There are parables we love like “The Good Samaritan” or “The Prodigal Son.” Then there are parables like the one we just heard, “The Wheat and the Weeds” or “The Wheat and the Tares” as it once was known.
It’s a homey story that suddenly takes a violent turn when the disciples ask Jesus to interpret it for them. Jesus allegorizes it into a story about good and evil people living together until the last judgment when the Son of Man will send his angels to separate the righteous from the evildoers, and cast the latter into the fires of hell.
Whenever I hear this parable, two things come to mind. The first is the way this parable and its interpretation has functioned in the history of Christianity, as a parable of the nature of the church. Since St. Augustine of Hippo at least, this image of the wheat and weeds growing intermingled until the harvest has been interpreted to mean that within the church are both good and evil, those who will be saved and some who will be damned.
The other thing that always comes to mind when I hear this parable is Bert, a business associate, really a friend of my dad’s. Bert owned a lumber yard and as was fairly typical he also had a cabinet shop where five guys or so built kitchen cabinets. My dad did a lot of business with him, and when times were slow, Bert would find him jobs. But like so many other businessmen where I grew up, Bert also had a farm. What makes me think of him every time I hear this parable is that every summer, right about now, if memory serves me correctly, Bert would close the lumber yard, the office, and the cabinet shop and put all of his men, we’re talking probably about 10 into his soybean fields to do what was called “walk the rows.”
Their job was to pull out the weeds, especially the corn stalks that always grew up among the beans. There were two reasons for this. Of course weeds compete for nutrients with crops, and when it comes time to harvest, if your harvested crops are heavily contaminated by weed seed, you will get a lower price for them. But there was another reason, at least back in that part of Ohio. If you were a farmer, your success and skill as a farmer were always on display to passersby, and if your fields were full of weeds, if your rows were crooked, if your barn and other buildings in disrepair, you lost standing in the community. And Bert had a reputation to maintain. By the way, his employees grumbled about having to do this. Most of them of course had grown up on farms themselves, and would rather be driving a truck or building cabinets than out working in the fields.
As humans, we struggle mightily to shape the natural world into a form that is pleasing to us. Bert’s farm was a great example of that. Cleared of all its trees in the late nineteenth century, like all farms in Northwest Ohio it was laid out in straight lines and right angles to fit the grid that had been imposed on the land. It was also basically swampland that had been drained to take advantage of the fertile soil and still succumbs regularly to floods in the spring. It is a prime example of how we humans try to shape, and often degrade our environment.
All of our lessons today have something to say about our relationship with God’s creation. There is the parable of the wheat and weeds, Paul’s words about creation from Romans 8, and above all, that wonderful story of Jacob at Bethel.
We have become accustomed over the last 150 years, to associate nature with the divine. Many of us feel closer to God when we are walking on the beach, or watching a sunset, or looking down from a mountaintop. People in the ancient world had a very different perspective. The natural world was scary, filled with all sorts of supernatural beings, but there were places where God, or the gods, were especially present. When Jacob names this place Bethel, after seeing an image of heaven and earth coming together, he is identifying it as such a place, the House of God, the Gate of Heaven. It is a place not just of supernatural power, but a place where God is present.
The story of Jacob, like those of Abraham and Isaac operate on several levels. Close reading of the story reveals that, whatever else was intended, this story of the father of the nation of Israel was meant to say something about the character of the people of Israel. But it is not that Jacob was meant to be a moral example to those who read the story. In fact, one doesn’t have to read carefully to realize that Jacob is pretty much of a jerk.
I had a student once begin an essay on Jacob with the sentence “Jacob was a good Christian man.” There were two things wrong in the statement: he wasn’t a Christian, of course, he lived 1500 years or so before the birth of Christianity. And he was anything but good. He cheated his brother out of his inheritance, birthright and paternal blessing. He went off to Haran to get a wife and he cheated his father-in-law out of herds and flocks. His father-in-law got back at him by switching daughters before the wedding.
There is nothing in Jacob’s story to this point that would lead us to conclude he was a person of faith. We see him only cheating and lying. But this encounter marks the beginning of a change. The dream of a stairway to heaven shakes him to his core. He wakes up, feels the lingering presence of the divine, names it Bethel, the house of God, and erects an altar. Bethel will continue to be a place of worship for the people of Israel for hundreds of years.
While the details of Jacob’s dream might seem alien, his exclamation that “Surely the Lord is in this place,” are words any of us might say in response to the beauty of creation. The awe experienced by Jacob is the awe we have all felt when confronted by the majesty and beauty of creation.
The description of creation offered by Paul in today’s lesson from Romans is quite different. Paul says that creation is in bondage to decay, that it groans in labor pains awaiting its deliverance. What he refers to, of course, is the idea that the fall of Adam and Eve had cosmic consequences, that creation suffers the effects in death and decay.
Can these two images of the created world be brought together to say something important? What seems to me to be the key element here is that for the story of Jacob, God, the divine, was encountered through the created world. We know that, but for most of us the God we encounter in the natural world has very little to do with the God encounter here, in the midst of community. But they are one and the same God. The elements of the Eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine are created things, fruit of the vine and work of human hands, as a prayer I’m familiar with says. To claim that Christ is present in the bread and wine is to make an assertion not just about the nature of Christ, but also about the bread and wine—the created order itself.
Anglican theologians like to say that we are incarnational. What that means is we believe we do encounter God in creation; that Jesus became human asserts that human nature itself is good, and by extension, all of creation is good, because it was created by God. But Paul has it right, too. Creation is not perfect. We may not want to say that it groans, but we do need to remember that however majestic and beautiful it may be, it is only an imperfect means of experiencing God.
At the same time, we may find Paul’s language of creation groaning a propos for a very different reason. In this age of global warming and environmental degradation, the sins we have committed on God’s creation have caused it immeasurable pain. To take the incarnation seriously means viewing creation as a precious gift from God.
Creation groans. Paul had something quite different in mind when he wrote those words but the image of creation groaning speaks with power and tragedy to our current situation. As Christians, stewards of God’s creation, we must hear those groans and be witnesses to the justice creation demands, calling all humanity to account for its sins against God’s good earth.