Wayne Sigelko delivered the following homily at Sunday Assembly eucharist at Holy Wisdom Monastery on July 17, 2011. The readings from the common lectionary that day were Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.
Weeds and Wailing vs. Wheat and Waiting
One of the realities of homily preparation in the 21st century is that you can type a passage into Google and instantly get a couple of dozen commentaries and sermons on the topic. In doing so with today’s gospel I found that the results could be divided into two neat, if unequal, categories. The first and far more numerous I would call the “weeds and wailing” category. It emphasizes the explanation of the parable given at the end of today’s passage with its vivid depiction of the fate that awaits the weeds-the binding and burning, the wailing and gnashing. It is easy to understand the appeal of this interpretation. Few things are more satisfying than scolding sinners, reminding them, with great relish, of the fate that awaits them.
But, then, thankfully, along comes Wisconsin Public Radio. As I was driving to the dentist on Friday afternoon I happened to listen to a segment of “Science Friday.” In that segment they interviewed Richard Mabey, the author of the book, Weeds: In defense of Nature’s Least Loved Plants. This lead me to a deeper understanding of the second, less common, set of commentaries on this passage-the ones I refer to as the “wheat and waiting” commentaries.
The story Jesus tells today is often referred as the “Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.” The Greek word used in the parable is more exactly translated as “darnel” whose scientific name Lolium temulentum. Darnel looks exactly like wheat in its young stages. In fact, only an expert can distinguish some kinds of darnel from true wheat. Later on, the differences are remarkable. The darnel has far smaller seeds than wheat. When it ripens, the stalks are black and the seed purple. Perhaps most importantly from our perspective, darnel is commonly infected by a fungus which is poisonous to humans. It is in this context that Jesus’ words “An enemy had done this” take on meaning. The infestation of the field of wheat with darnel is a serious matter.
The hired hands are impatient and want to rush out and rip up the darnel. The master, however, is a better farmer than the hired hands. “Be patient,” he tells them. “If you rip up the darnel now, you’re going to rip up the wheat as well. Let wheat and weed grow side-by-side until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to pull up the darnel, tie it into bundles and burn it, at which point the wheat can be gathered into barns.”
Be patient, Jesus tells us, because you cannot yet tell what is wheat and what is not.
There is a similar story about patience given in Luke’s gospel in the parable of the fig tree. Here, it is the hired hand who is the wise farmer when he urges patience to the landholder who wants to cut down a fig tree that is not bearing sufficient fruit. Let’s give it another year, and I will give it special care, hoeing around it and fertilizing…
Again, patience-perhaps with a little more care and attention, what seems to us as barren and unproductive will provide a yield that we cannot, at this point in time, foresee.
Patience: it comes from the Latin word meaning “to suffer.”
We suffer patience as we temper our urges towards righteous anger-as we restrain our urges to root out and tear down what we see as evil or unproductive in ourselves and others. “Let’s build that border wall higher to keep those illegal immigrants out.” And, “don’t even get me started on gay marriage…”
We suffer patience because we do not always know the difference between weed and wheat. One of the things Mabey emphasizes in his book is the importance of so-called weeds in maintaining healthy ecosystems. Did you know that the seeds of poison ivy are a major food-source for chickadees? That every food crop we have resulted from the careful, selective cultivation of weeds? Perhaps the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he characterized weeds as plants “whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
We suffer patience, because, with just a little more time, a little more care, that child about whom we worry, may turn out just fine. And, let’s admit it; there are many of us in this congregation who have become who we are today because of mothers with just this attitude.
I would like to close by quoting something that Alexis Luzi wrote about today’s gospel. Alexis is an octogenarian–oftentimes contrarian–Capuchin priest who ministers to “the Church in Cyberspace” with a weekly blog. He writes,
“Divine patience is God’s power to suffer the mix in us. It is God’s power not to love the wheat and not to hate the weed in us, but simply to love us, period! That’s called Amazing Grace.
Human patience is our power to suffer the mix in each other and in human condition in general. Sometimes we can be proactively patient by hoeing around the barren fig tree, fertilizing it and giving it a second chance. Sometimes there is simply nothing we can do but patiently endure the darnel until the Day of Harvest.”