. He did not plant the weeds, he planted good seed. But now he has to face a new reality that he never anticipated. The first response to that new reality is that of the slaves. They suggest that things should go back to the way they were. They question whether they should go out into the field and pull up all the weeds, so that there might again be a field that is only wheat. But the master knows this will not work. He cannot turn things back to the time when the weeds were not present. He has to face a new reality and move forward with both the wheat and the weeds.
This is our experience. Even when the time comes, which I hope will be soon, that we develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, our world will never go back to the way it was before the virus emerged. In ways that we cannot yet envision, the effects of this virus will remain with us for the rest of our lives. This is why the advice of the man in the parable is so important. It is not helpful or even possible to keep wishing that things were the way that they were. We have to develop new patterns of living that include the coronavirus as our companion and nevertheless move forward in hope.
The good news of today’s parable is this. Although the weeds remain, we still have access to the wheat. We still can gather together the good things of our life and store them in our barns. Now of course we will have to adapt the ways that we work and socialize and relax. But there still is life. The way forward is to face this new reality with patience and with hope. Although the virus will remain, so will life. And life is worth living. Our future need not be ruined by the weeds, as long as we keep harvesting the wheat.