It's already the middle of the summer and if I were back on the Iowa farm where I grew up, I'd probably be "walking the beans" for the second or third time. Now that phrase may sound odd to you if you've never lived on a farm. Walking the beans is not like walking the dog because, of course, beans don't walk. I walked, and my dad, my mom, my sister and brother too. We walked up and down between the mile-long rows of soy beans. Down one row, back another. We walked acres and acres of soybeans to pull or chop the weeds out of the row. These were the weeds you couldn't get with the cultivator and tractor. They were weeds right in the midst of the bean plants. Corn was easy. It grew from seeds dropped in the field the year before. Now in the cornfield it would have been considered part of the crop. In the bean field corn was a weed and had to be chopped out with a machete knife. Sunflowers were easy, too, even before there were flowers. Thistles were prickly, but not hard to spot. It was the milk weeds that gave me trouble. (You knew them after you pulled them because the sticky milk in the stem sticks to your hands and glues your fingers together.) The leaves looked a bit like the soybean plants, mingling in with the beans like camouflage to fool people intent on uprooting them. Sometimes, when the day was very hot (which it almost always was in Iowa in July) or when I was very tired and didn't want to be there (which was almost always true), I'd look down at the weed in my hand and realize it was indeed a beautiful green soybean plant. With luck my dad would be several rows away from me and I'd stick the plant back, hoping no one would be around to see it wither and die.
I wish I had been more familiar with Matthew 13 then. I could have told my dad, "Dad, remember what the scripture says: Don't pull those weeds, for in gathering the weeds we might uproot the plants along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest." Of course that would be very bad farming. My father often rallied us children into the fields with dire warnings about the farm manager driving by on the county road and seeing our bean fields choked with weeds. We somehow knew that meant we'd be kicked off the farm (for we didn't own the place), and who knows where we would have gone? After all, one weed wouldn't hurt the bean crop, but thousands of weeds could take over a field. If you let them grow up until the harvest there'd be precious little harvest at all.
Why does Jesus keep telling these stories about bad farming? Last week, He talked about a sower who scattered seeds seemingly at random, on rocky ground and on well-traveled pathways -- even in the midst of thistles. Some fell on good soil, but it seemed almost an accident. My father would never have done that. It was a waste of good seed. Now whenever I read parables like this I usually think to myself, "Isn't it wonderful how Jesus used such down-to-earth stories and images. Sowers and sheep, bread dough and fishing nets -- these would be well-understood by the people of Galilee. Of course people in New York City might be confused, but if Jesus were talking to New Yorkers, he'd find a way to get through.
Suddenly it struck me. These parables about sowing seeds and leaving weeds must have sounded completely ridiculous to people who knew about farming. Come to think of it would one shepherd really leave 99 sheep in jeopardy to go searching for one who got lost? Jesus' parables that seem so simple and ordinary don't really make good sense at all. Not to people who make their living by farming! Did Jesus really mean to draw such pictures of the Kingdom of God? Or was he simply a bad farmer?
The seed parables in this chapter are crucially important in Matthew's gospel. The thirteenth chapter comes right in the middle of the book and is packed with pictures of the Kingdom of God. Now, in the first seed parable -- the one where the farmer flings out the seed every which way -- Jesus explained to his disciples that the seed was the word of God. In today's parable, the meaning of the seed has shifted. Jesus says, "The one who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, and the good seed means the children of the kingdom." Here the good seeds are people. They are children of God's Kingdom. And the weeds sown by the evil one? Well, they're people, too. In the parable Jesus tells us that the good seeds and the bad weeds will grow up together, side by side until the harvest. And we're not supposed to pull or chop or spray the weeds lest we destroy the good along with the bad.
This is bad farming. And it's no way to run a kingdom. Jesus' disciples probably didn't like the parable any better than we do. What good is it to be in the Kingdom of God if we're surrounded by bad seed? Well, this is a problem. So it didn't take long for people with more sense than Jesus to try to reshape the kingdom. The disciples themselves had a hard time with Jesus' vision. Some of them argued about who would be greatest. They protested when people who weren't part of their group cast out demons. Jesus didn't seem concerned about the competition. He kept talking about the first being last and the last first. They began to wonder what sort of kingdom this was.
It wasn't easy for the disciples to live the kingdom vision of Jesus. There were constant temptations to pull up the weeds which seemed to be growing up all around. The earliest churches had their own seeding problems. Arguments broke out about who was in and who was out. There were questions about eating certain foods, disagreements about speaking in tongues, and pronouncements about who should be silent in worship. Rules had to be established to determine who belonged in the Kingdom of God and who did not.
It has been very hard for the Church to wait for God's harvest. Over the centuries since Jesus' resurrection and ascension, the Church has often focused more on weeding than planting or tending the garden. If we look at the past two thousand years we can see that the most tragic areas in the Church's life have been caused by this passion for weeding. Crusades were organized to drive infidels from Jerusalem. Inquisitions rooted out heretics. Women accused of being witches were thrown into the fire like weeds to be burned. Those who were deemed bad seed were excommunicated and cast out of the Church into utter darkness. Structures had to be set up to decide who the weeds were. The weeds were always people, and sometimes they were called weeds simply because they were different from the groups in power. These human weeds had to be rooted out to protect the harvest.
What had happened to Jesus' parable? Hadn't anybody heard what He said about letting the weeds grow up alongside the good seed? It was just too hard. There was the very real fear that the weeds would overwhelm the good plants altogether. In every generation something always had to be done to clean up the field.
God is not an all-seeing farm manager driving by to see how many weeds have grown up. God may be far more concerned about the weeds we pull up than the weeds we pass by. For the weeds are always people; people who are pointed at, chastised, condemned, cast out. Jesus didn't understand how bad it could get in the earthly field. Jesus had never met the people we've seen. Aren't Christians called to condemn evil? Surely God doesn't want us to let anything go. Can't God see that too many weeds could indeed choke the harvest?
There is a very perplexing line in the Apostles' Creed, a line about what Jesus did after he was dead and buried and before he rose from the dead. "He descended into hell." (Or in some translations, "He descended to the dead") If you say the creed, that may be a line you skip over quickly. If you've just heard the words for the first time, they may seem absurd. Why would Jesus go to hell? Perhaps to preach the gospel of repentance and salvation to those who are there. Jesus was always going where he wasn't supposed to go on earth. Why should it be any different when He died? If Jesus is willing to go the depths of hell, maybe I could learn to live with a few weeds. Who knows? Somebody else may think that I should be pulled up and thrown out!
All I know for certain is this. Jesus told us to stop weeding. I know it's bad farming, but it is the Kingdom of God. If we took Jesus' words to heart, it might change the church more than anything in the last two thousand years. It might go a long way in changing the world.