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Wheat, Weeds, and the Strange Work of God: Matthew 13
Amen. Thank you, Jake. Go with me if you will to Matthew, chapter 13.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for an unknown amount of time, and main point of the book is also, many would argue, the main point of the New Testament: to reveal Christ and his kingdom. I say reveal, because both in Matthew’s time and in our world, the kingdom of God, and God himself, are largely hidden. We don’t expect to watch the news and have the weather forecast include choirs of angels arriving from the east around 2pm. But Matthew and Jesus are constantly telling everyone, though the kingdom of God is hidden and our world is overwhelmingly blatant, the kingdom of God is more real than the world we can see. More real, and more true. Jesus also tells us, though his kingdom is hidden, it’s not far away. It’s at hand. If you reach out, you just might touch it; or God’s kingdom may find you.
Last week Jesus told a parable in which God is a terrible farmer, and he’s going to continue with that same theme in what we’ll read today. But this week, as last week, even though in the story he’s a terrible farmer, he’s an astoundingly good and beautiful God. Last week Jesus imagined a story where a farmer goes out into his field to plant it, and as he’s spreading the seed, he’s sending it everywhere—on the road, in the weeds, on rocks. Jesus explains later, that’s just how God gives his gospel and his wisdom to the world: without finding any kind of fault, without any kind of regard for the person who may receive his word.
God sends his people to Judea and Samaria, down roads and through weeds where no one’s ever heard the gospel before. No one may believe, but he’s still bringing his word there. Large suburban amphitheaters and small rooms downtown. He loves the whole world. Every last one of us. Rich, poor, conservative, liberal, open-minded, hard-headed—he doesn’t see people the way we so often do. He wants us to know him, and he wants us to live by his word, because in his word we’ll grow and produce fruit, enough to nourish the people around us.
This week, again, we find a bad farmer, but an astoundingly good and beautiful God. Read with me, Matthew 13, starting in v.24. [Matthew 13:24-52] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
There are so many parallels between this passage and what we read last week that you have to allow the passages to interpret each other. Again, Jesus tells a parable, cites the scriptures to explain the parable, and then explains it even more thoroughly, just like last week; the structure is the same. And just like last week, God is a terrible farmer.
I love to garden, and somehow we gardeners find each other. We spot each other by the dirt under our nails, maybe. But however it happens, I know a lot of gardeners, and I know a lot of farmers. My wife’s family operates a farm, and my parents live in Vidalia, so if you need some onions, I can hook you up. But every true gardener and every farmer I know hates weeds with a burning passion.
I asked Jess a few weeks ago about how to get rid of Virginia Creeper, and she got visibly angry and snorted. And every farmer, every gardener, knows exactly, from the moment the plant comes up through the soil, which is the crop and which is the weed. Not so with the farmer in this story. I’ve been known to get home, park in the driveway, and never make it to the door of my house, because I looked through my fence and saw some weeds in the garden. I’m out there wearing my bag, in my good clothes, pulling weeds from the dirt, but the farmer in our story waits.
He doesn’t just wait to change out of his good clothes, he waits the whole season. His servants are less patient. Let us go out and pick the weeds, they say, but he stops them. He won’t let them. Why? He’s knows that if they go out to pick the weeds from the garden, they might pick some of the wheat as well, and that thought is unimaginable to him. So instead he waits. As he’s out watering his crops, he’s watering the weeds as well. As he’s aerating the soil, fertilizing it, all of that helps the weeds as well, but he’s not doing all of that for the weeds. Everything he does it to help his crops grow. The weeds he abides in patience.
He’s a terrible farmer, but an astoundingly good and beautiful God. Jesus, just like last week, gives us two helps in understanding his parables, one help to understand the parable in the light of what his hearers already knew to be the infallible word—what we would call the Old Testament, but what they would have known as the only Scriptures—and he gives them a second help of flatly explaining it to his disciples. But just like last week, I don’t want us to get so wrapped up in having an explanation that we forget to consider the parable, itself.
This week, let’s start with the explanation. It’s fairly straightforward, and gives us some straightforward takeaways. If you remember a few weeks ago, we talked about the two real sides the exist in the world. Humanity is obsessed with choosing sides and drawing lines. National boundaries, racial divisions, political parties. We like to tell ourselves we’re on the right side, and we like to disparage the people on the wrong side, but Jesus insists: to quote John Perkins, “There is only one race; the human race.” And there are only two real sides according to Jesus: the kingdom of God, and the kingdoms of men.
Just like last week, Jesus explains, God is the farmer who goes out to sow, and this is slightly different: last week we were the soil, this week we are either wheat or weeds. He says, the wheat are the children of the kingdom of God, the weeds are the children of the kingdoms of men, and he says God’s patience is going to wait until the very end. Until the Day of the Lord, until he returns, the rain of the earth will fall in the field on the wheat and the weeds alike, and the sun will shine on them both. But in the end, only the sons of the kingdom will be brought to the feast table. The weeds will be burned like chaff, useless to the true purpose of humanity.
The straightforward takeaways are to understand the enemy is always working, and the judgement of God is inevitable. We have to expect to encounter a spirit of the age that is counter to, an enemy to, the Spirit of God working in the world. And I would argue, not only is the judgement of God inevitable, it is blessed, and beautiful, and I long for it: the justice and truth of a righteous judge with authority over and above every nation.
That’s the explanation, but if your focus because of the explanation shifts to judgement and the Day of the Lord, I think you’re missing the point. Judgement is certainly present in the parable, and the end of time, but that’s not really the focus of the passage as a whole. If I were to say what, at it’s core, this passage is about, I would say it is less about the end times, the Day of the Lord, and more about the steadfast love and mercy of God in this present day. Just like last week, the focus here is not our inability to receive the truth of God, but rather God’s incredible magnanimity in revealing himself to us all the same, even when he knows we’re unlikely to produce any fruit.
Again, the remarkable part of the story isn’t that the farmer eventually pulls the weeds—he was always going to do that; judgement is necessary. The remarkable part of the story, the thing the servants don’t fully understand is that the farmer waits. He waits. The remarkable thing in this passage is our God’s patience with us, and how steadfastly he loves people, even the people he knows aren’t his own.
Listen to this passage we’ve already read earlier in Matthew, because it will help us to understand what’s being revealed here:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Our parable today is not the only place in Matthew where we see God the farmer watering and caring for the weeds and the wheat alike.
I read a book this week that has been invading my heart and thoughts in a good way, and I think it can help us understand. It’s called “Gentle and Lowly,” which comes from Jesus’ own description of his heart in Matthew 11: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” It’s helped me think through the difference in this parable between God who waits and his servants, who are eager to pull the weeds.
The book introduced me to an idea in puritan writing and theology of the natural work verses the strange work of our God. The idea is, only some of the work of God in the world is natural to him—it reflects his heart—but other work he does out of necessity; that’s the strange work. And I know most of the time we think of the puritans and we think of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but actually, the puritans widely believed the judgement of God to be his strange work. It was necessary, but it wasn’t really his heart for his people. And they point out, God’s natural work is his mercy.
Listen to how God describes himself to Moses in what is, again, like last week, one of the most commonly known passages in the Old Testament to the people of Jesus’ day: Exodus 34:  The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” In other words, God isn’t going to ignore injustice and overlook evildoing in the earth, but his mercy is a thousand times greater than his anger.
The book I was reading brings up, all through the Old Testament, whenever God’s anger is mentioned, it almost always says God was provoked to anger. His anger is a just response to the sins of humanity. But not once does the Bible say God was provoked to mercy. Mercy overflows naturally in him. Interesting, in scripture, humanity in its fallenness is just the opposite. It says we have to provoke one another to love, provoke each other to speak truth. Our natural work is division. That’s what we fall into if we aren’t provoked by the Spirit to love. Unity and love are strange to us in our fallenness; our sin creates divides between us. God’s natural work is mercy and steadfast love. His anger waits with patience.
I know the servants in the explanation of our parable are God’s angels, Jesus says that, but I think we humans act just like them. We, like them, are less patient than our God. We see weeds in any of our fields, big or small, and we run to God to tell him about them, to ask him if we can tear them up, and he tells us, beautifully, astoundingly, to wait.
I’ve seen this impulse, this impatience in humanity to tear up the weeds, even if they take some wheat them them, on a number of levels. One, on a personal level, we’re impatient with ourselves. If we ever stop to consider our own sins and flaws, we become overwhelmed with guilt and shame. Many of us have stopped any and all reflection just to avoid feeling this way, or flip side of the same coin, we’ve stopped expressing our freedom in Christ to play it safe when really, for more than avoidance, what we need for ourselves is mercy. We need to be able to look at the things we regret, look at the ways we need to change, in the eye, and know that in spite of those sins and failures, you are able to be forgiven, welcomed, and loved in Christ. He’ll remove the weeds in your life by the end, and until then the things that make you weak only show his grace and mercy to abound to his glory.
On an interpersonal level, I want us to really think about what this parable means for us, practically, as a church. I got lunch with my pastor friend John this week, whose been doing this way longer than I have. I asked him, when you see something wrong, some sin in a person or in your group, how hard do you push? Or how long do you wait, and abide some sin or disagreement before you intentionally put some distance between you? Without even knowing this passage is what I was writing about through the week, he brought it up and said, “What I’ve learned is, some things are above my pay grade.” Then he started talking about mistakes he had made as a pastor, people who got burned and left his church, hurt.
We’re asked to judge all kinds of matters in churches. The Bible asks us to mediate small disputes without dragging each other into court, weigh evil from good, call out injustice, flee from sexual immorality, all kinds of instruction about bringing order into the fellowship of believers. But we’re not allowed to decide who God adopts as his children, and every time we try, it’s disastrous.
I’ve seen churches speak a lot of truth, but the love sometimes was nowhere to be found. The way you say things matters. The phrase “I love you, but,” is worth about as much in my mind as the phrase, “I’m sorry, but,” and neither phrase is worth the time it takes to say it. I’ve seen a lot of churches discipline members, but sometimes their discipline and discipleship had nothing to do with each other. Again, fallen humans as we are, anger and division are natural works for us. The strange work for us is reconciliation.
We are like the servants, eager to go pull up the weeds even if some of the wheat gets burned in the process. Our God, though, is slow to anger and abounding instead in steadfast love. He will by no means clear the guilty, but if one of his sheep falls into a pit, he leaves the rest of the herd to go get it. Humans most of the time, when someone falls into a pit, we warn the other 99—stay away from that pit, otherwise you might fall in, too. We don’t even think about climbing down after him.
It takes wisdom. There are weeds in every church, and its tempting to tear them out, but the kingdom of God is like a farmer who waits for the rain to fall and the sun to shine on weed and wheat alike. In the end, some things are above our pay grade, and we need to rest in the patience of our God who gives growth.
I included the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven because they help point out a big difference between wheat and people—they help round out the parable we spent most of our time on. The big difference between people and wheat is, people can change. In the end, I think that’s really what God is waiting for. People don’t change of themselves, of course, but Jesus can do all kinds of things we can’t—he turns water into wine, changes lepers’ spots, and he turns weeds into wheat. If you’re sitting here wary of the end, scared of what Christ may make of you, I would tell you to give your life over to him. He’ll change you in all the ways you most desperately long to be changed, all the ways you most desperately need to change to be the person you want to be for your family and community. The mustard seed and the leaven teach us that.
If you truly accept the truth of God, it’s like dropping a single speck of yeast into a large amount of flower. Change will take a while in a person’s life, but eventually, that speck of truth will change the whole person. Or the parable of the mustard seed, that small seed you can barely see, it becomes large enough to bring life to the whole field. People can change, not of themselves, but Christ is able to change us. It takes a long time, a lifetime, but God has no trouble waiting in patience for us.
My invitation to you this morning is to embrace the patience of our creator who forgives seventy times seventy times, who welcomes prodigals home and eats with sinners and tax collectors, both. The patience of a farmer who would wait through a whole season before uprooting the designs of his enemy.