In this sermon, I’m going to offer a different interpretation of the usual interpretation of what used to be called the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. I think it is in line with Jesus’ teaching in this part of Matthew’s Gospel and speaks to us today in this fractious time.
On the surface, this parable might strike us as a story of injustice to the landowner. The landowner has been wronged by some hidden or secret enemy who sowed weeds in the crop. The wheat would then not be as good as if it grew by itself without the weeds. (There’s a whole other sermon and story about the type of weed that was sown with the wheat; it may have been darnel, which has specific qualities and a place in history in Palestine. Another time!)
Right off, we might identify with the landowner in the story that Jesus told about wheat and weeds! Shouldn’t we punish that so-and-so who sowed weeds in the field of wheat? Shouldn’t we pull up the weeds? Shouldn’t we get some justice? These may have been the public questions the farmhands asked.
But the under-story, the story that you must think through is a little more subtle and complex, and much more in line with Jesus. Among themselves, the farmhands maybe thought, “Sometimes you reap what you sow. Sometimes there is some justice in the world and the landowner got what was deserved.”
With whom did the people listening to Jesus’ story identify? Likely not the wealthy landowner. More likely with the farmhands. They saw themselves as downtrodden people. They saw themselves perhaps as those who’d been cast aside by an uncaring world and uncaring leaders. The Romans didn’t care about them. Seemingly, the Pharisees didn’t, either. And Temple Priests and leaders in Jerusalem? The people around the Galilee didn’t live in Jerusalem and were not well regarded in the general scheme of things. And this section of parables is the contrast between the in and out-crowd. Jesus was talking to the out-crowd.
A landowner with farmhands carried a lot of power and a lot of clout, and wheat was a rich person’s crop. The farmhands and others who were day labourers or held poor paying jobs had to make do with barley. And the barley was likely in the form of meal rather than flour; it was coarse and inexpensive.
It’s illuminating that Matthew would offer this parable of the wheat and weeds at this point in the story of Jesus. There’s something bigger going on here in the narrative. A “death threat” was levelled against Jesus for healing on the Sabbath day and for picking corn and eating it on the Sabbath; this was just in the last chapter. The Pharisees plotted against Jesus, Matthew records. Jesus engaged in civil disobedience and disrupted the status quo that rewarded the rich and powerful. He was the prophet from Nazareth after all!
When you read this parable of wheat and weeds with the other parables in this section of Matthew’s Gospel, there’s an overarching theme; Jesus speaks about a common wealth and about the common good. Last week, Jesus’ parable was about this amazing yield from seed sown in fertile soil: 100, 60 and even 30-fold. This was a manifesto of sorts to suggest that there is an abundance in which all can share and no one needs to go into debt to feed their family! It was a Jubilee act of freedom and God’s radical love, a restoration to equality and a return to the land, which, when tended well and fairly, yields abundance for all!
And after today’s parable of the wheat and weeds, we hear the parables of the mustard seed and yeast. You’ll likely hear about these parables from Robin, perhaps in her sermon next week, but in brief, they are parables about how from something small and innocuous, something wondrous and life-giving can grow. Imagine bread from yeast when mixed with water, salt and flour—even barley. Imagine a very tiny seed producing a plant like the Black Mustard giving life to birds and others and providing colour and flavouring to dishes.
This is all fitting when we remember that Jesus was a champion of equal rights, of gathering into community those who had been pushed outside of society, of including and welcoming, of pushing past patriarchal and domineering positions to create a new Kindom of Heaven—a new community—where hope abounds but where there is abundance here and now—abundant justice, abundant life, abundant love, abundant existence. And where even the tiniest of beings is huge in God’s sight.
Carrying this idea of everyone together creating the Kindom of God forward 2000 years, here’s a story from 1985. At the American Academy of Religion, Katie Geneva Cannon presented an essay called The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness. Just before her presentation, she fainted, a not unexpected thing if you were a black woman in a room full of white theologians. And also, if you were presenting a paper on Black Feminist and Womanist theology! She recovered and presented her paper. Cannon, with other black women at the time, went on to weave a theology that affirms the significance of black women’s talk of God and religion as well as affirming black women living beyond survival into abundance. Eboni Marshall Turman wrote about Cannon when she published an article in The Christian Century magazine last year called Black Women’s Faith, Black Women’s Flourishing. A few paragraphs were quoted on Ched Myer’s website, Radical Discipleship; Eboni Marshall Turman wrote:
At the heart of this faith is love: unapologetic self-love in a world that has historically despised black women; love for the Spirit; and a deep love of creation, culture, joy, and laughter. Womanist theology loves out loud. And it loves widely. Womanism is deeply concerned about the well-being of the entire community. In a womanist garden, every person matters. Womanist theology is aimed at supporting all oppressed communities in the work of liberation while affirming black women’s capacities, wisdom, and independence.
This is Jubilee at work today and we are all called. This is Jesus at work in the world today sowing seeds. This is the love of the Kindom of God at work. This is the work to which we’ve been called: where love informs us, builds us up in the work of liberation, wisdom, interdependence, and hope.
May it be so. Amen.