Just following parable of the sower, or as we called it last week, the parable of the soils,
comes another parable of seeds sown in a field.
In this parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus tells the truth about the human condition
and refers to judgment at the end of time that belongs solely to God.

Parables are small stories with big meanings, earthly narratives with heavenly implications,
short vignettes with eternal significance…
Our parable for today speaks to the reality of evil,
to the presence of those who would seek to do harm to others.
The parable reminds us that we should not live with rose-colored glasses,
unaware of the dangers around us,
unaware of those, mixed in among the crowds, who would either seek our harm or lead us astray.
The parable also reminds us to be ever aware of our own sin.
And finally, the parable reminds us that we are not the judge and jury.
As Jesus told the workers, “Let wheat and tares grow together until harvest…”

I am glad that this is not the only parable we have from Jesus.
This is a difficult parable, and not overly gracious.
It should be noted that there has been great controversy
over the course of Christian history about this parable of the wheat and tares.
Some have even questioned its authenticity, or at least the authenticity of its interpretation.
Scholars have argued that Jesus may have offered a simple parable,
to which later editors of the early Church added the hard interpretation.
Whatever the case, the parable and its interpretation stand “as is” in our biblical text.
Thus, instead of ignoring it or side-stepping it in favor of more gracious parables,
we shall explore it and see what we discover.

Hear the Word of God from Matthew 13:24-30,34,36-43

The 4th of July weekend always reminds me of our country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976.
I was fairly young, but I was keenly aware of national pride that summer.
The Olympics were being held in Montreal,
and the colors of red, white and blue were everywhere.
We were in the middle of the Cold War with Russia, the USSR,
and any red-blooded American kid knew that USA and democracy were good
and the USSR and communism were not.
It felt like that whole summer was one long July 4th weekend.
Growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s in this country, some things were clear,
like pride in the good ol’ US of A.
And yet there were other things that were not so clear.
The country was still reeling from Nixon’s Watergate.
The debates about the Vietnam War had rattled the nation’s unity around the military.
The burgeoning issues of race and gender and sexuality were part of tumultuous social change.
Long-held views were questioned. Sacred institutions were found wanting.
Clearly defined lines of black and white, of good and evil, were turning gray.

I have always loved this country. I am deeply patriotic.
Every time I travel beyond our borders, I am reminded within a few days of how fortunate we are.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez of the Atlanta United soccer team hails from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Argentina a beautiful, well-developed country with a relatively stable economy
and many cultural amenities.
Even so, when asked about how he and his family were doing in Atlanta,
Pirez remarked about the stop signs.
People actually stop at stop signs, he said. Even when no other cars are around, people still stop.
He was shocked by this, as this evidently does not happen in his neighborhood back home.
And another thing, Pirez remarked, “everything here works”.
We tend to take for granted that most everything here actually works.
And if it gets broken, then it is quickly fixed,
like the recent, impressive repair of the collapsed section of Interstate 85.
This kind of efficiency is not always the case in other cities of the world.
I am proud of our young country, proud of all that we have accomplished,
proud of the ways that we are able to sustain unity in the midst of diversity.

In his book, The City of God, Saint Augustine wrote about the tale of two cities,
the city of God and the city of earth.
This extensive book, outlining a theological history of the world,
was written in defense of Christianity after Rome fell to the Vandals.
Romans had blamed their defeat on Christians who did not worship the Roman gods,
but Augustine, in response, made clear that the failure of the Empire was not due
to the presence of faithful Christians, but attributable to Rome’s corruption and lack of virtue.
For Augustine, the history of the world consists of a universal warfare between good and evil.
All people, he argued, have one foot firmly planted in the stuff of this world;
we cannot help but be earth-bound creatures. (Wikipedia)
And yet Christians, followers of Jesus, also have one foot planted in the kingdom of God.
We have heard the good news of the gospel, taken to heart the grace of God,
and sought to live our lives in love for God and neighbor.
We are both sinner and saint; the battle for good and evil rages within us.
None are fully righteous, as Scripture says, no, not even one.

John Calvin, father of Presbyterianism, wrote about the “visible” and the “invisible” church.
Like Jesus observing the thousands on the hillside in Galilee,
composed of faithful disciples, curious bystanders, spies from Herod,
and even those who would ultimately betray him,
Calvin made similar observations about the people of Geneva, Switzerland.
He wrote about those who “appeared” to be among the saved,
as well as those who “appeared” to be among the unsaved, by virtue of their attitudes or actions.
Calvin distinguished between the “visible” church,
that cohort of persons within established congregations,
and the “invisible” church, those whom God had foreordained to be saved.
The number and makeup of the invisible church was not the same as the visible church,
and, like wheat among tares, no human could readily discern between the two.
Calvin surmised that there were some, like the darnel among the wheat,
who seemed to be chosen but were not,
and there were others who seemed not to be chosen, but were.

Calvin’s commentary, as well as biblical texts like our parable for today,
led some of Calvin’s followers to espouse double predestination,
which claims that some are chosen to be saved, others chosen to be damned.
But Calvin himself struggled with these issues.
He wrote that if we are even asking the question about salvation,
then that probably means that God is at work in us and we are likely among the saved.
Calvin also wrote that we do best when we focus on gratitude to God and hope the best for all.

All of which is to say that we should be humble when tempted to judge our neighbor.
Judge not lest ye be judged, says Jesus.
God is the judge and we are not.
Any reckoning, either in the current time or on the last day,
has never been the task of the church or its members, but belongs to God alone.
This is perhaps the note of grace amidst this parable of judgment.
Leave the tares to grow among the wheat, the owner proclaimed,
lest you destroy both in your righteous attempts to purify the land.
You cannot readily tell now which is good and which is bad.

The tares in our text refer to darnel, a common Eurasian ryegrass,
which grows alongside the wheat and is indistinguishable from wheat until maturity.
In some regions, the two plants are so similar that darnel is often called “false wheat”.
Once the two plants mature, they are easily distinguished,
yet by then their roots are so intertwined that the weeds cannot be pulled
without affecting the good harvest.
When ripe, the fruit of wheat will appear brown whereas darnel will appear black.
In reading about darnel, I discovered that it is often infected by a common fungus,
which exacerbates its affects upon human ingestion.
When humans eat infected darnel, the grain can cause severe drunken nausea,
even to the point of hallucinations and death.
The scientific name for the word “darnel” is lolium temulentum,
which loosely translates as drunken ryegrass.
Other common names are poison darnel or cockle. (Wikipedia)

The presence of cockle, or tares, or poison darnel, among the wheat
was well-known to the farmers of Galilee in the early first century.
Every farmer knew of this “bad seed” and would work hard to avoid its presence in their fields.
When Jesus offers this parable, he is describing the realities of life in Galilee.
Just like a wheat field, which represents the world, will never be full of righteous fruit alone,
there will always be among the crowd those who are evil or who do evil things.

Even so, while wheat and darnel will either be one or the other, people can and do change.
People are not exactly like wheat and tares.
Tares cannot change to wheat. People can and do change.
Analogies of human life from nature are never fully analogous.
None of us are all good or all bad. We are all a mix of sinner and saint,
and we have discovered that those who cannot recognize the sinner in themselves
are the most dangerous of all.
Flat interpretations of this parable have led the church to such blunders as The Spanish Inquisition,
or the Salem Witch Trials.
The Church can be so quick to judge,
and forget that ultimate judgment belongs to God alone.

As we gather at the Table, we are reminded that we are all both saint and sinner.
We have one foot firmly planted in the stuff of this life,
and hopefully, one foot planted in the ideal of God’s kingdom.
We come to the Table humble and hopeful before God,
not judging our neighbor nor condemning ourselves.
We come to the Table grateful, grateful for the One who came and lived and died
so that all may know the grace of God.
God will not forever tolerate that which is evil.
Sin has consequences; evil will ultimately be rooted out and destroyed,
but it will be destroyed by the One who laid down his life,
offering his body and blood for the sake of the world.

To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
July 2, 2017