Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
Romans 3:21-24 (Good News Translation – GNT)
21 But now God’s way of putting people right with himself has been revealed. It has nothing to do with law, even though the Law of Moses and the prophets gave their witness to it. 22 God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all: 23 everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence. 24 But by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.
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; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And 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?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let 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.'”
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.” He answered, “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. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”
I am a sucker for mystery novels with a religious twist. My favourite set of novels and television shows was about a monk Brother Cadfael, set in the twelfth century. This monk had been a crusader and a man of violence but had renounced the sword for a life of peace. He lives in a monastery in Shrewsbury where he is the herbalist. There were 23 Brother Cadfael mysteries and his character is one of grace and compassion as he solves mysteries and negotiates life amidst the politics of the monastery and the politics of England which is in civil war between the Empress Maude and King Stephen.
Another set of mysteries I am reading right now is a set of mysteries about Sister Fidelma who is a sister to King Colgu of the Kingdom of Muman or Munster in Ireland in the seventh century. Sister Fildema is not only a Celtic Nun but is a dalaigh (dawlee) which is a judge and advocate in the courts of Ireland. One of the interesting things about this series of novels is that Ireland was a leading centre of progressive Christianity in the seventh century and held out for much more equality for women. The Celtic Church is often in conflict with the Roman Church which seems harsher and stricter in the novels.
And I am also watching a series on television called Grantchester which is about an Anglican Vicar in Grantchester, England in the 1950’s who befriends the local Detective Inspector and helps with solving mysteries and murders.
In the latest episode that I watched, the Vicar, Will and the police Inspector, Geordie go to a local boxing match. The match is as at a boxing club where Will has been helping the local boxing coach as he takes in troubled boys and helps them learn boxing. It gives these boys a focus and a purpose and a place of belonging and some people who care for them.
But later that night Will has to return to the club where he finds that the two boxers have taken something in an apparent joint suicide attempt. In fact, one of the boys dies.
Geordie the police inspector basically says that the boys are bad and troubled and they have been doing some bad things like stealing.
Will realizes that the boys have not been on the straight and narrow but thinks there is something deeper and it isn’t just that the boys are bad.
I find that these mystery stories are fascinating to me because they put into a story many of the things that we in the church talk about. There are themes of desire, and lust, of vengeance and violence. There are stories of love and betrayal. What we learn in the stories is so many of us are sinners. So, there are themes of grace and mercy and justice. There are people who want easy answers and quick fixes and point fingers and want someone to pay.
Nearly always the protagonist has to calm people down and look at the evidence and look at deeper motives and understand the real motive of the killer.
And what better way to think about our gospel text today, the story of the weeds among the wheat, than to refer to mystery novels or movies, because the job of our hero or heroine, so to speak, is to sort out among the people, who is the weed among the wheat.
The gospel story is pretty straightforward, at least on the surface.
Someone has sown a field of wheat. But what he doesn’t know is that an enemy has come and put weeds in the wheat and when the plants grow eventually the workers in the field realize that there are lots of weeds in the wheat.
In the King James version instead of weeds the word used is tares.
Tares is a more accurate word. When we think of weeds here is Canada we are probably thinking of green weeds or dandelions or something that would look pretty different than wheat. Of course, when the wheat grows it would be obvious that there were weeds.
But tares were a kind of weed that looked like wheat and tares wouldn’t necessarily be easy to see.
Furthermore, tares were a little bit poisonous. You didn’t want to eat too many of them.
So, there are weeds among the wheat. What to do? Go weeding?
No, the farmer says. Don’t pull up the weeds. It is hard to tell them apart and you’ll pull up most of the wheat as well.
Let the field grow and at the harvest we will separate the wheat from the tares.
We will burn the tares and put the wheat in the granary.
The story is straightforward enough and it seems that the interpretation is clear too.
For only a few verses later in Matthew’s gospel there is an explanation.
Jesus sows the good grain, which are God’s children. The enemy is Satan who sows the weeds.
At the end of time or at the time of the Judgment the angels will gather all the sin and evildoers and throw them in the fiery furnace, which sounds like good old-fashioned hell.
And the righteous will shine.
For a universalist like me this is one of those texts that make me cringe a bit.
I do not believe in a literal hell, a place of fire and torment for all time.
In fact, I believe that Christ will redeem and forgive and reconcile everyone, that he died for everyone, and one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Lord of love.
I like Paul the apostle when he writes, that Jesus will reconcile all things….all things…
Things on heaven…
Things on earth…
Things under the earth…hell.
All things. Even hell is reconciled to Jesus in Paul’s theology.
John’s theology. Lake of Fire. Maybe not so much.
But this is one of those scriptures that those who do believe in a literal hell, can point to…and say:
What about that scripture Harry?
And that is the way it has often been interpreted. There are the good people, the wheat; and there are bad people, the tares.
When I was looking up the word tares online, I came across a study of how you can tell if a person is a tare which was entitled “Nine Characteristics of a Tare”
They are disobedient. They pretend. They possess an air of moral superiority. They are never wrong. They are legalists. They are out of control sexually. They are controlling and accusatory… They don’t believe the right doctrine…etc…etc…
Looking over this congregation, I spend many hours wondering who the tares are in this congregation.
That is a joke. I do not.
While I think that being control and accusatory is not good. While I think that people who pretend have issues. While I think, those who have moral superiority probably feel inferior inside… and that it is not good to be out of control, sexually or really in any other way….
I don’t subscribe to the common interpretation that the weeds are the bad people and the wheat are the good people, or the other common interpretation that the wheat are Christians and the tares are non-Christians.
One reason why I do not think this is about two types of people, is, that this is a parable. A parable is a story with a multi-layered interpretation that usually shocks us somewhat and causes us to think. And in particular, cause us to rethink who we are as people.
The second reason is that principle of interpretation I have mentioned before: that you are all the parts or all the characters in stories in the bible (as well as in novels and movies) In this case you are both weeds and wheat. In what ways are you weeds? In what ways are you wheat?
And there is a third reason too.
Remember that Grantchester episode where the boys have tried to commit suicide and one succeeded.
And the Vicar, Will thinks that there is something deeper going on that just some bad boys.
Well he does dig deeper.
Finally, Will unearths that fact that the Boxing Coach who was ostensibly helping out the boys and teaching them boxing, was also getting them alcohol and drugs and pornography and cigarettes and then when he got them drunk, he would take advantage of them sexually.
The boys had attempted suicide not because they were bad weeds, but because they were being abused.
In the end the boxing coach is arrested.
This episode of Grantchester closes with Will preaching. You only hear a minute of it, but you can tell that Will is angry, and we know that he is angry because he feels betrayed. Someone who was doing good, actually did much harm.
And Will in his anger says that none of us deserve the mercy of God. None of us.
He said that God would forgive us, but it was obvious that Will wasn’t in a very forgiving mood.
But he voiced a truth that we would do well to remember.
The scripture says it best in Romans three. All of us have sinned and come short of God’s glory.
We don’t deserve the mercy of God. That is why it is called Grace. Grace is love and mercy that is undeserved.
All of us are weeds. All of us are tares. And I like the image of tares, because by and large you cannot look at a person and tell if they are good or bad or what combination of good and bad a person is. A person looks like a person. And the truth is we have all sinned.
There isn’t one of us who hasn’t fallen short, who hasn’t hurt another, who hasn’t screwed up, who hasn’t been out of control, who hasn’t vented upon another, who hasn’t been selfish or disobedient, or who hasn’t neglected someone in need.
That is why in the prayer of approach there is Confession every week. Every week in church we have the opportunity to say to God that we haven’t loved enough. We haven’t loved the way God has loved us.
Sorry God. Forgive us.
And this is one of the lessons of the field of wheat and weeds.
That we have weeds and that there needs to a constant weeding going on in the soul.
In fact, one way to pray every night is to think of one thing in your life that you did that day that you could have done better. In that same prayer you can also think of one good thing that happened that day and understand that as God speaking to you and blessing you.
So, every night when you go to bed you could think of one wheat and one weed and talk to God about it.
But the weeds and the wheat is also an important parable to remind us how even in the good things in life evil is a part of it.
That is why when we talk about systemic racism it is more than one or two people being racist.
Evil is often deeply ingrained in even some of the best things that we do. It is in our democracy, our educational system, our health care system, our police system, our judicial system, our churches and even our families.
And there is some wisdom about not turning us loose with a machete trying to cut out all the evil out of the system willy-nilly because a lot of innocent people will be hurt.
I am reminded that it is 26 years and one day since the end of the Rwandan massacre where one group of people decided that they were going to get rid of all the weeds and in a span of about 100 days a million people were hacked to death. Maybe the most people killed in the shortest span of time in all of human history.
We are all weeds. We are all sinners.
All of the people who are part of the systems of this world, and run the systems and participate in the systems, they are all sinners.
There are no perfect systems. That should not cause us to be complacent in trying to fix the systems.
But hopefully we work at the systems just as the protagonist in a murder mystery. You stay calm, you dig beyond the surface, you realize there are many motives and that many are flawed, but you stick with the facts and get deeper to the truth, so that you can make the right change, and deal with the people or issues that are really causing pain.
As individuals we are broken and sinners. We are weeds or tares sometime underserving of grace and forgiveness.
And as a society we are flawed and broken and there are weeds everywhere in every human endeavour and system.
And yet the good news is that we are all loved anyway and God does not give up on us.
I love the story of Jacob. Last week we talked about Jacob who not only grabbed his brother’s heel as he came out of the womb, but was an actual heel as a person. He was not a good person. He was a jerk, a conman, a liar and a thief.
And yet just after he runs away from his brother and his family because he stole the blessing…
He has a dream out in the middle of the desert. A wonderful dream of a ladder climbing up into heaven and angels going up and down the ladder, and of the Lord standing beside him, blessing him and renewing the covenant with him.
I like the story of Jacob because it is a real story of grace…
…that even though Jacob is a weed, God doesn’t give up on him. God promises to be with him and says to Jacob, you are going to turn out to be a blessing. You are going to bless others….
You know in that same Grantchester television episode there is another storyline running through the show.
The housekeeper of the vicarage Mrs C. is married to a wealthy man. It is her second marriage and she finds out that some years ago when her second husband lived in India he made some of his wealth by human trafficking. He would get people out of India to Britain and make money. And he made a lot of money. And as this episode of Grantchester is playing Mrs. C. is not speaking to her husband because he didn’t tell her about it and what he did in his past was not good.
The Assistant Vicar Leonard determines it is time for this to be resolved and he sits the devout Mrs. C and her husband down to resolve things and then lets them alone to talk.
Finally, Mrs C. and her husband sit down and talk and the husband confesses that some of the things he did in his past were bad. That he was sorry. That he hadn’t brought it up with her… because, well he didn’t think Mrs. C. would understand.
And he says, ever since he met her, it has made him want to be a better person.
And there is a reconciliation.
Many years later that wily Jacob would return home. He is now a rich man with wives and children and servants and cattle and wealth.
He doesn’t know if his brother will try and kill him or what, and he spends the night alone before meeting his brother and wrestles with the Lord all night.
And in the daybreak Jacob is given a new name Israel and is a new man…
And goes forth to meet his brother Esau who hugs and forgives him and the two brothers are reconciled.
It too is a picture of grace.
Because the good news of the gospel is that we who are weeds, by the power of God, by the power of love, by the power of the cross, by the power of forgiveness, by the power of grace…
We who often don’t deserve grace, can be turned from weeds to wheat…
And instead of poisoning each other with sin and hate and bitterness and pride and selfishness…
God can transform us into those who are productive and make a difference in this world…
…Who bring grace and mercy and forgiveness and love to a world overrun with weeds.