Wisdom says, “You have filled your children with good hope”
By Jane Lancaster Patterson
Our Gospel today has been handed down to us by the people in Matthew’s community. You may already be very familiar with the idea that the stories in the Gospels were maintained orally with great care for several decades before they began to be written down. Reading the Gospels reminds me of being at a family reunion where you hear a recognizable story about Grandma, but some of the details your cousins put in are different from the ones you know. But you don’t think to yourself, “That’s not right. Grandma didn’t say that.” You think, “Oh, of course. That’s a different side of Grandma that I didn’t know, but I love that.” You come away richer, because now you have more dimensions to Grandma, you see her from more points of view.
So today we’re listening to a snippet from the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s helpful to know just a thing or two about that branch of the family. Matthew’s community had high goals for themselves as followers of Jesus. They were very keen on following Jesus’ teachings so profoundly that their community would be a light of God’s love shining out in a very difficult time. They could be very black-and-white thinkers. They were fond of an image from Jewish teaching that was also important to other early Christians: the image of the two ways, a way of life and a way of death, a way of eternal reward and a way of eternal damnation.
But over the decades of their life together they also learned the wisdom of extending mercy toward one another. I love them for the way they didn’t just hold onto the stories that filled their need for righteousness; they also held onto the stories that knit them together as a community of people who could tell the truth to one another, who could say, “I really screwed up here,” and know for sure that someone would understand and help them with compassion.
It helps to remember what the concerns were of Matthew’s community, so that we know why this was such an important parable for them. No other Christian community saved this story. Those who did were a community of followers of Jesus trying to manage both their desire to embody both the righteousness of Jesus and his mercy.
So, to our story, then. In some kind of large agricultural enterprise, a group of workers has planted lots of beautiful wheat seeds, and now the fields are full of a particular kind of weed that looks distressingly like wheat — until it’s time to harvest, and then someone will have the job of sorting it all out. First they blame the owner, who purchased the seeds, and the owner blames an enemy.
A lot of the way the story is told has all the marks of Matthew’s way of thinking. It’s very black and white, good and evil, weeds and wheat. But I want to you not to be distracted by the black and white. Focus on the core of the story, which I think is being given to us as a gift for precisely our time and place, where our communities are split, and not just superficially, but deeply split along lines of conflicting values.
The emotional focal point of the story of the weeds and the wheat is that moment when you’re just determined to get a weed out of your beautiful garden. I understand that because I have a butterfly garden I put in this year, and every evening I go out to water it so it will be ready for the next day. And every evening I spend half of my watering time pulling out crabgrass.
There is so much energy behind that moment when you spot the weed and you reach down deep with your finger to pull it out, roots and all, so satisfying! What complicates our story is that when this particular weed, darnel, is growing, you truly can’t distinguish it from wheat. You want to get out there and clean up the mess in that field, you want to pull out all the weeds and throw them in the compost. But if you do, you’ll ruin the wheat. I can just feel the workers’ frustration.
Well, obviously, this is not a story about wheat or weeds sharing an acre of ground. It’s a story about people sharing a community. It’s about the times when we are really disturbed about how others are acting. It’s about high-stakes differences in values. But right at that focal point, where you’re reaching toward that weed with a piece of your mind, we’re told to stop. God, the gardener, stops us.
We are stopped because of what we do not know. In the human realm, what’s good and what’s bad are more similar than we like to think. We don’t know wheat from darnel. The story’s power hinges on our ignorance, on what we do not know about others, and the mistakes we can make when we think we do know. God whispers, “Stop. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
That moment when we stop is actually the ground of all our hope.
The wisdom of another tradition says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” Not knowing is most intimate. What is meant by that saying in Buddhism is very similar to the wisdom of our parable: when you don’t put your own frame of meaning around everyone and everything, when you simply let people and events come toward you as they are in this moment, then you have a chance of seeing something totally new and unexpected.
Your brother-in-law with the terrible political views can be seen as a really great dad. Your neighbor who has no concept of what actually belongs in the recycling bin adopts the neighborhood stray cat. The person who just offended you with a racist remark that they didn’t even recognize they were using is the same person who has fought for just wages at their workplace. The problem is, people are not weeds or wheat. We are weedy in one area and wheat in another, and we can change. We change all the time, whether anyone else actually notices it or not.
Even though this story ends with the whole harvesting and final judgment image, that part of the story is actually way out of our field of vision. Harvesting is the work of angels at some point in the unimaginable future. The harvest, the time of judgment, has been placed explicitly outside the bounds of our work. The part of the story that belongs to us is in the middle, in the midst of that big wide field full of weeds and wheat and Lord knows what else — mice and foxes, wild mustard and crabgrass, red-winged blackbirds and sparrows and clover.
The landowner in the parable says, “Let them grow together until the harvest.” The project we’ve been set down in the midst of is not one of sorting out, but of growing together so that all will flourish. We have been placed in community with one another, and that is our work. This isn’t a parable about weeds and wheat. It’s a parable about one single, wide field.
We are in that confusing and creative place where discernment and not-knowing meet. It turns out that discernment is not about distinguishing ever more finely all the differences, and rating people according to how they do or do not meet our measurement.
Nor is discernment even a skill to turn on ourselves, to subject ourselves to minute scrutiny. Discernment is about discovering ever more clearly how we all fit together in this field; it is about learning how to receive one another in our miraculous and ever-shifting complexity, and how to relate to each and all as the focus of God’s tending.
A short passage from the Wisdom of Solomon has also been given to us today as a companion to the parable. Here are the parts I want you especially to hear:
There is no god besides you whose care is for all people.
Although you are sovereign in strength you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us.
Through such works you have taught your people
that the righteous must be kind.
And you have filled your children with good hope.
Part of keeping our powers of discernment sharp and focused where they need to be is not losing good hope in the field, not losing good hope for God’s project. I want to close our time together with a sign of hope. The Supreme Court voted to hold the United States accountable to its 1866 treaty with the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, the treaty that recognized them as a sovereign tribal land. Shockingly, even the Declaration of Independence had referred to the native peoples of the United States as “merciless Indian savages.” Weeds and wheat.
Joy Harjo, a member of the Creek Nation and poet laureate of the United States, has written:
The Old Ones understood the truth that “we are all related,” and now, as a nation reckoning with racism, maybe more of us are beginning to understand it too. It is important to stop here, in the moment, and to recognize all that it has taken to arrive at this act of justice. There was the resolve, struggle and battle, the food cooked to help those working long hours. There were those who picked up, who took care of children. Those who kept walking the long distance of heartbreak to arrive, in a reservation, and start all over again. And at last, on the far end of the Trail of Tears, a promise has been kept.
How do we live in the field that God has planted us in, cultivating our discernment, our mercy and kindness, our hope? Harjo marks out the simple actions that hold the field together: yes, there are resolve, struggle, and battle; and there is also cooking food to help those working long hours; there is picking up after one another; there is caring for children; there is walking the long distance of heartbreak together; there is starting all over again, and keeping promises. This is how we grow together, indistinguishable from one another until the end of time.
The Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson is a retired associate professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.