I do it every year. It shouldn’t have been a problem. Yet, there it was, in my hand.
I am not a gardener, but I have read enough online to know how to do a few basic things with the plants that happen to grow in our yard. Trim back the aster bushes so that they don’t get too leggy. Stake up the hollyhocks once the flowers start to get heavy. Cut the deadwood off the knockout roses. Easy enough. I do it every year. It shouldn’t have been a problem.
And yet, there it was. I can only imagine the look of horror on my face. Everything was going well. There was a pile of dead rose branches already on the sidewalk. I was ready to cut another branch. Dead down at the bottom. Dead at the top. But there in the middle, somehow a live branch jutted out to the side. And somehow that live branch made up the whole middle chunk of the rose bush. And all of a sudden, there it was, in my hand. And not on the bush. Despite the immediate thoughts running through my head, involving replanting, or duct tape, or going back in time ten seconds, that part of the bush was forever gone. And it has never been quite the same since.
I can imagine the similar look of horror on the faces of the servants of the householder. They had planted good wheat, but there it was, right in the middle of it all: bearded darnel. Bearded darnel is insidious in the way that it grows because until it begins to seed out, it looks exactly like wheat. It takes a seriously trained eye to be able to tell the difference. And the look of horror grew as the servants realized that the bearded darnel that they found in the householder’s field was not just a plant here and there, but an entire field full of it. Planted intentionally by one who wanted to cause harm to the householder’s crop, and thus the householder himself. This crop of weeds had to be sown intentionally, which means that someone was asleep at the job of protecting the field. The servants had to huddle together upon this realization, looks of horror on everyone in the circle. They had to tell the householder, but what would he do? Who would he blame? Would they even survive his fury? Eventually one of them had an idea: a purging. They would run through the fields and pull out the bearded darnel, purging the field of the evil that had been planted. Maybe after a hundred plants, it would be easier to tell the difference. They would train themselves to sniff out the offending plants and become experts at removing them. Perhaps they even began the project, taking it upon themselves, when one of them had a realization: we have to tell the householder. Come what may, however he responds, we have to fess up. We have failed. We have allowed evil to infiltrate the good.
The Christians of Matthew’s church thought the same thing. Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Matthew was written a generation or two after the ministry of Jesus. They suggest that the Gospel writer was aware of a congregation, quite possibly in Antioch, filled with Jewish Christians who had escaped persecution in Rome. These Christians had personally known the experience of imprisonment, torture, and death, just for believing and proclaiming the name of Jesus. It was no coincidence that when writing his Gospel, Matthew uses out the story that Jesus told about the weeds and the wheat. He is the only Gospel writer to use it. Because Matthew’s church knew all about enemies from beyond the church trying to bring it down. As the Gospel was read out loud, it was likely that they would understand the inclination of the servants to purge. “Tear it out! Make sure that evil has no place here!”
It is not unlike the language that I hear in many Christian circles today. Have you ever noticed how often we like to use the language of war in the church? Author and pastor Sean Palmer points out how many times we hear Christians use that language. There is a war on terror. A war on drugs. A war on Christmas. A war on the faith. We have to contend against the culture around us. We are fighting spiritual battles. And when those wars aren’t enough, we even have “worship wars” to keep us busy fighting about whether or not we can have drums in the sanctuary. There is always an enemy out there, ready to infiltrate us! For followers of the Prince of Peace, we sure seem like we are much more equipped for war!
Perhaps you have heard of the phrase “cancel culture.” The idea behind it is that if someone says something that we disagree with, it is our task to go to war with them. If you say a thing that I disagree with—not even if you do a thing or if you are a thing, but simply saying it—it is enough reason for me to walk out of the relationship with you, to boycott you, to attack you on social media, or even to do physical harm to you. If you say the wrong thing, you will be canceled. And lest we think that this is an ideological problem of only one side, rest assured that progressives and conservatives are equally ready to cancel the other, especially against the other. Progressives are ready to cancel Chick-fil-a, or anything that Trump says. Conservatives are well-practiced, cancelling the Dixie Chicks ten years ago (“let’s burn their CD’s!”), Harry Potter ten years before that (“let’s burn their books!”), and the Beatles fifty years before that (Let’s burn their albums!”)
We all know how to cancel. Even in the church. Just so you don’t think this is only about national writers and ideological talking heads, I have one church member at the First Baptist Church of Lawrence, KS who choose not to participate in the Faith Now video series, out of concern that something that they say on tape might be used against them. And I see their concern…we have become so quick to judge, to cancel, to go to war against those who say anything that we disagree with. Even in the Church, says Palmer, we see the world through what he calls a “lens of hostility.” We stand at the ready with our litmus test of who gets in and who doesn’t know the magic words. The issues may be different depending on our ideological perspective, but the self-righteousness is the same. It feels like we have become reduced to a Society of Bearded Darnel Hall Monitors. Jumping at shadows. So fragile that we cannot co-exist with anyone who is different than us.
Into such a world come the words of Jesus. “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together.” It is as if Jesus anticipated the look of horror on our faces as we held half of the rose bush in our hands…or as we watched a significant chunk of an entire generation flee the Church, sick of the wars we create against one another.
“No.” Says Jesus.
And Matthew picks up those words and delivers them afresh to a new generation. To a new church. To a new context. He quotes these words of Jesus to make a point. At least three points, in fact.
One, says Jesus, there is evil. There are things that are sown in our world that are counter to the Kingdom. Ideas or presuppositions that are less Godly, less grace-filled, less holy than others. There is evil in this world, make no doubt about it.
And yet…two, says Jesus, don’t be so sure that you can tell the difference. Like the workers in the field, don’t be so sure that you are on the side of right 100% of the time. Don’t be so sure that you are more wheat than weeds. And don’t be so sure that in your efforts to purge the field of the people that you think are the weeds, that you won’t end up causing more damage than good.
And three—and here is the good news—because purging is not your job anyway. In a culture that jumps at shadows, that is too fragile to have a hard conversation, that is looking for a war to fight and an enemy to fight it with, there is a better way.
Jesus tells the disciples…Matthew tells his church…the Bible tells us…”do not be afraid.” The Kingdom of God is not a Kingdom of fear.
Palmer tells the story of when one of his children was young and just learning to swim. Like a lot of our children learning to swim, she jumped into the water and cling to daddy’s neck. But eventually got braver and braver, and farther and farther away. Palmer, of course, was never too far out of reach. But then, as always happens, his daughter noticed that he was not as close as he once was, so she panicked. She started crying and screaming. Of course, Palmer drew her close, as she nearly choked him out of fear. “Daddy!” she proclaimed, “You saved me.” Of course, Palmer knew the truth, that she was never in danger. And in the same way, he writes, Christians don’t need to fight and cancel and purge ourselves to safety. He says it this way:
We are so unaccustomed to vulnerability that our natural reaction to feeling it is often panic and screams. We are tempted by methods of kingdom building that are engines of empire not devices of deliverances. Like Israel [in the book of Samuel], we may ask for earthly, tangible means of protection that in themselves are a rejection of God. When the church embraces a Pax Americana, we deny and curtail the spiritual dynamism that Jesus gives to his disciples. Christians are kingdom dwellers, not guardians of an empire. Empires fear their extinction. Christians don’t. We’ve been safe the whole time.
Christ has called his disciples to a Kingdom of vulnerability. A Kingdom of peace. A Kingdom of community. A Kingdom of trust—in God and in each other. The folks in the Two-Way last week had a ton of really good insights about this passage. One of them is this: the servants were probably terrified that they had done something wrong, and that they would be punished for it. Every inclination in them was probably to hide their failure. But they went to the Master anyway. They told the owner of the field the truth, because they trusted him. If we live out of that trust in the Master, then we begin to change our values. We begin to adopt the values of the Kingdom.
Which is Palmer’s point. He names his book Unarmed Empire, pointing in chapter after chapter to what it looks like to live out of that trust. He quotes Billy Graham, from what might have been a sermon on this passage in Matthew, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.” And so, Jesus calls us to a Kingdom of love. If we truly believe that it is not our job to purge, then it gives us a patient love. Not an anxious, fearful, fragile need to run around like Bearded Darnel Hall Monitors, cancelling anyone who is different than we are. That doesn’t mean that we cannot have disagreements, even significant ones. But it means that even when we do disagree, we have this openness to listen to others, to experience new ideas, to engage in hard conversations, and not feel threatened by any of it. Why? Because “we’ve been safe the whole time.”
Nelson Mandela was left to rot in prison for 27 years. He was a victim of war. Of real war. Not a war made up to sell cable news airtime. But a war against people of color in the country of South Africa. A country in which white people were the minority, but held all of the power. And didn’t have any intention to share it. When Mandela and others like him stood up to that injustice, he paid the price. He was imprisoned for nearly three decades, forced to endure circumstances most of us could not imagine.
When apartheid was finally overcome, he was elected as president of South Africa. Now, 27 years is enough for someone to dream up all kinds of revenge. All kinds of anger. All kinds of resentment. And yet, when he emerged from that injustice, he helped create an atmosphere of reconciliation and peace, even among the whites who had carried out so much injustice. He could have lived by the rule of purge, of cancel, of war. But he instead chose peace.
Why? Of course, it was his Christian faith that helped him to see that the values of the Kingdom—forgiveness, love, grace—were the only values worth embodying. He once said, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” To live out Kingdom values. Today, let us follow the example of Mandela, and the teachings of Christ, to set aside our tools of purge and take up the ways of Kingdom peace.