Scott Hovey: Tarry in the Garden

I’m not much of a gardener, but I do know that weeds don’t pull themselves. A garden full of weeds is not just unsightly, the weeds can actually harm the plants, stealing water and vital nutrients. Every gardener knows - or so I’ve been told - that a healthy garden is a weed-free garden. Every gardener, apparently, except Jesus.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus makes a case for letting the weeds grow. The Parables of Chapter 13 of Matthew are agrarian stories. We hear Jesus talk about seeds and soil and shrubs and weeds. But what connects these parables is their apocalyptic focus. They seek to paint a picture of the time to come in order to help us understand how to live today. Most of the parables in this chapter begin with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is what Mark and Luke call the “kingdom of God.” Less of a place than a mindset, a glimpse of what is possible right here and right now.

Our parable today is often called “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.” In this parable we find a farmer defying common wisdom concerning weeds. “Let them be,” he says to his slaves. “Let them grow.”

Historical interpretations of this parable have tended to focus on the field itself – the weeds and the wheat growing together. This image of the field is often taken to explain the mixture of good and evil in the world, good and evil in the church. From St. Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr, interpreters of this parable have found in the field of both wheat and tares an explanation of the fallen nature of the world and the church.

But the true surprise contained in this parable is not the condition of the field (which is simply presented as a given) but the master’s decision to deny the request of the servants to pull the weeds.

“There are weeds in the garden,” say the slaves. “We should pull them.”

“There is injustice in the world,” say the disciples. “We should bring judgment.”

“There is impurity in the church,” we say. “We should purify it.”

This impulse to clear the field is the impulse of justice in each of our hearts. It is our desire to make wrong things right. It is our desire to steer the world to a good and right place. It is our desire to make a difference in the world.

The justice impulse is certainly right. Indeed, as the parable ends, justice will be done. But the surprise of the parable lies in the deferment of justice, the forbearance of judgment. We, like the disciples, like the slaves, we want at the weeds. We want to pull the tares. We want a clean, healthy, beautiful field, but the farmer says, “No. The farmer says, “Not yet. We must wait.”

But we don’t like to wait. We are a now kind of people. We like immediate, if not sooner. We are the kind of people who seek outcomes and measurable results.

Even more, it has been ingrained in us that “justice deferred is justice denied.” We believe in swift justice; we believe in timely accountability. And rightly so. But this parable challenges us that a hurried justice is a distorted justice. A hasty justice not only risks a greater injustice but leads us directly into questionable methods of enforcement.

Canadian Baptist theologian Douglas Harink, in his book Resurrecting Justice, claims that the church is called to “make its way in the world not by ruling and influencing through assertion, coercion, and force of arms, but by the power of weakness.” We are “called,” he continues, “to refuse the controlling, coercive and sometimes violent methods that at least might get the job done.”

Like the slaves in the parable and like Jesus’ disciples, the church is not given the authority to purge the world (or even the church) of evil doers. The church has not been called to use force to divide the good from the bad. The church is denied the request to use violence to rid the church or the world of the enemies of the gospel.

The farmer in the parable is in no hurry to rid his field of weeds and, by extension, God is in no hurry to purge creation of evil doers. The call to deferred justice, therefore, reminds us that divine justice is built not on coercion, not on violence, but on divine patience. And we, in turn, are invited to share in this divine patience. But this divine patience makes sense only in light of a final judgment. The parable makes clear that there will indeed be a reckoning, there will be accountability.

This forbearance is only a temporary reprieve. It is a forbearance, however, that transfers the work of justice, the work of judgment, from human hands to divine hands. In the end, the parable makes clear that the work of clearing the field is not the work of the servants, is not the work of the church, but is the work reserved for the farmer – the one who owns the field. Judgment, in other words, is God’s prerogative.

Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, writes in her book How to Have an Enemy, “It is Jesus who establishes accountability without punishment and justice without coercion. Jesus’ refusal to engage or reform a regime of coercion is a shock to those around him.”

Indeed, justice, in this view, is not something that we achieve; is not something that we manufacture. Rather, divine justice is something that we welcome, something that we receive, something for which we make room. We join with God in God’s patience, and we join with God in God’s justice.

The Apostle Paul, in our lectionary epistle reading for today, had similar concerns. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear a wrestling with present suffering in light of future redemption.

Paul says in Romans chapter 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now [notice he is using a different metaphor]. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

This divine patience challenges us, we who would rather not wait. We, who would prefer to clear the field. We, who would prefer to put the world to rights. But God will not be hurried. And the people of God shall not be hurried. The people of God have all the time in the world. The people of God trust that justice will, in fact, finally prevail.

The Apostle Paul continues: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Indeed, the final word for Paul and for us is hope. A hope that enables us to wait in patience. A hope that waits, not passively or impotently, but a hope that waits actively as we continue to live out our ministries of love and of healing, our ministries of caring and sharing.

While the impulse for justice is good and right, the church is invited into a different sort of justice. We are invited into God’s patient love of humanity that, without denying justice, is unwilling to hurry justice. The church, in response, is called to live in this patient love, trusting that the one who planted is the one who will finally bring all things together. The church is called to wait, to wait in hope for a more beautiful justice, a justice that is formed in patient love, a justice that is willing to tarry in the garden.

Let us pray together.

God, may our lives show forth a divine patience that is rooted in our faith in you. May we believe that we in fact have all the time in the world because it is indeed your world, and you are a God of both justice and love. And may we know what it means to wait in hope – a hope that all things will, in time, be healed, be reconciled, and will be redeemed.