When I was a girl, we had a big vegetable garden. The largest crop by far was the green beans. We all liked to eat them and we were a good-size family. Mom liked one particular variety of bush beans. She didn’t like pole beans, so we never grew them. The challenge with growing the beans was that there was a fungus in the soil that killed the beans if it got on the leaves. So, every year, when the soil was ready, we planted the seeds and watched the beans grow. As the beans sprouted, so did the weeds. Every year, just the same. As the bushes grew bigger and the beans began to grow, the weeds kept pace with them. That part of the garden looked a fright! But we never pulled the weeds as the beans were growing.
When the beans got big enough to harvest, we picked the first batch. It filled several washtubs and we all sat around the tubs of them on hot summer afternoons, cutting them to put into the jars for canning. We would eat those beans for the entire next year. A week or so later, a second picking would be ready and we again filled the washtubs with them for canning. The difference was that after the second picking, we pulled out both the weeds and the bean bushes. There would not be another picking. By that time of the summer, the bushes were becoming infected and were going to die anyway.
I thought of this when I read the story Jesus told about the farmer who planted good wheat seed in his field and went home to a well-deserved rest. During the night, an enemy came and scattered weed seed in the field too. The scenario was not seen as outrageously improbable to Jesus’ audience. Family feuds were a part of life and such things would and could happen. With a grain crop, it can take a while before it becomes obvious that not everything growing in the field is the grain that was planted. An enemy who can ruin the crop would dishonor the farmer in the eyes of his peers. “How could he have planted weeds along with his wheat? Didn’t he know better? He must not be as good as we thought he was!”
When the treachery was discovered, the stalks of wheat and the stalks of the weeds were completely intermixed. The farmer would have had every right to take action against his enemy and the family of his enemy. At the very least, those who worked his fields expected that he would want them to pull the weeds out, so no one would see that they were growing among the good plants.
But the farmer took a different approach. Like Mom with the beans, he let the weeds continue to grow. Pulling them would have damaged the crop, because the stalks of the wheat would be trampled in the process of getting all the weeds out. Instead, he waited until the grain was ripe. Then the weeds could be pulled and destroyed. The wheat could be gathered and stored in the barn for use during the year.
Jesus explained to his disciples later that he himself, the Son of Man, was the farmer. The field is the world and the good seed represents the children of the kingdom. Those children of the kingdom can be led astray by others who are not of the kingdom, who deceive them and lead them to do evil. At the end of time, the children of the kingdom who have remained faithful “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The others will be like the weeds, destroyed as worthless instruments of hatred as were the weed seeds sowed by the farmer’s enemy.
This can be a rather frightening teaching. Would God really judge people so harshly and condemn the wrongdoer? What hope is there for any of us if that’s the way it is?
We get a hint of the answer in the book of Wisdom. This book was written sometime during the last hundred years before Christ. The author was probably Jewish, but Greek-speaking and possibly from Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was a great center of power and learning in the ancient world.
The author points out that God does not have to justify to anyone else actions He takes, because there are no other, or superior, gods. God’s own power is the source of justice. But that justice is not harsh. God’s mastery over everything leads to lenience to all. God teaches His people through mercy that they are to be kind and merciful themselves. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind…”
Those who choose to turn away from God and refuse to turn back and accept forgiveness, will remain separated, because God has given freedom to each person to choose how to respond. But God is merciful, and at the slightest turn toward the good, God will be waiting with open arms to welcome the one returning.
God is willing to wait, like the farmer with a field full of weeds, until each person, aided by the Spirit, turns to the Father of all, becoming part of the good harvest.
There’s a lesson for each of us here as well. When we are hurt or disappointed or embarrassed by someone else, we too have to decide whether to pull the weeds or patiently wait and hope that the situation will improve with time. Sometimes, things get better on their own. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, for our own safety, we have to pull the weeds – moving out of dangerous relationships or situations. But other times, we simply need to wait for someone to grow up or to realize that a change is needed. At that point, it’s better not to pull the weed and cut off the possibility of reconciliation.
Let’s pray this week for wisdom to know when to weed and when to wait as we deal with the good times and the challenging times of our lives.
Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A