Feeding on Thistles

Week of Sunday July 17
Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’....

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

When I was a young  teenager the largest paddock on the farm was overrun with thistles. They grew thick as a crop, about 2 foot 6 tall, after a summer rain. You could not walk through them without being shred round the shins and thighs.

I thought we were very lucky this had happened after the harvest.  I was beginning to understand the problem of weeds and, very clearly, we had a problem. I suspect I had pleasant anticipations of burning off the paddock, always good fun, to rid ourselves of the weeds.

Instead, Dad produced an enormous length of railway iron, from somewhere out the back of the shed, and towed it down to the paddock. Then he chained it at both ends, so that it could be pulled behind the tractor like a huge rake.

I was tasked to circle the paddock at  quite high speed for a tractor, knocking over the drying thistles. It turned out that this would shatter the seed heads, leaving a rich summer harvest for the sheep.

Subsequent to my efforts, the sheep were turned into the paddock, and spent a couple of weeks doing very well for themselves. I learned a lesson about what constitutes a useless weed, and about listening to the wisdom of my father.

On Facebook this week a friend posted the folllowing:

In the year 385, a synod of bishops condemned Priscillian of Avila for heresy: he and six of his followers were beheaded. He was the first Christian to be executed by his fellow-Christians for his religious views.

One historian estimates that in the next 2 1/2 centuries, Christian imperial authorities slaughtered 25000 more for their lack of creedal correctness. (Rowland Croucher)

Here the servants of the householder did not wait for the harvest, or the instructions of the householder, but got busy weeding out the paddock, ahead of time. How much good wheat was uprooted in this cleansing of the crop?

One of the interesting things about plants, is that weeds evolve to mimic the crops we value. It helps them survive. In ripping out the weeds it is not only possible to uproot the wheat, so to speak, but also possible to mistake a good plant for a weed.

We might also remember the stories of husbands, or children, who sought to do Mum a favour by weeding the garden, and who instead removed a prized garden plant.

Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. It it should stay that way because, in our ignorance, we know not what we do.

If you are working evil, and especially if you are working evil in the church, then I must confront you. This parable of the weeds offers no support for wishy washy ideas of unity at all costs. Matthew 18 clearly reflects the issue of dealing with weeds growing in the crop:

But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

But standing in the way of letting "such a one be as a Gentile” is always the issue of my own sinfulness. Let me explain.

I don't find judgement a helpful image, but the text clearly imagines judgement.

41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I can only understand judgement in this way: judgement is a logical necessity. If we are people of free will, truly human, we must be free to reject the love of God and exclude ourselves from the harvest- if that is what we insist on doing.  But the love of God is such that God will wait forever in case I should change my mind.

If we must think with the imagery of judgement then, clearly, God gave me time to repent. God waited. So who am I to judge that from this day on, you will never turn again to the Lord your God, so I am free to enact judgement now? How can I know that you will no longer ever, in any circumstances, respond to the love of God? Who am I to define the reach of God’s love, and to suggest that it is limited?

Like so much of life, a religious practice that seeks to find a way between denial of evil, and unnecessary condemnation, is a difficult and costly art. I have seen some risk the cost and suffer hugely.

But I wonder if it’s the difficulty and the risk that is really the problem. Perhaps sometimes the issues are just too hard to manage, but mostly it has to do with fire.

Farm boys love to have a good burning- as more than a few haystack fires can testify! The church, sadly, is not much different.

When we “burn” our sinners, they are a scapegoat for our own fears and failings. Who among us can cast the first stone...? In loathing our sinners and cleansing out our weeds, we seek to cleanse ourselves. Somewhere in our mind is the thought that by sending them away, we are also sending away our own failings. So we do it, far too often, with self-righteous pleasure. We imagine we are helping our Father burn the chaff and the stubble. In reality we damage the harvest and poison the crop. How many congregations have burned down their haystack?

How much better it might be if we dealt with our own sin in another way. When a person disgusts us by reflecting back to us the sin we have in ourselves, what will happen if we love them? Would it help us love ourselves, and forgive ourselves?  Who knows what weeds, when carefully tended, will turn out to have a place in feeding the sheep of the farm.

In Matthew 21 Jesus says

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

One thinks of other rejected stones; Luther, Mandela, Martin Luther King, a no-account bishop like Romero...

Perhaps it would be best if we did more loving, and trusted God to sort what needs sorting at the end.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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