The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Today’s gospel consists of two parts. First is the original parable of Jesus, handed down from disciple to disciple for several decades. The second half is an interpretation of the parable, probably written by an editor some 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The editor’s interpretation has Jesus telling us that his parable about allowing weeds and wheat to grow together is really about the end of the age, when angels will come and reap the final harvest, burning up all the wicked people, and rewarding the righteous in heaven.
This part was written during an extremely polarized and dangerous time. By 70 or 80 AD, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and scattered both Jews and Christians around the Mediterranean and Middle East. It was also during the beginning of violent persecutions against Christians.
It was, for the audience of Matthew’s gospel, the end of the world. They expected Jesus to come back in their lifetime and deal with this horrifying violence, to get rid of those evil people who had wiped Israel off the map and those who were destroying their Christian communities.
They also expected Jesus to protect and lift up the persecuted faithful who were only trying to follow the gospel, and make them shine like the sun in heaven. It is an understandable hope.
But what did Jesus mean when he originally told this parable? Taken by itself, it doesn’t necessarily point to an end time when God would separate people into evil and good, burning the former and rewarding the latter.
The parable is a simple farming metaphor. Jesus tells us to allow weeds to grow alongside wheat. The workers are instructed to avoid trampling through the tender shoots, ripping out what they thought were weeds, destroying the good grain in their zeal. No, let the weeds and wheat grow together until harvest time, when you can really tell the difference between them.
Told at a time before all the violence against Christians and Jews, this story seems to be about our tendency to judge one another, and to judge parts of ourselves we don’t like. It is about the difficulty of sorting out good from bad, and how if we try to do this too vigorously, we’ll destroy whatever good is there, too. Instead, we are to accept both the shadow and light within ourselves, and refrain from judging others as well, letting God sort these things out.
This month the bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, are meeting for their once-in-a-decade meeting in England. It is called the Lambeth Conference. A few bishops from conservative provinces are boycotting the gathering, refusing to sit down with American bishops who consented to the election of a gay bishop, Gene Robinson.
By their absence they are also protesting against the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in their minds, has not done nearly enough in excluding Bishop Robinson from Lambeth. They also want the Archbishop to exclude the whole American church, and if necessary, even to kick us out of the Anglican Communion.
They want to trample through the fields, furiously ripping out the weeds among the wheat. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the majority view, and it isn’t going to happen.
But it goes the other direction, too, doesn’t it? I’ve heard Democrats talk gleefully about the hope of dominating the Senate, the House, and the White House this year, finally getting rid of all those nasty Republicans. They want to trample through the fields, ripping out the weeds among the wheat.
And in the immigration debate today, some - but not all - of those who cry the loudest about militarizing our borders and arresting all the undocumented are motivated by racism and fear of the evil stranger. Everything will be fine if we rip out the weeds among the wheat.
Psychologists point out that this human tendency is a phenomenon called projection. We cannot tolerate what we think is evil within, and so we project it outward on to others. If I can get rid of it out there, maybe I won’t be tormented from within any more.
The classic example from years back is The Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, who vehemently condemned sexual immorality again and again on television, until he was caught with a prostitute in a motel room.
We all project our inner shadow outwards to others. It is just a matter of degree, and whether or not we recognize what we’re doing. I realized some time ago that the strong emotion I felt about our former bishop was partly a projection of my own issues about conflict and about father figures. Parents who go over the edge about a teenager’s messy room might really be trying to deal with their own lack of control in life.
The church provides us all with a golden opportunity to deal with our projections, if we choose to accept it. In this holy space, Republicans sit alongside Democrats and worship together. Transgendered people come up and get communion right along everyone else. PhD’s and homeless men off the ditchbank, tree-huggers and gas guzzlers – we’re all equal members of God’s family.
As we live alongside others who are very different from us in the church, we come up against our prejudices, our projections. We make judgments about others here by the way they dress, by the language they use about religion or politics, and in our minds we shift them from the category of “wheat” to “weeds.”
We have a very effective warning light that goes off on our dashboard that tells us when we’re probably projecting, and then judging others. It is a reaction that is disproportionate to the situation at hand. We can catch ourselves in the midst of a projection when we admit that our indignation against others might, in fact, be about ourselves.
We can also, as brothers and sisters in Christ, gently wonder aloud to the one who is all worked up about something Methinks thou dost protest too much; what’s really going on here?
If we are willing to look at ourselves, we shed light on our shadow and we offer God an opportunity to heal us. The way this healing happens, however, is not by ripping out our nasty weeds, but by transforming them into something healthy and good.
In the Sufi system of personality type called the Enneagram, this is called redeeming those traits that we think of as faults, transforming them from something destructive to something life-giving. The spiritual work that we share with the Spirit is largely this: identifying things about ourselves that are problematic, and then seeing how they can become healthy and good if we apply them in new ways.
Perhaps the squelched passion that you are ashamed of is, in fact, a potential source of creativity and joy. Perhaps the anger you try to hold at bay is a thirst for things to be set right. Perhaps your perceived lack of faith is a call to leave behind simplistic answers and travel bravely into the mysteries and paradoxes of the spiritual life.
Jesus advises us to let our weeds and wheat grow up together, until it becomes obvious what they are, when the Spirit will work with us, to transform us. Our inner weeds may turn out to be wheat, after all, and what we thought was good grain God may eventually reveal to be nothing but goatheads.
And what works within works without: the person whose bumper sticker in the parking lot you disdain may turn out to become a real compadre. After all, Jesse Helms and Bono, the lead singer of the rock group U2, became trusted friends as they worked together to deal with AIDS in Africa.
That’s what the church is supposed to be: very different people finding their common ground in Christ, not a monochromatic club of the like-minded.
In the end, the vision of heaven is not a population that has been cleansed of all evildoers, and our own redemption is not a self that has big chunks of it missing. Instead, heaven is a community whose members have finally found their true purpose, with all their traits made useful, and each one of us happy that everyone there has a part to play in God’s kingdom.