The Field of God

John Burton
St. James’, Eureka Springs
July 17, 2011
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 11
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

I grew up on a small farm, the kind that existed before World War II but mostly disappeared over the next generation. There I developed an attachment to sowing and reaping, a feel for the soil and the rhythms of life we associate with agriculture.

Many of the parables with which Jesus tried to describe the kingdom of heaven and stir the hearts and minds of his followers and listeners dealt with agricultural enterprise. The parable of the sower, the choking of the the wheat by the thorns, soil that is productive or unreceptive. In these, Jesus teaches fruitfulness in the face of fierce opposition; he calls his hearers to not get caught up in the moment but, just as fiercely, to hold on to the promise that the kingdom of heaven will prevail. His is a message of encouragement and hope if we can get past our tendency to hear his teaching with the fear and negativism of our culture.

Today’s parable deals with wheat and weeds – tares as they were called in the Authorized Version. Sandwiched between the parable and its explanation recorded by Matthew is another parable – the familiar dual stories of the mustard seed and the woman mixing a bit of yeast into a large amount of flour but the lectionary reserves that for another Sunday. Like all the parables, those who heard them were baffled – what the heck is he saying? How are we, how am I, to understand this? What am I to do? The word here is: Caution! Be very careful to assert too strongly the meaning of a parable.

“Weed” is, of course, a word used in reference to something growing where it is not wanted; it is a subjective term. I would like to have Bermuda grass overspread our lawn but try as I might, its most prolific growth occurs in the flower and vegetable beds. The lawn meanwhile is riddled with goose grass. This noxious weed, introduced years ago, has a particularly nasty trait – in late summer, its roots, tightly bound, sit just below the surface of the ground. My little people-powered push mower tends to pull small clumps of the weed into its blades and my mowing comes to an abrupt, sometimes painful halt until I clear the blockage.

Fire ants, kudzu, goose grass – small, prolific, pervasive, tenacious. All showing up where they are not wanted – challenging and changing the environment in which they are living. That is just like God’s field, that is just like the enterprise we call Christianity! It is certainly not a lofty and towering thing of beauty – although it has given rise to inspiring architectural achievements and noble actions.

But this kingdom is not something that sits comfortably and meekly discreet among the more attractive offerings of life in the world. For many, the goal seems to be to attempt building God’s kingdom by tearing out the weeds. But the problem with that is, when we decide to uproot the weeds, we tend to destroy the wheat along with it. I can’t help but think that if Jesus were telling this parable to a modern, urban audience, he might speak of a cancer that has shown up alongside healthy cells – in the process of uprooting the cancer, we often destroy healthy tissue as well. That is why it is essential to judge correctly and administer correction carefully.

Weeds, cancer, hatred, greed, anger – those things that seem detrimental to building a kingdom of love and of peace – run rampant in the world. Our impatience for judgment overreaches our ability to judge rightly. Sometimes the undesirable, the painful things we would pull up are necessary to the growth of our souls. No, a willingness to mix in with the weeds is our calling. God will deal with the source of those weeds. We easily slip into a pattern of judging others by the results of their lives, by the harvest that we see – but remember, it is God who sows liberally on all types of soil, into all types of lives. One of the complaints laid at Jesus’ feet was his friendship and association with sinners, with the outcast, with those whose lives were trodden down shallow, and full of faults.

Jesus often speaks of sowing and scattering seeds; little wonder early church leaders developed a vision of a church growing through the scattered seeds of persecution. After all, living in the field of the world comes at a cost. The kind of life created by the ruach – the spirit, the breath of God – and in communion with the Father through faith in the Son is meant to be neither innocuous nor luxurious. We are not called to be comfortable. The challenge is to accept that we, as the little things of the world, have responsibility and power to show forth the Kingdom of God, to bear fruit, to reveal a new and unending life in spite of difficulties, in spite of weeds that would choke our testimony to the power and truth of God’s creative love.

Now is not the time for judgment; it is the time for showing the love of Christ that we have received in our dealings with one another. We will perhaps be surprised to learn the outcomes of the lives of those who seem so far removed from what we think Christian living is – in due time, all will be revealed.

What seems to be in the flesh, too often contradicts that which is in the Spirit. In this life, our skills and tools for judging, for measuring eternal outcomes, is far too limited to be of much use. We often use those tools more for harm than for good.

Rather than wasting time weighing produce, let us live with joy and anticipation. Rather than being too ready to judge – ourselves or others – let us encourage one another. Rather than trying to hoard and protect our individual ministries, the meager bits we have managed to grow, let us be ready to glory in what others have to offer.

It is, after all, not about law; it is not about life in the flesh – what we see with our eyes and grasp with our minds – but, as Paul has put it:

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death … if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Spiritual produce – yields of thirty-, sixty-, even an hundredfold – the kind of fruit-bearing God expects. It is life eternal, life in Spirit, as Paul writes to the Galatians:

… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Gal 5:22-26)

May we let the parables challenge us, stir our minds and hearts, then may we act as the Spirit leads us in the world.