The parable of the wheat and the weeds is about creating the right environment for everyone to “shine like the sun.”
There are some problems we face as a world community that are simultaneously very simple and very complex. For example, climate scientists have recommended that plant-based diets are one of the best ways for human communities to slow climate change. The rationale has been that feeding animals, especially cattle, requires enormous amounts of energy to produce beef. Beyond that, cows produce a lot of methane, which is one gas that is causing our planet to warm.1
However, there are other scientists that say plant-based diets are not enough to slow or reverse climate change.2 Some even warn that plant-based diets can have dangerous health consequences.3 I recently overheard friends at a dinner party ponder how plant-based diets would impact soil content, if we were forced to grow more crops to feed more people. There is also the cultural problem of all the meat-based meals and products we have come to enjoy. How does one effect cultural change on such a large scale?
While the advice of scientists to adopt a more plant-based diet seems simple enough, and even soundly logical and well-reasoned, it’s actually very complex advice. The problem of climate change is complex. Human communities are complex. Cultural norms are complex. Food culture is complex. Even our trust in scientists and our relationship to science is complex.
The fact is, there are very few problems that have crystal-clear solutions. Binaries are often false, and there are shades of grey all around us. When an issue is presented as having clear right or wrong properties, we should slow down and ask questions.
The parable of the weeds among the wheat is presented as a straight-forward situation. Someone has planted a wheat field, but their efforts have been sabotaged by an enemy who sowed weeds among the wheat. It is now impossible to separate the weeds from the wheat until it is time to harvest. The weeds represent children of the evil one while the wheat represents the children of the kingdom of God. The harvest seems to represent day of judgment where weeds/children of evil are destroyed so that wheat/children of God can thrive. The problem is, there are no such categories in our world. There never has been a group of people who are clearly “children of the evil one” and others that are clearly “children of God.” The binary that is presented is false. The real world is far more complex.
The problem of the parable becomes even more complicated when we consider other scriptures where God creates the world, and everything in it, and calls it “good.”4 In Genesis, the creation stories indicate that humans are created in God’s image.5 Those historical moments where we have convinced ourselves that some humans are not made by God or not made in God’s image have been dangerous, violent times. Race riots, eugenics, genocide, and civil war are all examples of violence that some humans have perpetrated against other humans because they have lost sight of the image of God in other people. Any text, even a biblical one, that suggests that some people are “children of the evil one” and deserve to be thrown into a fiery furnace, is a dangerous text.
However, just as climate change has no singular answer, neither does the parable of the weeds among the wheat have just one meaning. First, what is a weed? Any gardener can tell you that a weed is a plant growing where it is not wanted. A rose bush in a wheat field is a weed. Wheat in a rose garden is a weed. It is the location of the plant, not the plant itself, that makes a plant a weed.
The parable makes a point that the weeds and the wheat must grow to maturity together because removing the weeds will jeopardize the health of the wheat. It’s not as simple as just eradicating the weeds. Plants have delicate lives, and the field is a precariously balanced place. The displacement of one thing can upset the whole environment.
The parable sets up an analogy that portrays the kingdom of heaven as a confusing place with many challenges and setbacks. The kingdom of heaven is not an idyllic place with angelic heavenly hosts strumming peaceful harps. It is a place in the process of being born, where some things are out of place, where sorting and organizing must wait until everything has reached maturity. It is a place where growth is painful, even if it is necessary.
In the explanation of the parable, Jesus says that just as the weeds are collected, so it will be at the end of the age. He says, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin ....” Imagine this: the world as we know it exists, but there is no cause for sin. What would such a world look like? What would a world be like without arbitrary rules? A world without gluttony, without hoarding wealth, without power imbalances. What would a world without even the temptation of these things feel like?
Take this thought experiment a bit further. What would the world be like if we did not ask people to “bloom where you are planted,” advice often given to encourage people in undesirable situations to make the best of it? What if you were in a space where you had exactly what you needed, in exactly the right amounts, so that you could use all your God-given gifts to do exactly what you were created to do? What would that space be like? What would you have? Who would be with you?
On the surface, the parable sets us up for a dichotomous conclusion where there are evil-doers and righteous people, and evil must be rooted out so the righteous have a place to be. But, if we dig deeper, is the parable about categorizing people or is the parable about creating the right environment for everyone to “shine like the sun”?
The parable never suggests that the kingdom of heaven is some place far removed from where we are now. It is not some place new or separate or different. It is where we are now. It is who we are now. The kingdom of heaven is among us, upon us. It is us. It is simply disordered. All the elements are already here. You can have all the ingredients to bake a cake. You can do everything just right to mix the batter, but if you don’t turn the oven on, you will never have cake.
This week, you are encouraged to think about when you felt like you were shining like the sun. Where were you? What were you doing? Think about where you are wanted and needed, where your presence and your gifts are desirable and necessary. Consider the things that get in the way of you shining like the sun. Are they weeds? Or are they, like you, also trying to shine like the sun but don’t have the right environment or resources?
The American Trappist monk, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton, once described his experience of an epiphany of the human condition this way, “In Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers ... I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun!”6
Our prayer each week, the very reason for us to gather to do this liturgy, which means “work of the people,” is to create the conditions so that we, like Merton, can come to realize the fullness of the beauty of our own humanity in concert with those around us. We gather to create an environment where each person shines like the sun and the kingdom of heaven becomes ever so much clearer. May it be so.
1 Roger Harrabin, “Plant-based diet can fight climate change - UN,” BBC News, BBC, August 8, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49238749.
2 Karn Manhas, “Why Plant-Based Diets Aren’t Enough to Save the Planet,” Forbes, February 5, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2019/02/05/why-plant-based-diets-arent-enough-to-save-the-planet/#2ff834734ef5.
3 Caroline Parkinson, “Vegans and vegetarians may have higher stroke risk,” BBC News, BBC, September 5, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-49579820.
4 Genesis 1:31.
5 Genesis 1:27.
6 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Books, 1966), 155.