Proper 11 A: Weeds and Wheat

Proper 11A

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25

July 20, 2014

The Rev. Gillian R. Barr

Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket


My father was a WW2 combat infantry officer, who decided that one way of putting the deadly skills he’d learned to good use after the war was by teaching gun safety and coaching youth who wanted to compete in competitive marksmanship. Since he and my mom were teachers, they had summers free, and for several years both worked as camp counselors at the NRA’s summer camp, back when the NRA really did focus on sportsmanship and safety.


As a result I grew up around guns, had gun safety drilled into me at a very early age, and indoor smallbore target rife was actually my sport as a teenager. Long before I was old enough to actually go to the range and shoot competitively, my father taught me gun safety:


  • Don’t ever point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot.
  • Never, ever point a gun at a person. Not even a toy gun. (That was the rule at our house–which made water-pistol fights rather boring!); and,
  • Don’t ever pull the trigger until you are not only sure of your target, but also know what’s beyond your target, in case your round goes through or beside your target.
  • The power you have in your hands is lethal, and once the trigger is pulled, it cannot be undone.

Anyone who’s studied military history, or been in the military or public safety knows that it’s a lot harder to hit what you’re aiming at than the movies and novels make it seem.  Even laser-guided bombs go astray, drones go haywire.  Even the vaunted Norden bomb-sight used on our long-range bombers in WW2 was, while admittedly much more accurate than previous technology, much less accurate than it was promoted to be. After all, its accuracy also depended on the pilot’s flying skill, weather, and the skill of the bombardier.  And all weapons systems, no matter how high-tech, are only as accurate as the intelligence that governs target selection, and the data input into the system.

This week’s news bears this out.

We have seen photos of Palestinian children killed while they were playing on a beachside dock, killed by artillery aimed at militants.

We’ve seen the wreckage of a civilian jetliner full of scientists en route to an international AIDS research conference, possibly including someone who might eventually have had the insight to cure AIDS, that was shot down by a missile over Ukraine. No matter who shot it down, presumably they did not mean to target a civilian plane with no connections to the conflict.

And, in a targeting mishap with less immediately lethal effects, but still showing how easy it is to mis-identify someone, a Texas politician eager to make political points about the child refugee crisis aimed his cameras and taunts at a bus of “illegal migrant children,” decrying the looks of fear on their faces as they headed to a processing center. He was somewhat chagrined to find out they were actually American children going to a YMCA day camp–mostly Anglo- (though their race is irrelevant). If their faces showed fear at all, it was surely generated by the commotion he and his cameras and hype were causing, not by the prospect of a day at camp and at the swimming pool.

Sometime our aim is way off. We don’t always know as much about our target as we think we do.   And we aim our missiles, or our words, or our policies, or our moral judgment, at what we think is a legitimate target, anticipating a particular outcome, only to do damage we never anticipated.

Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat is actually talking about some similar things, even though in his day the Middle East did not have rockets.

First, a bit about the weeds.

The weeds Jesus was referring to were probably of a particular variety common in the Middle East: darnel. These invasive weeds look just like the wheat. They grow up alongside it. You can’t tell the difference for sure until the head is full and ready for harvest, at which point the wheat stalk curves over while the darnel stands up straight. And below the ground their roots are very aggressive, and wrap in and among the roots of the good plants. As the parable says, if you try to pull them up, you will pull the wheat up too.

So, while you could know you had weeds—maybe you see a lot more plants than you know you planted—you couldn’t be sure which was which until they were ready to be harvested. And you really did risk collateral damage if you tried to pull them up.

In the parable, the slaves are eager to go out and purify the field. They want to demonstrate to the landowner that they are competent; he can rely on them to protect his assets. The assets which will, after all, feed them as well as him in the end. They’re reassuringly “hard on weeds.”

The slaves acted out of a mix of fear, and pride and over-confidence. Fear for their position, and their reputation, and the crop, and overconfidence that they knew how to pull weeds.

Jesus tells us not to rush to judgment. We are not the judge. Hold off. The unintended consequences are too great. Our knowledge is insufficient.

We could do damage we did not anticipate. We could damage the harvest we are trying to protect.

By making hasty judgments, we could also damage ourselves, just as soldiers who are asked to do things which are perhaps the “right” thing to do in combat, the least-bad choice of bad choices, sometimes come home and suffer from what counselors are now calling “moral injury.” “Moral injury” is distinct from PTSD, which is more about fear and trauma, though they often travel together–moral injury is emotional and spiritual wounds caused by having to do things which, though they made sense in the context of combat, actually violated the moral convictions of the soldier, injury which then becomes obvious later after they leave combat.

But how can we avoid judging others, condemning others, seeking to root out bad things in whatever context we are working? How can we wait passively while weeds overrun things which we value? Whatever it is which we feel led to protect, or keep pure, how can we sit by doing nothing, convinced we know that there are weeds doing damage?

How can we wait, and leave the judgment to someone else? How can we live with that ambiguity?

First, many people who have reflected on this parable through the ages invite us to think of ourselves not as the slaves, but as the field. We know in our hearts that we are a mixture of wheat and weeds–good and bad.   When we realize that we have our own weedy parts, and we hope that others focus more on our good fruit than our weeds, we can more easily be patient and compassionate towards others.

Second, when harvest time comes, the celebration is always on the good fruit that is harvested, not on the pile of weeds by the side of the field. We can focus our energy not on rooting out weeds, but on encouraging wheat. What is the good that we want to see in a group or situation or in ourselves? Encourage that. Make the best possible conditions for anything with any good in it to flourish.

Most importantly, and most spiritually crucial, we can try to grow in trust that we have an identity, “beloved child of God,” which outweighs any and all other identities we may claim.  That this identity is deeper than “defender of _______,” or “protector of purity of _______” or “judge of the value or rightness of __________.” Deeper than our identity as a citizen, even.

When we are rooted in our fundamental identity as a child of God, when we look at others, we see them first as children of God, also.

And that identity as a child of God is not one we have earned through our perfection or our purity or our righteousness. We are adopted as God’s children despite being a mix of weeds and wheat. When we are aware of the compassion and mercy with which God views us, God’s weed-y children, we can more easily look at others with compassion and mercy.

So often our rush to judgment of others is based in fear. Listen again to today’s reading from Romans:

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

As you know, I was ordained in the Diocese of San Diego, where the child refugee crisis is much more immediate than it is for us here. My ordaining bishop, Jim Mathes, released a pastoral statement this week on the refugee crisis.   He writes:

“The reality is that you cannot outrun fear. You cannot protest it away. The only way forward is to love it away. Even as some protest and shout out epitaphs of unwelcome, others are assuaging fear with care and compassion for these strangers in our midst. Scripture says it well, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18).”

Let me close with the Prayer for the Whole Human Family, found on page 816 of the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us 
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole 
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which 
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; 
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
 confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
 your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
 harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
 our Lord. Amen.




Mathes, The Rt. Rev. James R. “No Outrunning Fear: a Spiritual Perspective on the Border Crisis.”

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