Every once in a while I run into someone who is all lathered up about evil in the world, someone who has seen something so shocking or heard something so vulgar that he thinks something just has to be done. And, often, he thinks I am the one who is supposed to do it.
But what is the Christian response to evil? What should good people do about bad things?
Although you won't find it anywhere in the Gospel of Matthew, it is that question, or one very much like it, that lies behind the parable of the wheat and the weeds here in chapter 13.
"A farmer had a field," Jesus says, perfect and pure, ready to produce nothing but good grain, but in the night an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat that had been sown. When the wheat came up, so did the weeds, and the servants who worked in the field came to the master. "Didn't you sow good seed?" they asked. "Look at this. Your field has weeds growing in it!" Later Jesus would say that that field is like the world: Weedy. Corrupt. Not the way it was supposed to be.
No one needs to tell you we live in a world like that; you read the paper, you watch the news. Do it often enough and you will find yourself shaking your head at the enormous difference between the way the world ought to be and the way it actually is. Most of the time that difference leaves you feeling overwhelmed. What can you do about it? But there may be other times, when you are feeling especially outraged or especially brave, that you think maybe you could do something about it; and like the farm hands in the story, you raise your hand and volunteer to go out into the world and rip up evil by its roots. And that's when the master says, "Wait."
And that is what surprises me about this parable.
Do you remember what I told you last week, that we need to pay attention to the surprise in these stories, to those places where expectations are upset? Well, this is that place in this story, because what you would expect from the master is precisely what you do not get. You would expect him to say, "Yes! Pull the weeds as quickly as you can. Get that stuff out of my field." But instead he says, "No. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest." If this story really is, as Jesus says, a story about evil in the world and God's response to it, then what Jesus is saying is that God doesn't have any immediate plans to uproot all the evil among us. God's plan, for now, is to let it be.
And here's why. When the servants volunteered to pull up the weeds, the master said, "No, for in gathering them, you would pull up the wheat too." In other words, you'll do more harm than good. Notice that he doesn't say they could pull up the wheat, but that they would, because the type of weed that is sown in this story is a very specific kind. It is Lolium Temulentum, also known as "darnel," an annual grass with long, slender bristles that looks very much like wheat. It would be easy to mistake it for the real thing. And in a frenzy of weed-pulling, you would yank up the good along with the bad.
Can you see how the same caution might apply to dealing with evil in the world? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the good and the bad, and, sometimes, in pulling up what you think is a weed, you may in fact be pulling up wheat. Back in 1979 some people in the Southern Baptist Convention worried that the denomination was becoming too liberal, and they thought that the way to deal with a problem like that was to purge the denomination of its liberal influences. So they did. They adopted a policy of weed pulling. They fired a whole host of professors and journalists and seminary presidents and denominational employees. Others resigned while they still could. A great many people left the denomination. The cause of Christ suffered. I don't think those people who tried to purge the denomination of its liberal influence envisioned such results, but in their zeal to pull up the weeds much good wheat was lost. And maybe some day even they will be able to look at the uprooted field of the denomination and realize that more harm than good has been done.
In the story that Jesus tells, the enemy sows his evil seed and then goes away. He seems confident that the damage he intends will be done. Robert Farrar Capon says that the enemy doesn't have any real power over goodness anyway: The wheat is in the field, the Kingdom is in the world, and there is not one thing he can do about it. But, Capon adds, "he can sucker the forces of goodness into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work for him. That is why he goes away after sowing the weeds. He has no need to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway-having no real power to muck up the operation-he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him" (Parables of the Kingdom, p. 102).
But in this story, at least, the story that Jesus tells, that's not what happens. The master says, "Wait. Let the wheat and the weeds grow up together until the harvest, and when the harvest comes I will tell the reapers to collect the weeds and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn." Can you see that it's not as if the master in this story likes having weeds in his field; it's just that he has a different plan for dealing with them. His solution to the problem is ultimate, rather than proximate. And Jesus wants us to hear that more often than not, this is God's way of dealing with the evil in the world and in our cities, our families, our churches, ourselves-not immediately but finally, once and for all.
And Jesus should know.
There was plenty of evil in his time. If he had asked any of his disciples, they could have pointed out a dozen social problems that might have been eased by divine intervention: Poverty. Injustice. Prejudice. Prostitution. Oppression. Drunkenness. Drought. Disease. "Look at the world," they might have said to him. "It's full of weeds. Surely, this isn't the way it's supposed to be!" And, surely, they were right about that. But their way of dealing with those problems was different from God's way. They thought that by overcoming the Romans, re-establishing Israel as a political kingdom, and electing the right man to rule it, everything would be as it should be. They thought that they could fight their way, legislate their way, vote their way into the kind of Kingdom that would please God.
They were wrong.
Read the Gospels carefully and you will be amazed by how little faith Jesus puts in the political process. He seems to be much more concerned about rescuing people than programs and he does it God's way, by going to Jerusalem where he is arrested and tried and crucified. As he hangs there on the cross, it would be easy to believe that God's way has failed, that evil has triumphed, that the field of the world has been completely overcome by weeds. But that's not what happened. In the death of Jesus we who believe believe that evil was somehow, ultimately, conquered, so that while it might exercise dominion for a while, it will not exercise dominion forever.
One of these days, we pray, all the evil in the world is going to be gathered up into bundles and burned in the furnace. "It may not be today," Jesus says, "it may not be tomorrow, but one of these days Evil is going to catch it right in the teeth, and when that day comes, 'the righteous will shine like the sun.'" In the meantime we have to accept the fact that we live in a world full of weeds rather than trying to pull up every plant that looks vaguely suspicious. Because the truth is that none of us is completely free of evil. There is more bad in the best of us, and more good in the worst of us, than any of us, in this life, will ever know. All the more reason to leave the sorting of good and evil to God and his angels and for our part-for our part-to spend most of our time trying to be wheat in the world rather than pull up weeds. When the harvest finally comes, that's what will matter most.
I asked the people at my last church to imagine what would happen if we adopted a policy of weed-pulling, if we drew a circle around the little town of Wingate, North Carolina, and made a vow that no evil would cross that line, that no weeds would grow within that border. I said, "You know, you and I could spend the rest of our lives protecting that boundary, standing shoulder to shoulder with pitchforks and clubs, making sure that we kept drugs and alcohol and pornography and gambling safely on the other side. I think it would take all of our energy and most of our time. But what if we did it? What if we succeeded? What would we have? We would have a town characterized by the absence of evil, which is not the same as a town characterized by the presence of good. And maybe this is what Jesus was talking about all along, that it's better to have a wheat field with weeds in it than a field with nothing in it at all.
When that church in Wingate began a ministry to the children of a nearby trailer park, we had to decide what kind of ministry it would be. We could have chosen to root out all the sources of evil in that place-to chase down the drug dealers and the deadbeat dads, to confiscate handguns and arrest child abusers. Instead, we chose to put up a basketball goal, to tell stories from the Bible, to put our arms around little children, and sing songs about Jesus. And two years after we started that ministry, two years of going out there Saturday after Saturday to do those things, I got a note in my box at church with five words on it: "Adrian wants to be baptized." Adrian. The terror of the trailer park. That little girl who had made our work most difficult during the previous two years. Who would have guessed? Instead of pulling weeds in the field where she lived, we just tried hard to be wheat, and somehow Adrian saw that and fell in love with it and wanted it for herself. After she was baptized, there was a little more wheat in the field. And because she was there, soon, there was even more.
In a world full of weeds perhaps the best strategy we can adopt as Christian people is the strategy of the Apostle Paul who said in Romans 12:21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.