living in a messy garden

Our story for today is from Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.  It’s a story of a garden filled with good seed and weeds, and workers who are chomping at the bit to jump in and pull out the weeds.  It’s a story that I turn to time and again when I’m getting overly judgmental, or when I can’t imagine that things are going to turn out okay.  More thoughts after the jump.


This story could read like a pitch for a religiously themed horror movie, couldn’t it?  Son of Man, end of the age, devil, children of the evil one, angels, furnace of fire, gnashing of teeth – I’m scared already!

Let’s unpack this and see if we find a good word.  This parable is part of a series of parables that describe God’s reality.  What does God’s reality look like?  How can we share it?  Why do some people get on board with it, and others don’t?  If we’ve come to know God’s reality, how are we to live?

This parable deals with that final question, and illustrates it with a problem every gardener faces.  Weeds threaten to invade, deer eat the most tender leaves, and dogs dig up your favorite flowers.  Jesus is saying, the way it is in your gardens, that’s how it is in the world, folks.

God’s doing good stuff in the world.  But it’s not perfect: there are hateful people and wars and greed and all sorts of weeds growing in the garden.

And the workers in the story, who stand in for us, want to know why?  Why are there weeds?  To put it really plainly, the question is, why is there evil?  When we set out to do good, why does evil sprout up?  And then the second question: what should we do about it?

We’re going to spend most of our time on the second question, just like the parable does, but let’s not skip the first question.  The workers ask, “Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field?  Where did these weeds come from?”  The answer is startling in its simplicity.  The landowner answers, “An enemy did this.”

We will not have a full answer this side of the grave about all the complexities of evil.  But this text makes at least two unequivocal claims.

First, some say, evil’s not real, it just looks like evil.  It’s all part of the divine plan and things that seem bad aren’t really.  But Jesus says this isn’t a matter of one person’s weed is another’s wildflower.  Nope.  There may be wildflowers in the field, but there are also plain old weeds.  Evil is real.

And the second claim is this: God is not the author of that evil.  What that does to questions of God being all-powerful, and why evil persists, are questions for another day.  Jesus doesn’t deal with them here, as much as we might want him to.  What Jesus teaches here is this: your eyes aren’t fooling you.  There are weeds in that field, and God did not sow them.

Who did?  An enemy.  Later this passage names that enemy, the Evil One, the devil.

Now.  Talk of the devil makes some of us uneasy, and with good reason.  Let me be frank.  I am not talking about some creature with horns and a tail.  That sort of thing is nonsense.  But, to act like our options when it comes to the devil are either to believe in some kind of gremlin or to refuse to enter into the conversation at all is shortsighted.

Here’s what I think we should take seriously when it comes to a theology of evil.  Evil’s power, like love’s power, is more than the sum of its parts.  We all know that the love in any relationship is more than the love that each person brings to it.  Love is not a matter of addition.  3 + 3 = 6.  No, love is exponential isn’t it?  3 squared = 9  Love begets love, more love than we can imagine.  To my mind, love is a force as real as gravity.

Evil, similarly, can be exponential in the death it deals.  Lies lead to more lies.  Violence begets violence.  Evil, like love, has a life of its own.  That is the truth that talk of the evil one, the enemy, the devil tries to get at.

If those names don’t help you get at the truth that evil has a life of its own, well then, get rid of the names.  But do not, in getting of the labels, imagine that the thing no longer exists.  That’s ceding too much ground.  We can not be faithful and deny the real power of evil in our world.

So, what now, we ask with the workers.  What do we do about the wars that do not cease, the selfishness and greed that causes some to hoard while others starve, the people who seem to take pleasure in doing wrong?  What do we do about the evil that lives in our own hearts?  What do we do about all of these weeds?  Shouldn’t we pull them out?

And here’s the shocking part.  The master says no.  Leave them be.  Do not pull out those weeds.

Seriously?  Don’t pull out the weeds?  They’re threatening to overwhelm the crops, and we’re supposed to just live with it?  Just nurture this wheat in the midst of the weeds?

And the Lord says, yes, that’s exactly what I mean.  You are bound to pull out some wheat while you’re trying to weed.  Y’all have a lot of energy and passion, but you’re not really so good at telling the wheat from the weeds.  Sit tight.  We’ll sort it out come harvest time.

But, but, but, all of us, who long for a better world, a fairer community, who ache to be better people, we all sputter at this notion that God’s answer in the face of all these weeds is to just sit tight.

Let’s be clear, taken within the full context of Matthew’s gospel this is not a command to never do anything at all.  We are still to proclaim that there is a love that is stronger than death.  We are still to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and free the captive.  And when we find ourselves in the midst of evil, in work that is unethical, in relationships that are abusive, in patterns of behavior that cause pain, Jesus isn’t saying, just sit around and see how it turns out.  No, we’re called to name that evil, shake the dust off of our sandals, and walk on.

But, for so many of us, and I can be one of the first to raise my hand on this, the temptation is to imagine it’s up to us, that we’re the ones who need to weed the whole world, that the defeat of all evil is our job.  We imagine that we should be perfect people, that our hearts should be perfectly weeded, all traces of evil torn out of our personalities.  We imagine that we should be able to name and root out all of the evil in our families, our congregation, our community, our world.

But Jesus says, peace, be still.  Truth is, you’re not always such a great judge.  And the weeds and the wheat are growing pretty closely together.  You need a dose of divine patience.

It’s such a tempting thing isn’t it, to judge?  Whether we are more prone to turn that judging eye on others around us or on ourselves, we’re all prone to it in some way.  But the truth is, we’re not always so good at it.

It makes me think of how we often try to solve ecological problems by exterminating one species, and then we find that it was essential for keeping something else in check, and we have a whole new nuisance on our hands.

Or in our own hearts.  When we try to deny or repress or kill off some part of ourselves that we think is no good, the problems multiply, don’t they?

Be patient, counsels Jesus.  You’re not always such a good judge.  Truth be told, there’s relief in hearing him say that, isn’t there?  Deep down, we know we’re not so great at judging.

That temptation to judge can be particularly strong within our communities of faith.  As a Baptist, I grew up hearing lots of jokes about why there are so many Baptist churches.  The punchline always had to do with someone getting mad, and moving across the street to start their own church.  It’s the same old story.

As we, as a congregation, work on discerning how God is calling us to serve our neighborhood, I have no doubt we’ll have this temptation.  We will have different ideas about where God is calling us.  And some of the ideas that others come up with will seem wrong-headed or counter-productive, they’ll seem like weeds, choking off the growth of our own good idea.  Be patient, counsels our master gardener.  Live with the mess a while.

Yes, there’s evil in the world.  There are things that move against the imperative of love, in our churches, in our communities, in our families.  There are things in our own hearts that mar the image of God.  There are a lot of weeds.  But sit tight, says the master gardener.  You’re not such a great judge of what’s a weed and what’s a flower that simply hasn’t bloomed yet.  Be patient.

Because, says our Lord, I am the lord of the harvest.  I not only plant, but I reap as well.  Those weeds do not get the last word.  I do.

And we come to the end of our parable.  And we might be tempted to ignore the ending, what with all its talk of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It’s scary stuff, isn’t it?

The way author of Matthew tells the story, there are some people who are good seed and some who are bad.  And the bad seed, well, come harvest time, into the fire with you.  But as Christians we never read passages in isolation.  We read this in the context of the full testimony of scripture.  And the rest of scripture tempers Matthew’s take on things somewhat.

The overarching witness of scripture is this: we are created in God’s image.  We are fundamentally good.  All of us.  Each of us.  None of us is wholly bad seed, completely irredeemable, fit only for the fire.  We each carry the holy image of God within us.

But there is also evil in our hearts.  We know this, don’t we?  Paul put it so eloquently.  He said, I do not do what I want, I do the very thing I hate.  Each of us is a field, planted by God with good seed, and invaded by the enemy with weeds.  Our churches are the same way.  Our communities and societies too.  At times it seems like those weeds are going to win.  And the temptation to play judge, to try to pull up the weeds in our own hearts, in our communities, that temptation is so strong.

But our gardener counsels patience.

The good news is this: we are not forever doomed to live as a mix of weeds and wheat.  The one who sows the seed, harvests as well.  Our God will judge righteously and tear out the weeds, the weeds within each of us, and throughout our world.  The greed, the selfishness, the jealousy, the pride, the hatred, all of those things in us and in our world that deal death, come harvest, will be pulled out.  Our God will redeem the goodness within us, and within all of creation and will burn away all the rest.

It is only because we trust in that, only because we have faith in God’s power to judge and redeem the good in us, that we can find the courage to persevere in this messy, weed strewn world.  We can bear to have patience in the face of evil because we know who gets the last word, we know who holds the whole world.  We can find the strength to continue to stand on the side of the good seed, continue seeking the righteous ways, because we know who is lord of the harvest.

Here’s the truth, the truth that sets us free, that gives us courage for the days ahead, that holds us up when we’re weary, that undergirds our hope when we have lost hope, that makes a way out of no way, this is the truth: Love wins.

Love has tilled this ground and sown good seed.  As we tend our corner, and do our bit in the garden of love, sharing the good news about the love that saves us, sharing that love with our neighbors, we’re able to keep laboring in the vineyard because we have the patience that comes with knowing how the story ends.  Death does not get the last word.  No, no, friends.  Christ has leapt up from that grave.  Love wins.  Come harvest, love will win in each of us, throughout this world.  That, friends, is the great good news of the gospel.  That is the light we bear in the world.  May we bear it well.

Sarah Winsett Wiles
Bethany Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2011
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3 Responses to living in a messy garden

  1. Carolyn Joy says:

    Thank you for the those words of hope that love wins and the weeds won’t overcome.

  2. mahrilf says:

    Really beautiful, Sarah. Thank you.

  3. Morgen says:

    What a lovely message. Thank you, Sarah.

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