Between sowing and reaping

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a story about a farmer.

“This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvest time.”[1]

I bet folks fell in love with that story the moment they first heard it; many of them were farmers and they knew how much back-breaking work they had to put in before harvest time. Jesus’ story was full of promise and hope, and he made it sound effortless. Someone scatters seed and the earth produces crops all by itself; all the farmer does between sowing and reaping is sleep and wake. They loved hearing that story and they told it again and again, and it appears that by the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, it had absorbed some of the questions followers of Jesus had begun to ask: The kingdom, is it really that effortless? Aren’t we supposed to do more than sleep and wake and wait for the harvest? Yes, the seed of God’s reign is sprouting and growing, and we don’t know how, but we can see signs of it all around, but some other seed, nasty seed is also doing mighty well and showing no signs of withering away. What if it overwhelms the kingdom crop? Believers had questions like these, and the questions shaped how the story was told and retold; and when the gospel of Matthew was composed, weeds had become part of the story along with several other characters besides the sower.

Most scholars agree that the weed in the parable is darnel, an annual grass that grows plentifully anywhere wheat is grown.[2] The trouble with darnel is that its seeds are poisonous to people and livestock, and since they are similar in size and weight to wheat, they are very difficult to separate. No one really knows in what part of the world darnel evolved along with other grasses, but its seeds were found among burial gifts of wheat in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, so whoever had picked through the wheat for bad seed must have missed a few kernels… Very early in the history of agriculture, wheat became one of the most important crops, and like a stowaway on the ship of wheat’s success, darnel spread around the world. Darnel blends in; when it sprouts it looks just like wheat, and the earliest you can tell the two apart is when the ear appears on top of the stalk, and by that time, their roots are so tightly intertwined that pulling it up does more damage than good. Darnel blends in — some call it cheat wheat.

Field, seed, and weed make powerful metaphors. Here’s an excerpt from an article written by someone who appears to have concerns very similar to the ones expressed by the servants in Jesus’ parable:

“He who leaves the plants in a garden to themselves will soon find to his surprise that the garden is overgrown by weeds and that even the basic character of the plants has changed. If therefore the garden … is to lift itself above the harsh rule of natural forces, then the forming will of a gardener is necessary, a gardener who, by providing suitable conditions for growing, or by keeping harmful influences away, or by both together, carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds which would deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun.”[3]

The forming will of a gardener is necessary who carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds. The passage is from an article titled, Marriage Laws and the Principles of Breeding, written in 1930 by Richard W. Darré, one of the leading Nazi ideologists, who served as Hitler’s Minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 to 1942. Field, garden, seed, and weed make powerful and dangerous metaphors. Let me give you another example. In the year 1002, King Æthelred ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England, declaring that “all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.”[4] Speaking of weeds takes us chillingly close to the language and the practice of elimination and extermination. Darré knew exactly what weeds were depriving the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun, and who the better plants were, and King Æthelred clearly expressed the forming will of a gardener when he compared Danes in England to cockle amongst the wheat.

In the parable, the slaves see the mixed crop and they worry and ask the householder, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” The master knows it’s the work of an enemy.

“Then do you want us to go and gather them?”

“No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The master has great confidence in what he sowed in his field, only the servants are anxious. Darnel and wheat look too much alike, let them grow together, we hear him say. Anything that’s not supposed to grow in this field will be taken care of come harvest time. Don’t you worry, the good seed is in the earth, and it’s growing. The kingdom is in the world, and there’s not a spot where it’s not already at work. God’s reign doesn’t come unopposed, other things are growing, too, but don’t you worry, harvest time is coming. The world is messier than you want it to be, but the seed is in the earth. Your own life is messier than you want it to be, but God’s reign is already present. The church is messier than you want it to be, with all those people, including yourself, stumbling through ministry with barely a clue what it is God wants the church to be and do in this time, in this part of the world, but don’t you worry, the seed is in the earth. Nothing will stop the coming of God’s reign. The wheat and the weeds, let both of them grow together until the harvest. The enemy of God’s good and righteous reign can do nothing except sow the seeds of fear, pride and suspicion. So be careful — for once you’re convinced of your own goodness and the unquestionable righteousness of your cause, the enemy’s work is done: you’ll take it from there. You’ll look at the field of the world and the mixed up mess that’s sprouting and growing there, and you’ll start identifying the weeds. You’ll point the finger at anyone who doesn’t fit the patterns of your piety, your morals, your politics, your design of the perfect garden. You’ll quickly forget that the field of the world doesn’t just stretch before you, from your nose to the horizon, but rather within you.

The master reminds us that we are not farm workers standing on the edge of the field and talking about weed control; we are the mixed up crop that grows there. We are this entangled mess of wheat and weeds, all of us together and each of us personally. One commentator wrote,

[The enemy] has no power against goodness in and of itself: the wheat is in the field, the kingdom is in the world, and there is not a thing he can do about any of it. Evil, like darnel, is a counterfeit of reality, not reality itself. But the enemy has to act only minimally on his own to wreak havoc in the world; mostly, he depends on the forces of goodness, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work. That is precisely why the enemy goes away after sowing the weed: he has no need whatsoever 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. Goodness itself, in other words, 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]

Jesus calls us to trust the growth of God’s reign in the field of the world and to be patient. He calls us to live as his disciples, receiving and sharing the grace he embodied among us. Under grace, we become less afraid to look at ourselves with honesty, and over time, by the grace of God, we become a little less certain of our own perspectives and opinions, and a little more willing to welcome each other in our shared imperfection. Opposition and resistance against God’s reign is happening not just out there, but first and foremost in our own thinking, our own speaking and doing. That is why Jesus calls us to follow him in practicing mercy and trusting the judgment of God, and he warns us against the destructive impulse to imagine a paradise of purity we can create by ridding the world of weeds. He calls us to welcome each other in our shared imperfection and to trust God’s power to deliver us all from evil.

 

[1] Mark 4:26-29 CEB

[2] https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=LOTE2

[3] As quoted by Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Maldon, MA: Polity Press, 1991), 113-114.

[4] A Social History of England, 900–1200, edited by Julia Crick, Elisabeth van Houts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 218.

[5] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 87.

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