Proper 11, Year A, RCL
A while back, I attended a free concert with a friend of mine. We were sitting on the grass, enjoying a picnic dinner and waiting for the music to start. There was an elderly couple sitting in old fashioned lawn chairs in front of us and just as the music was about to start another couple joined them. This was obviously not a planned meeting. They were thrilled to see one another and exclaiming how many years it had been since they saw one another. As this reunion was going on another couple came up and all six of them were thrilled to see one another. They hugged and laughed as they set up their chairs in a circle. This excitement had been going on for a while when I heard a swell in the music and realized that we were missing the concert. We could not hear the music over their conversation.
My friend Greg and I discussed (quietly) whether we should ask them to be quiet or move to another spot on the lawn. This was the moment when we were confronted with a conflict and we had to choose how we would react.
In our Gospel lesson today Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The farmer finds out that someone has sown weeds among his wheat crop and he has to decide what to do. Now, in the NRSV translation the weeds are not named, but in other translations they are called “tares”. This is a variety of rye grass called the bearded darnel. Tares are indistinguishable from wheat until they are both ready to be harvested. Not only are the almost impossible to tell apart, the tares produce a toxic grain. To have wheat mixed with the seeds of the tares would make the harvest useless.
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.” ’ (Mat 13:27-30)
The man chose to let the wheat and the tares grow together. He chose to live with the conflict, threat and uncertainty of the mixed harvest until he could be sure which was which.
Jesus is a powerful and wonderful teacher. That moment of decision when the man chose not to judge between the wheat and the weeds is rich with meaning. The moment of choice – the moment when we are aware of the weeds, the conflict, or our own fear – that is the moment in which we can learn the most if we are willing to stay there with the uncertainty rather than to rush to act or judge or fix. That moment is the turning point of this parable and the lessons and meaning of Jesus’ teaching emerge from that moment of choosing ambiguity over certainty.
I read a wonderful book by a Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, called, “When Things Fall Apart.” She refers to that same moment, that moment when the man chose to let the weeds and wheat grow together, as a great moment for learning.
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. (When Things Fall Apart, Pg 10)
There’s an old folk story that helps understand the value of living with our fears rather than rushing to judgment and resolution.
There was once a woodcutter who had a beautiful axe. His axe was a work of art with a beautiful gleaming head made from the best metals and a strong, elegant handle. He could cut more wood than other woodcutters in half the time with this axe and he was very proud. One day he went to his shed to get his cart and axe for a day of wood cutting and the axe was gone! He searched everywhere but there was no axe. He was forced to use an old, dull and ugly axe that day and the work took twice as long. That night, tired and angry, he sat in front of his house sharpening the ugly old axe when the neighbor’s boy passed by. The boy laughed at something and that made the woodcutter angry. “He is laughing at my misfortune!” he thought. The next night the woodcutter was making his dinner when he saw the boy pass by with his friends. The woodcutter thought to himself, that boy looks like a thief. He laughed at me. I’ll bet he stole my axe to sell in town and have fun with the money. I should talk to his father. But he didn’t do anything that night. He was too tired from using the dull old axe. This went on for days. Every time the woodcutter saw the boy, the more sure he became that he was a thief and had stolen the beautiful axe. The man convinced himself that he would confront the boy and his father that night about the axe, but first he had to cut more wood for his customers. He went out with the old axe to one of his favorite spots. As he entered the clearing to begin cutting wood he saw his beautiful axe stuck in a stump, right where he had left it the last time he came to this clearing. He was thrilled. The day went quickly and his spirits were high. That night he saw the boy passing by and his heart softened. The boy didn’t look like a thief at all. He just looked like a little boy.
At the concert Friday night, we decided to quietly move to another spot on the lawn rather than confront the noisy group. How can I know whether the 10% of the music that I missed because of their joyous greetings and conversation was more important than their little reunion? I might have ruined, or at least squelched, their enjoyment if I had interrupted them and asked them to be quiet. For all I know, I would have been the weeds in that situation and they the wheat.
We can’t tell the wheat from the weeds. We can’t even be sure we are the wheat and not the weeds much of the time. So Jesus teaches us to be patient, to be compassionate, and not to jump to judgment of others. The path of discipleship, of following Jesus, is a hard one; sometimes staying on that path means living with the weeds.
The Rev. David Marshall,
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline
July 17, 2011