July 23, 2017 • 16th Sun Ord. • Is 44:6-8, Rom 18:12-25, Mt 13:24-30, 36-43 • Leora Weitzman
Dear to the heart of many a writer is Anne Lamott’s advice to produce terrible first drafts. The language she uses is too salty for this sacred setting, which is part of what makes it so down-home reassuring. She says to get the whole draft out, resisting the temptation to fine-tune as you go. If you stop to weed out imperfections, you may quickly find yourself second-guessing the good stuff, much as first-century Israeli farmers could mistake immature wheat for a local nuisance plant that looked the same until the mature wheat ears drooped with grain. You, the writer, could edit out the good with the bad, becoming so paralyzed with doubts that you’d never finish the thing. No weeds… no wheat… no harvest.
Instead you must let the field of your pages fill until your whole original vision is expressed, however imperfectly. Only then may the editors—internal or external—have at it. When they do, you’re generally called upon to delete your favorite sections, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Afterward, the pure original vision shines out like the sun.
What is the source of that vision? If you will indulge me in seeing the vision as the wheat, then remember that we heard, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man,” that is, God with us; and, “The reign of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in the field.” I am suggesting that the good seed is God’s whisper in our ear: Do this; say this.
The message so far is consonant with the next parable in the chapter, which compares the reign of heaven with the little bit of leaven that leavens a whole loaf. The leaven and mustard-seed parables are planted between today’s original parable and its interpretation, and were edited out of our lectionary reading. Leaven, mustard seed, and wheat grain all represent transformative and nourishing gifts from heaven. These three parables, like the earlier ones about salt and light, hint that it doesn’t necessarily take much to make a difference. The good seed doesn’t have to outnumber the weeds. It just needs to do its work.
In today’s parable, the weeds are sown by an “enemy” while everyone is asleep. Sleep is a venerable and still current metaphor for not being conscious of something—witness the current slang “woke” for having woken up to, and become conscious of, the presence of injustice or racial tension. In my writer’s version of the parable, the unconscious ego plays the role of the “enemy,” planting awkward or overdone passages as it tries to look clever or force a connection that isn’t there. Alongside God’s whisper in our ear, all of us humans hear whisperings of ego, which cause us unwittingly to take divine inspiration in directions that were, shall we say, not God’s Plan A. But that’s all right, says the parable. Don’t be a perfectionist. Finish the draft. Trust that the reign of heaven is working and will withstand the eventual editing.
This certainly applies in my hands-on work. When I second-guess too much, the fear of mistakes and the desire for control block my receptivity to subtle cues and inspiration. It’s better to follow the flow and come back afterward to make adjustments. Have you noticed this in your life?
Perhaps the message also applies to collective enterprises such as technology or government. True inspiration is to be followed, however imperfectly. Harvest arrives when the full potential of an idea has been realized and its flaws have likewise come to fruition. Then it’s time for editing, to preserve the good and let go what doesn’t work.
Now, I don’t know anyone who enjoys having her or his writing ripped apart. Yet that’s nothing compared with switching to clean energy or changing how our society distributes resources. These indeed are purifying, transforming experiences comparable to a furnace of fire. Perhaps we need our reapers to be angels, mighty in purpose as well as discerning insight.
Against this background, it’s comforting to hear Paul say, “…the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains.” Labor, like fire, is a hopeful symbol of transformation. Painful transformation, in which we feel a burn; yet it culminates in the birth of something new.
Like Jesus, whose reapers are angels, Paul points to the presence of divine help. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father-Mother!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Oh yes! The divine Inspirer is still and always within us, ready with seeds for the next season.
If I stopped here, I would be doing the message an injustice. Wanting us to recognize a familiar dynamic in the parable, I’ve stuck to examples in the here and now. But “the end of the age” might be more than, say, the end of the industrial age. And Paul clearly points beyond. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us… We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies”—the full fruition of the process the Spirit has begun in us. This, like other passages, implies a total transformation of physical reality.
I don’t know what I believe about such things. They remind me of the campus ministry Jesuit who gave me instruction as a young convert. In most respects he was mercifully open to my plumbing the Gospels primarily for metaphorical truths. But he drew the line at resurrection. He said if resurrection was no more than metaphor, what was the point of all the rest?
Though I don’t know if I agree, his words did plant a seed of wonder in me that has survived the seeds of doubt around it. Will not the One who has been faithful to us in little things be faithful in much? The path of transformation, which so often feels like death and resurrection, and which we walk in so many ways in this world: does it not also extend beyond?
If so, I don’t believe there will be hellfire for evildoers. Which of us has not done things that we shouldn’t? And how did Jesus treat people like us? Did he not heal us, hang out with us, and change our lives? I can’t see him giving up on anyone, or throwing us away.
That there might still be painful transformation to undergo wouldn’t surprise me. In fact, I would rather transform than be stuck with whatever weeds are still clogging my inner life at that point. And as healing as such a process is, it does tend to burn. I suspect even just fully realizing that God loves me exactly as I am would be enough to bring burning, healing tears.
So when Jesus says evildoers will be thrown in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping, I think he’s still speaking in parables. The concluding words of the “explanation”—“Let anyone with ears listen”—suggests that special “ears” may be needed to understand it.
I propose that the good seed, the “children of the reign of heaven,” are God’s whispers to us, Divine inspiration. The weeds, the “children of the evil one,” are the whispers of ego, our modern word for the inner force once called the enemy or the devil. The “causes of sin and… evildoers” that are collected for burning are in Greek not specified to be people. The Greek phrase translated as “evildoers” is literally “those that do lawlessness.” Not “those people,” just “those.” King James captures the feel of the Greek well: what’s collected is “all things that offend, and them which do iniquity.” These could be people, but they could also be things. Since I can’t see Jesus throwing people away, ever, I prefer to think what will be burned away is the aspects of us, and of creation as we know it, that “offend and do iniquity.” Then the pure, true essence of us all will “shine like the sun in the reign of God.”
Do you doubt that a master storyteller would explain one parable with another? Someone once asked novelist Louise Erdrich why she wrote a certain passage as if it had been spoken by a dog. The questioner was pushing for an answer like, “to experiment with voice,” or, “to reveal xyz point of view.” But here’s what she replied: “Because the dog had something to say.”
We give thanks for the purification and editing that bring out the best in us. May we remember, too, that the time for these harvest activities not during growing season. May we recognize growing season where we see it, and allow ourselves and each other to grow in peace.