Weed Control

This story about the wheat and the weeds bothers me, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This story bothers me so much, it doesn’t just go away and blend into the landscape. It sticks around. It raises questions. It makes me wonder.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a very similar story that is bursting with promise and hope, and that is where I want to begin. He says,

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.[1]

This story of the mysterious growth of God’s reign was remembered and retold among believers, and when the gospel of Matthew was composed, it had absorbed some of the questions followers of Jesus had begun to ask: Why, after all this time, do we see so little of God’s reign? How come other things that have nothing to do with the kingdom of God continue to grow? The kingdom seed is sprouting and growing, just as Jesus promised, but some other seed, nasty seed is also doing mighty well and it is showing no signs of withering away. Why? Believers had questions like these, and that is how, in Matthew’s telling, the weeds got a part in the story, together with a host of other characters besides the sower.

People who study the biblical texts and the ancient world with much attention to detail tell us that the weeds in this story are in fact Bearded Darnel or lolium temulentum, an annual grass which grows plentifully in Syria and Palestine. In its early stages, they say, this weed looks very much like wheat, making it almost impossible to identify until the ear appears, and only then the difference is discovered. As the plants mature, the roots of the weeds and wheat intertwine, and it would take hours to separate the two without hurting the wheat. Separation, however, is necessary, because darnel is both bitter and toxic: if not removed prior to milling, darnel ruins the flour and the bread and the family dinner. Most farmers in ancient times therefore separated the grains after threshing by spreading them on a flat surface and removing the darnel seeds – a different color at that stage – by hand.

All this is very interesting and helpful information, but the story still bothers me. It sounds like an innocent parable from the world of agriculture before the rise of Roundup-ready wheat, but it quickly loses its innocence.

The disciples approached Jesus, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.”[2]

In this interpretation people are compared to weeds – and the weeds end up in the furnace of fire. The story bothers me because comparing people to weeds or vermin has too often been but the first step toward their extermination. Once the Jews in Germany had been labeled as parasites, the gas chambers and ovens were not far away. In Rwanda, members of one ethnic group referred to members of another as cockroaches, and soon hundreds of thousands were killed. Weeds, pests, vermin, parasites are labels designed to hide the humanity of others and justify their destruction. The language of extermination makes me sick, and reading in our sacred scripture that “the weeds are the children of the evil one” grieves and worries me.

During the crusades, a group of knights, crosses painted on their armor, crosses stitched on their banners, blew through a Syrian town on their way to Jerusalem and killed everyone in sight. It was only later and almost by accident, when somebody turned the bodies over, that they found crosses around most of their victims’ necks. “It never occurred to them that Christians came in brown as well as white.”[3] They thought they were just plucking up weeds so that the seed of God’s reign might flourish in the Holy Land.

The same logic was at work in the Inquisition when men and women were tortured and killed solely to protect the pure wheat of the true faith from the noxious weeds of false doctrine. As late as the 19th century, women and men accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake in an effort to purge communities of the devil’s influence. It never occurred to those who conducted the witch-hunts that they were doing the devil’s work.

The simple division of humanity into weeds and wheat is a dangerous and deadly proposition. Evil is real, no doubt about it, but much of it is the result of people’s conviction of their own goodness or the unquestionable righteousness of their cause. When we look at the field of the world, and the mixed up mess that’s sprouting and growing there, we are not very likely to see ourselves as weeds, are we? No, we point the finger at anyone and everyone who doesn’t fit the patterns of our piety, our morality, or our politics. We know an infidel when we see one, and we have a hard time coming to terms with the possibility that, in the words of Anna Carter Florence, the infidel, he may be us.

We have a hard time coming to terms with the reality that the field of the world doesn’t just stretch before us, from our noses to the horizon, but rather within us. We are not farm hands who can stand on the edge of the field and talk about weed control, we are the mixed up crop that grows there. We are this entangled mess of wheat and weeds, and none of us is clearly one or the other.

Yes, the kingdom seed is in the world, and yes, it is growing, but it doesn’t grow unopposed: other things are growing, too. The field of the world is messier than we want it to be. The field of our life is messier than we want it to be. This congregation, even on our best days is messier than we want it to be. Everywhere we look, so many things don’t measure up to our expectations about the presence of God’s reign. And sometimes we are afraid that the weeds could take over the entire field and crowd out the wheat, and that would be the end of it.

But the master says to the anxious slaves, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Apparently, the growth of the weeds cannot interfere with the flourishing of the wheat. Is the master telling the slaves to do nothing? Doesn’t he know that the surest way for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing? Isn’t that exactly what happened in Germany and Rwanda? Isn’t that what happened in every crusade, every colonial invasion, every show trial? No, what happened there was that not nearly enough people had the courage to speak up and remind those getting ready for their purity raids that ridding the world of evil is not a task for armies, inquisitors, or crusaders, but for angels.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.[4]

Jesus calls us to trust the growth of God’s reign in the field of the world and to be patient. Evil is real but it cannot prevail. The causes of sin cannot stand in God’s judgment, and in the end goodness will abide. Perhaps you think that being patient and trusting sounds a lot like sitting on the couch with our hands in our laps and waiting for the angels to arrive. But it has very little to do with that; we must continue to live as followers of Jesus and as witnesses to the grace he embodied. And because of this grace that teaches our hearts to believe, we become less and less afraid to examine ourselves with a little more honesty under the gaze of Jesus. Over time, we might, of course, become a little less certain of ourselves and our opinions, but we might also become a little quicker to welcome one another in our shared imperfection.

The enemy of God’s good and righteous reign can do nothing against goodness and righteousness. The enemy can only sow the seeds of fear and suspicion, but that is enough to wreak havoc in the world. In the parable, the enemy goes away after sowing the weeds: no need to hang around. He depends on others to do his work for him, people convinced of their ability to identify the weeds in the garden of paradise, convinced of their own goodness and righteousness. “Goodness itself,” writes Robert Farrar Capon, “if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind.”[5] It never occurred to those who conducted witch-hunts and other purity raids that they were doing the devil’s work.

Resistance against God’s good and righteous reign is not just out there, but first and foremost in our own heart and mind. That is why Jesus warns us against the urge to create a paradise of purity by attempting to weed the world. He calls us to resist the exclusion of others that begins with the labels we use to categorize them as outsiders to God’s covenant community and that ends with murder. Jesus calls us to follow him in practicing mercy and trusting the judgment of God. He calls us to welcome one another in our shared imperfection and to surrender together to God’s desire and power to save us.


[1] Mark 4:26-29

[2] Matthew 13:36-39

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p.148

[4] Matthew 13:41-43

[5] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 102