Sermon - 20th July 2014
Wheat and Weeds
Scripture - Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Just 100 miles down the road from here, in the University of Birmingham, during the 1970s and 80s, a theologian of international repute, Michael Goulder, was developing a theory about the nature of the Christian gospels. In particular, he was drawing attention to the fact that the first Christians were followers of the Jewish faith, will have viewed everything from a world filled with Jewish traditions, and will have observed a religious calendar defined by Jewish festivals and commemorations.
In our Christian tradition, we are used to following a calendar based on seasons such as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and a Christianized form of Pentecost. At the time of Jesus, and in those years after his death when the earliest forms of Christianity were beginning to take shape and out of which the earliest forms of the gospels came, the religious calendar spoke of festivals such as Shavu’ot (celebrating the giving of the Jewish law in the Torah), Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Pesach (which we know as Passover), Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement), Sukkot (commemorating the 40 years of wandering in the desert and which became a celebration of harvest-time and God’s provisions for his people), and Chanukah (celebrating the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple).
Our Christian scriptures make specific links with some of these festivals. Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion are intimately connected with the preparations for Passover. The descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of flame upon the disciples after Jesus’s death takes place on the day of Shavu’ot, or Pentecost. And in John’s gospel (chapter 7, verse 2,) Jesus is in Jerusalem as the Feast of Sukkot, or Tabernacles, is approaching and his disciples warn him that he could be in danger from the incoming crowds.
These festivals were the pulse and rhythm of the religious calendar of the first Christians: it sometimes shocks us to recall that Jesus, his followers and the gospel-writers knew nothing of Advent, Lent, Epiphany or Trinity: these were yet to be invented and effectively painted over the original canvas of Jewish cycles and seasons.
Michael Goulder looked at the patterns of worship in the Jewish faith, and looked at the pattern of stories presented in the Christian gospels. He considered how the earliest expressions of Christian belief had grown within the Jewish communities, and had been explored and expressed within the synagogues, as a kind of reforming Judaism alongside other expressions of Jewish belief. And he began to ask whether the structure of the Jewish religious year was still deeply embedded within the structure of the Christian gospels. Were the gospels, perhaps, devised as parallel, alternative, Jesus-focused interpretations of how God was speaking in new ways through the annual festivals and commemorations of the Jewish tradition? [See M.D. Goulder "Luke: a new paradigm", and "The Evangelists' Calendar"; as well as Goulder's ideas extensively taken up in J.S. Spong "Liberating the Gospels".]
One of his most convincing examples was the cluster of harvest-themed stories found in the chapter of Matthew’s gospel from which today’s reading comes. He puzzled over why Matthew had placed so many similarly themed stories together at this point in his narrative.
The Jewish festival of Sukkot (or Tabernacles) had a strong harvest theme and lasted seven days. It would normally occur in the Jewish calendar some time between the last weeks of September and the middle weeks of October. And Matthew’s gospel provides, in close succession in chapter 13, seven stories with a harvest theme, or which speak of thanksgiving for God’s providence. Were these stories Matthew’s way of providing, for each of the seven days of the Jewish Harvest Festival, a Jesus-themed parable to reinforce the message of the Jewish Christians that Jesus fulfilled the teachings of the Law?
When today we barely recognise any kind of harvest celebration in our church calendars, it seems odd to recollect that, for the Jews, the celebration of how God provides for his people was worthy of a seven-day festival and pilgrimage. Unless we have direct links to a farming community, we tend to live in a world where the seasonality of ‘harvest’ has virtually disappeared. There is a real sense in which international patterns of food production have eliminated any true concept of a harvest season. But this may also mean that we are also at risk of losing the religious associations and insights which we used to apply to ourselves, based on the rich imagery of harvest-time; such as being seeds which are growing in God’s field.
Today’s gospel reading is one of those insights. It offers an unexpected slant on the harvest theme because it challenges us to leave judgments about value and worth until God decides it is time to make such judgments. When the reading starts, we expect to be told that the wheat and the weeds should not be allowed to grow together; but instead, Jesus tells his listeners that the wheat and the weeds should not be disturbed until they are fully grown, and then the harvesters will make the separation.
If this is a parable about the Kingdom of God, doesn’t it tell us that in that Kingdom room is left for surprises and for unexpected outcomes? Is there an opportunity for someone considered unwanted in their early stages to turn out to be of real value to the Kingdom when given time to grow and mature? Is there also an opportunity for our own judgments about what constitutes a weed and what constitutes good grain to change over time. We often hear experienced gardeners saying that there is no such thing as a weed - only a plant that is in the wrong place. Does the Kingdom of God encourage us to help people who find themselves in the wrong place to move into a better environment for their particular attributes?
We can assume that some of Jesus’s original listeners will have experienced the destruction that can be caused to a field of grain by over-aggressive weeding. However the weeds may have got there, they can become intertwined with their neighbours and impossible to separate. The wise choice in the parable seems to be to avoid rushing to over-hasty action based on premature judgment. The long view is what is called for because God’s wisdom will ultimately prevail.
In today’s world, I can think of a recent debate where time was asked for, so that a deeper shared understanding of a complex issue could be allowed to reach maturity. And I was aware of some discontent that more time was given because the ‘weeds’ were thought to be holding back the growth of the thriving grain.
In my personal friendships, I can think of people who were unhappy in the situations in which they found themselves, and, as a result, they stifled the development of people around them. But when they grew in understanding, and transplanted themselves into new environments, they flourished and were a joy to those whose lives they touched.
And I can think of times when I’ve seen friendships, relationships, careers, even whole lives suffer when premature judgment has led to over-hasty action and uprooting the weed has damaged the lives of others in the same ecosystem in ways which had never been foreseen.
Parables are not designed to embody the whole truth of any situation. They act like a magnifying glass which brings some things into focus but which ignores much of the surrounding context. Today’s parable shares a view of the Kingdom in which judgments are not made too hastily. It may need to be counterbalanced by equally convincing insights which suggest that some critical signs are not to be ignored nor essential interventions delayed. The wisest choice in any situation is rarely blindingly obvious and no single insight will apply in every case.
But wisdom comes with growth, and with spiritual maturity, and they both take time to reach a full and generous harvest. All the harvest parables in Matthew, which offer a Christian perspective to the harvest themes of the ancient Jewish festival of Sukkot, invite us to grow to spiritual maturity in ways which reflect the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps these parables in Matthew are prompting us to hold our own harvest festival now, at the end of July - it’s as good a time as any in today’s world of imports, air miles and never-ending availability. The rich heritage of the Festival of Sukkot, which probably inspired Matthew to collect these stories, is still there in the background as a celebration of God’s providence for creation because it was certainly part of the rhythm and culture of the first Christians out of whose experience our gospels came.
And the promise of today’s parable - the insight from one of those ever-so-Jewish gospels - takes us back to an image that we are grain in God’s field, seeking to be fruitful and to add value to the harvest, and that God will not rush to judgment on how our growth is progressing, so neither should we.