Wheat and weeds – Jesus’ radical inclusivity

Stephen Adam, 23 July 2017

Romans 8: 12–25; Matthew 13: 24–30, 36–43

In chapter 13 of his gospel Matthew gives us seven different parables, all responding to the question, ‘What is the kingdom of heaven like?’ We heard the famous parable of the sower and the seed last week, we will encounter more next week, and today we have the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Each parable is concerned not with heaven in terms of somewhere we go after we die, but rather with how God works in the here and now of his kingdom.

So what are we to make of today’s parable? If you look carefully, you’ll see that it’s in two parts, with some verses missing in between. In the first part Jesus gives the parable to the crowds with the homely story about the farmer planting crops, and weeds getting in among them; and then in the second part Jesus withdraws from the crowds and a particular interpretation is given to the disciples, focusing on judgement and hellfire.

This language is the stock-in-trade of hellfire preachers – it is apocalyptic language drawing heavily on the book of Daniel, a graphic tale of God’s wrath at the end of time. I do not believe that we should take this sort of language literally, but rather we can take away a message of reassurance that all that opposes the gospel is impermanent and destined for oblivion.

Some biblical scholars believe that the second part of the parable was written at a later date. Certainly this heavy emphasis on judgement changes the meaning of the parable about the wheat and weeds, which has at its heart the theme of patience and inclusivity. If we look at ourselves we’re all a mixture of wheat and weeds – good stuff and not so good – and it’s not for us to judge by deciding who or what to exclude. Let’s leave that to God in his infinite goodness and mercy.

If we look at ourselves we’re all a mixture of wheat and weeds – good stuff and not so good – and it’s not for us to judge by deciding who or what to exclude.

If you seek an example of radical inclusivity you need look no further than the circle around Jesus. Indeed, even to speak of a circle is misleading, for a circle has a circumference and to draw a circumference you have to draw a line. Jesus was never in the business of drawing lines of exclusion. What a ragged bunch his disciples were! Thomas the doubter, Peter the denier, Judas the betrayer – as U. A. Fanthorpe describes them in her poem ‘Getting it Across’:

My Keystone Cops of disciples, always,
Running absurdly away, or lying ineptly,
Cutting off ears and falling into the water.

And then think of the company Jesus kept: the Samaritan woman at the well who had had five husbands and was now living with someone not her husband; the unclean woman with the issue of blood who touched him; the thief hanging in agony beside him on the cross – ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’.

Wheat and weeds – and yet the mad way in which God seems to work is not to weed anyone out. That is the extraordinary hospitality which Jesus models.

How do we as a church live up to that? This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, the year in which Luther sent his 95 theses against indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz. The Reformation leaves us with an ambiguous legacy – yes, it made the Holy Scriptures available in the vernacular, releasing the power of the Word to transform the lives of individuals and societies. And the theatricality of much medieval religion, with the distancing of priest from people, gave way to a much more profound experience of Christian community.

But against that it also ushered in an era of intolerance, polemics and bitter divisions, both in this country and across much of Europe. In England by 1645 the Archbishop of Canterbury had been beheaded, bishops had been abolished and the Book of Common Prayer proscribed. Remarkably, I’m told – and here I’m quoting from an article by Richard Chartres, former Bishop of London – that the passions aroused by the English Civil War claimed the lives of a greater proportion of the male population of England than was killed in the First World War.

The priest John Pridmore has written starkly of how, ‘Repeatedly, sickeningly, across the centuries the Church, wonderfully confident that it knows which are the weeds and which is the wheat, has sought to incinerate the former in order to maintain the purity of the latter’.

Those times of bloodshed between Christian denominations are thankfully behind us, but other demons still hold sway today – among them, the demons of arrogance and certainty. When I think back to my own youth, I shudder to think how arrogant I was – convinced that there could be simple, obvious answers on complex issues, and it was only other people’s blindness and ignorance that was preventing them from seeing the world as I did!

Those times of bloodshed between Christian denominations are thankfully behind us, but other demons still hold sway today – among them, the demons of arrogance and certainty.

Humility is, perhaps, a virtue we aspire to with maturity. You have only to look at the deep and sincere divisions over the assisted dying legislation to realise that we inhabit a world where there are many different and honestly-held views among Christians. And, needless to say, the fault lines within the Anglican Communion over the range of sexual and gender issues are another indicator of the moral tensions and ambiguities we wrestle with; there are no easy answers.

I think we need to be cautious whenever we hear people telling us with the utmost conviction that they know God’s mind and will; because alongside that you can set Jesus’ words that in gathering up the weeds you may well uproot the wheat. Perhaps the language of knowing for sure God’s will is an attempt to control the agenda or to close down discussion?

Narrow-minded fundamentalism or literal reading of words in the Bible stripped of their context can still be a danger, denying any sense of mystery or awe in our faith. I’m reminded of Edwin Muir’s poem ‘The Incarnate One’, in which he rails against the strict Scottish Presbyterianism he has encountered.

The Word made flesh is made word again
A Word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

Often, too, we’re impatient, we’re in a hurry, we want immediate answers – and we want them on our terms. And yet we need the virtue of patience, as the eloquent language in our epistle reminds us, as Paul writes of ‘the whole creation waiting with eager longing’ and ‘groaning in labour pains’.

In his humanity Jesus entered fully into the life of this world, with all its messiness, disappointments and compromises, and he entrusted the Good News to a group of fallible, flawed people, just like us.

For my part, I believe that in this life we will never be entirely sure of the wheat and weeds. We will always be wrestling with uncertainty and yearning, and we need to journey with a healthy dose of humility.

But in Romans, Paul points us to what we can be assured of: God’s faithfulness to us in Christ, that intimate relationship which we have with God as children, as heirs, as joint heirs with Christ (just think what astonishing language that is!) and his conviction – and here Paul’s oratory at the end of Romans 8 reaches a soaring crescendo – that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. For the rest, our Christian pilgrimage is an adventure of faith and hope.

Paul points us to what we can be assured of: that intimate relationship which we have with God as children – and that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.

I’d like to finish with a brief aside. Some of you – perhaps many of you – will remember with great affection Geoffrey Rowell, who served in our diocese as Bishop of Basingstoke from 1994 until 2001, when he became Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. Geoffrey was a warm and convivial person and an inveterate traveller; in theory his Diocese of Europe stretched from Calais to Vladivostok, so it fitted him like a glove! He had a deep hinterland, a deep spirituality, and did much to revive official dialogue between the Church of England and the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, as well as playing a pivotal role in theological discussion between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

Geoffrey died peacefully on Trinity Sunday and his funeral at Chichester Cathedral a couple of weeks ago took the form of a Solemn Requiem. Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops were there, as well as many bishops from the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches in their strange robes, all processing together. There was lots of incense, beautiful hymns and music; Rowan Williams preached brilliantly, and as the Bishop of Chichester said in introducing the service, ‘Geoffrey would have loved every moment of it!’

The point I want to make is about the sheer breadth of Christian discipleship represented at that service. It emphasised the Catholicism of the Church of which we are a part, that we are all pilgrims on a journey, and that there is an underlying inclusivity among us despite the different ways in which we approach the mystery of God.

Some words of Bishop Geoffrey in conclusion:

To worship is to adore, and the prayer of adoration is the prayer of love, and this inner core of our lives, our responsiveness to God, is a living-out of a mystery which always eludes our ability to express it in words.