In the Fields of the Lord

"Among the fields of wheat," Image by Žarko Šušnjar via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

While Karoline Lewis takes a short vacation from writing this column, I’m filling in for four weeks.

When I explore Matthew’s Gospel with classes and congregations, it never takes long before I zero in on Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). It’s a useful passage if we’re interested in putting this Gospel on the couch to analyze its idiosyncrasies and diagnose what kinds of circumstances originally shaped Matthew’s occasionally severe point of view. Let the session begin:

  • You are so eager to see weed-like imposters get their come-uppance, whether they built their homes on sand (Matthew 7:21-27) or they act like unprepared sentinels or callous goats (Matthew 25:1-13, 31-46). Did someone in your past burn or betray you, Matthew? Are you tired of having to explain to everyone else that you aren’t like “those other Christians”?
  • Tell me why you often sound so angry and unyielding, Matthew.
  • What makes you yearn for such violent judgment?
  • Who is it you’re trying to scare? Who do you expect will find comfort from your rhetoric?

Those are important questions to ask because they help us listen to Matthew and respect how this parable exists as a piece of a larger testimony — how the parable contributes to what the whole Gospel has to say. The questions make us pause and consider “Now where did that come from?” while also realizing that we’ll never get too far toward discovering solid answers. Dead authors aren’t so good at responding to living interpreters’ questions.

Still, it’s pretty clear that Matthew reflects the aims of a writer trying to do pastoral work in an acrimonious setting near the end of the first century. The Gospel contends for its notion of authentic faith over against other groups and other expressions of faith. Matthew appears convinced that the others are misguided if not downright dangerous.

I invest a lot of effort into trying to feel morally superior to Matthew when the narrative gets too angry or brassy. A lot of us shake our heads at its dualistic tendencies and its penchant for promising “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for doomed outsiders.

The last eight months have made it harder for me to do that, however. Maybe I’m understanding Matthew’s perspective and pain better these days.

Without boring or aggravating you with details, I simply don’t like the trends, policies, and apologists that I read about in the news. Too many people who claim to speak for my Christian faith simply make me angry. I see serious theological and pastoral implications in the social and political crises of our time.

As a result, I’ve never experienced greater eagerness to see some self-identified Christians get uprooted. I’ve never been more compelled to see certain theologies exposed as fruitless and destructive. I’m not yet at the point of imploring God to go Dante’s Inferno on people, but I am determined — for many good reasons, I think — to differentiate myself and my faith from others. And to stem the growth of the weed population.

When we feel like this, we should ask ourselves the same questions I like to ask Matthew.

My recent experiences help me appreciate Matthew’s zeal, but that also concerns me. Even though the parable of the weeds and wheat (as well as parables in Matthew 25) urges readers to leave judgment up to God, still that message is too easily overlooked by believers who get fed up with other ones and grow tired of patiently waiting to see whether fruit will appear. Matthew’s stringent us-not-them attitude has been too easily exploited throughout history to magnify and excuse all sorts of hostilities by Christians toward other groups. Let’s not add to that ugly history.

But let’s also not pretend that Jesus’ parable calls for passivity as the hallmark of discipleship.

And let’s remember that some weeds are easy to spot as soon as they poke out of the ground.

A ministry so fixated on pastoral nurture that it acts naïvely in the face of the destructive power of counterfeit theology and sham pieties risks becoming complicit with injustice. It threatens to expose the vulnerable people in our midst to victimization over and over again. There is no Christian gospel that exists in isolation from public life; the kingdom of God imagines an alternate social existence. Some types of weeds have to go.

At the same time, there are risks in a ministry (or a sermon) that devotes itself so overwhelmingly to uprooting the clear and present threats in the world that it neglects nurturing the tender roots of the faithful. It will eventually breed hopelessness. It’s not enough to be on the right side of history; people want to know they’re also on the thriving (not necessarily expanding) and transformative side.

Yes, judgment belongs to God. But the church — you, me — is called into God’s work on behalf of the world. Dear working preachers, you simply cannot avoid uprooting and nourishing; it’s impossible. Echoes of Jeremiah’s commission — “to pluck up and to pull down…to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10) — resound in your pastoral calling. You do those things with every sermon, every newsletter, every visit. The trick is doing them in ways meant to extend the hope of divine blessings as wide as possible.

Perhaps we tend our fields best, and in the most Christ-like ways possible, when we remember where Jesus cultivated his own ministry, according to Matthew. He begins his work, in Matthew 5:1-12, promising blessing and satisfaction to the people who always get stuck with the short end of the stick. He promises, in a parable in Matthew 20:1-16, that justice will come to those whose society regularly denies them opportunities to experience it for themselves.

Those are the people you should associate with the good seed sown in Jesus’ parable. If the news you preach is rooted there, among them, then it will be good news. If your news opposes the things that imperil them, you’re on the right track. For those are the people that the gospel needs to nurture this weekend, however you choose to talk about weeds that keep sprouting up no matter what season we’re in.