Seventh Sunday after pentecost

Service Date: 
23 July, 2017

Worship was led by The Revd. Robert Beard who preached on the second parable of seeds and the sower. Farming and growing food was vital in Jesus' day. To-day there is still widespread ignorance among children of how food is produced and where it comes from. At the same time there is growing awareness of food waste and hunger.

The main message of the parpable is that we must not judge people and decide who is in and who is out. It is God who will eventually identify and judge sinners.

Sermon: 

Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

It’s no news to any of us that Jesus lived in an agrarian society; and it makes perfect sense, therefore, that he drew on the seasons and practices of animal and arable farming to illustrate much of his teaching. Moreover, even the city dwellers of his day would have been very much aware of where their food came from and how it was grown. Consequently, the imagery he used would have resonated not much less strongly with the inhabitants of Jerusalem than with those of the villages and small market towns of Galilee and elsewhere.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether Jesus ever thought about the durability of his parables. Was he consciously aware that, by telling stories that were predominantly about first-century farming rather than, say, commerce or law enforcement, he was tapping into something so basic to human experience that people would continue to recognise their imagery for many centuries to come? After all, it took nothing less than the fundamental social upheaval brought about by the Industrial Revolution, with its mass migration of workers and their families from the countryside to the cities, to begin to dissolve the cultural connection between the people and the land.

One consequence of these changes over the past couple of centuries is that, for a large proportion of the population, Jesus’ agrarian parables have lost their immediacy. For some 1800 years after the time of Jesus, almost everyone other than the wealthy élite was directly involved in food production in one way or another, whether by actually planting, growing and harvesting food on farms and in kitchen gardens, or by preparing and cooking food for themselves or for others. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, however, food has gradually become for most people something that we buy in shops and restaurants, with little thought given to its origin and preparation, or indeed its transportation.

You may recall the 2013 British Nutrition Foundation survey of some 27,500 children, which found that over 30% of five-to-eight-year-olds believed that pasta and bread are made from meat and that cheese comes from plants, 25% thought that fish fingers come from chicken or pigs, and about 19% did not realise that potatoes grow underground, some assuming that they grow on trees or bushes.

In the last two or three decades, we have begun to see a renewed food consciousness within certain social strata, but unless we are fortunate enough to have a garden or allotment, this modern awareness may have at least as much to do with fair trade and food miles, as with the hands-on business of actually producing food.

When we cheerfully sing at our Harvest Festival, “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,” we are almost certainly oblivious to the fact that the original German text, written by Matthias Claudius in 1777 and based on Psalm 144, was originally published as a peasants’ song, and that for those who sang it first it was literally true; they did indeed plough fields and scatter seed. Growing food wasn’t a hobby for them, as gardening is for many of us; it was an absolute necessity that might mean the difference between life and death for themselves, their families and their communities.

More sobering still is the extent of famine today, and I really mean today, Sunday 23 July 2017; for even as we meet this morning to recommit ourselves to bringing in God’s Kingdom, four simultaneous famines are threatening our sisters and brothers in Yemen, in South Sudan, in north-eastern Nigeria and in Somalia. In March this year, Stephen O’Brien, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, described the situation as “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.” 20 million lives hang in the balance, among them 1.4 million children. For those who remember the mid-1980s famine in Ethiopia, which BBC reporter Michael Buerk called “a famine of Biblical proportions” and which led to Sir Bob Geldof’s astonishing Live Aid event raising some £30 million to help the relief effort, this is heart-stopping language.

So as we approach St Matthew’s second parable of Jesus about sowing seeds, it behoves us to bear in mind that, even taken simply at face value, the subject of this story was a matter of life and death for many of his hearers, and therefore had an immediacy that we must really work our imaginations hard to apprehend.

This parable tells of not one but two sowers: one who sows good seed to grow wheat, and the other who sows weeds. Like last week’s parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and weeds offers a way of thinking about opposition to Jesus, and also about the persistence of evil in the world: not least the kind of evil that ignores or even exacerbates the fatal impact of famines on vulnerable populations.

The sower sowed good seed in his field and expected a successful harvest, but under cover of darkness an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. For “weeds” St Matthew uses the Greek word zizania, which strictly refers to wild rice grasses, but what Matthew probably meant to signify is darnel or Lolium temulentum, a poisonous plant that closely resembles wheat until the ears appear; the ears of wheat are heavy and droop, while the ears of darnel stand upright. These two plants are so similar, in fact, that in some regions darnel is referred to as “false wheat”, and it posed a serious problem to wheat growers until modern sorting technology enabled its seeds to be separated efficiently from wheat seed.

As with the previous parable, St Matthew provides his readers with an explanation of the parable in allegorical terms. Note that, again, the explanation is not given to all those who heard the parable, but to the disciples only.

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

Matthew 13.37-39

Intriguingly for such a seemingly straightforward explanation, Jesus – or Matthew – does not say whom the slaves represent, and it is left to us to ponder the omission. Do the slaves represent the disciples themselves? Or do they perhaps represent any of Matthew’s readers – ourselves included – who hear both the parable and its interpretation?

The slaves’ instinctive response to the presence of the weeds is to rush out and pull them up, without any consideration of the possible consequences. Similarly, many of us – perhaps all of us – looking at the state in the world, may sometimes have felt like taking matters into our own hands and rooting out the perceived evil that stalks (pardon the pun!) among us.

Wisely, the master, the Son of Man, prohibits the slaves from doing anything of the sort. First, as I observed earlier, wheat and darnel are not easy to tell apart before they mature. Secondly, the roots of both plants are intertwined underground in the soil that nourishes them both, so to uproot the darnel would risk uprooting the wheat as well. Thirdly, this is not the slaves’ job; the master says that the reapers – not the slaves – will take care of this at harvest time.

There’s more than a hint of predestination in the interpretation of the parable, which suggests there are two groups of people in the world: children of the kingdom and children of the evil one – wheat and weeds – whose destinies are determined from the outset. Jesus says that at the end of the age, the angels will

collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and will throw them into the furnace of fire.

Matthew 13.41

The Greek word translated here as “causes of sin”, however, is skandala, which Jesus uses later in St Matthew’s gospel to warn those who put a “stumbling block” (skandalon) in the path of any of the “little ones” that it would be better for them to have a millstone put around their necks and to be drowned in the sea (Matthew 18.6-7). In the same passage, Matthew has Jesus declare that if your hand or foot or eye causes you to sin (skandalizo), it is better to cut it off or pluck it out and enter life maimed or blind, than to be thrown into the “hell of fire” with body intact (Matthew 18.8-9).

Obviously, this is hyperbole, intended to shock Matthew’s readers into acknowledging the seriousness of anything that leads us or others into sin, because it’s not actually a hand or foot or eye that causes us to sin. As Jesus explains in Matthew 15.18-20, sin has its origin in the heart (kardia), which in his time was understood as the seat of thought and decision making; no one is able to amputate or excise thoughts. What this suggests is that a skandalon may be some aspect of a person – signified by the hand or foot or eye – rather than the whole person.

Another text to consider is Matthew 16.23, where Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” We know, of course, that, far from condemning Peter in perpetuity, Jesus entrusted to him and the other all-too-fallible disciples the whole future of his mission. Whenever Jesus threw out the bathwater, he was extremely careful to keep a firm grip on the baby!

When Jesus says that the angels will collect and incinerate the “causes of sin” – the skandala – it’s clear, therefore, that he means the causes of sin that live within us. Therefore the meaning of the parable is that within each of us resides both that which promotes the Kingdom and that which promotes evil. If you like – and I do! – it’s an early version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Finally, I can’t help wondering whether St Matthew had anyone in particular in mind when he recorded Jesus’ categorical statement that it is angels alone who are vested with the divine authority to separate the weeds from the wheat; no human being has any such mandate.  This is a point that many in the Christian Church would do well to note. Perhaps St Matthew’s community was plagued by Church members who thought they could tell who should and should not be allowed in. The parable makes it absolutely crystal clear that any attempt to root out the perceived weeds risks doing serious damage to the whole crop.

This has played out far too many times in congregations and denominations, with some determined to root out anyone who does not agree with the “right” interpretation of Scripture, “correct” liturgical practice, or the “proper” moral stance on a particular issue. There are also those who pronounce judgment on people outside the church – on people of other faiths, for instance – pronouncing their eternal damnation. Such judgmental attitudes serious damage to the church and its mission, and arrogantly ignore the fact that we all have our own skandala, our own “causes of sin” within us. We may, and must, safely leave any weeding out activities to God and God’s angels, and as many passages in St Matthew’s gospel declare, God’s judgment about who is “in” and who is “out” is going to take many by surprise (Matthew 7.21-23, 8.11-12, 21.31-32, 25.31-46).

Revd Robert Beard B.D.