Read Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

What makes a weed a weed?

Someone once said that “a weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”[1]

Some say a weed is “a just plant that is growing in the wrong place.”[2]

In today’s parable, a weed is the seed planted by the enemy among the wheat.  According to commentators, this is a particular kind of weed that looks just like wheat, but that harms the wheat and potentially those who eat it.  Jesus’ explanation describes a cosmic struggle between good and evil, between the Son of Man and the devil.  Jesus sows good seed, the devil sows bad seed, and at the end of time the angels will sort it all out.

Jesus is using the parable to explain the kingdom of God.  In the kingdom of God there is both good and evil. Jesus has come to redeem the world, but this isn’t heaven, and the devil is still causing trouble. But take heart, because in the end God sorts it all out.

The farmer tells the workers to leave the weeds alone.  The implication is that they won’t be able to tell the difference between wheat and weeds. Why is it so hard to know the difference?  Because from the outside, they look the same.

In hearing this story, we might assume that we are the good seeds, but how do we know?  Might it be that we are not the wheat?  That despite our best intentions, we sometimes act more like weeds?

We are not good at judging, especially based on appearances.  We have a tendency to assume that we are right and we are better, that we know better.

Author Garret Keizer tells a story about this mistaken presumption in his memoir, “A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry.”  He is at the grocery store buying bananas to take to an older man he visits regularly.  In front of him as he checks out is a woman with multiple orders and multiple forms of payment.  Keizer feels smug about his own good deed, but he judges this lady for buying what he deems to be “trivial” odds and ends — and he is annoyed that she is going so slowly. He says, “I watched her walk to her vehicle — feeling that same uncharitable impulse that makes us glace at the driver of the car we’re passing just to ‘get a look at the jerk.’ She got into the driver’s seat of a van marked with the name of a local nursing home and filled to capacity with elderly men and women who had no doubt handed her their wish lists and checkbooks as soon as she’d cut the ignition.”[3]  He thought he was the good one, and she was the bad one, but she wasn’t bad at all.

Have you jumped to similar conclusions about people?

Years ago my brother-in-law Lee flew from Florida to California to visit us. As he was getting off the plane, he scanned the groups of people in the waiting area, and noticed one group that he needed to avoid because they looked like trouble.  They had dyed hair and mohawks and lots of piercings.  As he got closer to them, he realized that one of these rough looking men with a mohawk, the big one in the middle, was his brother Rob. This group he was avoiding was his family and friends that had come to welcome him. These were the very people he’d come to visit and he’d almost walked right around them out of fear.

One of the reasons we’re so bad at judging who’s a weed and who is wheat is something called implicit bias.[4]  Implicit bias means that we make judgments about whether someone is good or bad based on their appearance or their situation. We favor people who look like us, or who are in our circle. We like to think that we don’t have bias.  It’s impossible that we don’t.  We all have some bias.[5]  The more aware we are of our biases, the more we can acknowledge them, and work against them, and correct the unfair systems that biases have created.

In the book we’re reading for our small group, “I’m Still Here” by Austin Channing Brown, there’s a story about understanding bias.  When Austin is in high school, a teacher tells the class that she’s no longer going to use a seating chart and they can sit wherever they want.  Austin tells what the teacher said about why she changed. Quoting from the book, Austin tells us that the teacher says:

“Every year I use a seating chart,” she began, “deciding where each of you will sit. Earlier this week I realized that my tendency to do this is racist.”

I froze. This was another classroom in which I was perhaps one of three students of color. I had no idea what was coming next, but I suddenly became very aware of my body. “You see,” she continued, “I have been using a seating chart to separate Black students. I didn’t fully realize it until I failed to separate two Black young women in one of my classes. When I saw them together I panicked, thinking, Great, now they are going to laugh and talk through the entire period.”[6]

“That’s when I realized what I was doing was racist. I have never ever wondered if any of my white students were going to be disruptive. I’ve never been nervous to find two white girls sitting next to one another. I am so disappointed with myself, and from now on, you all will sit where you want to sit.”

She took a deep breath, and so did I. I’m guessing there were plenty of classes in which Ms. Phillips had to separate two white students for being disruptive. However, by her own admission, this tendency toward disruption was never attributed to their race. Only when the disruptive students were Black did race become a defining factor.[7]

That teacher took a big step in realizing and admitting she’d been doing something racist.  Saying it out loud was hard, and hearing it was awkward for Austin, who then began to wonder what other racist judgments were being made by other teachers.  It did, however, empower Austin. She says,

This moment of disappointment made me even more determined to assert agency over my academic life. For the most part, my defiance manifested itself in demanding the right to explore Blackness. Book report due? I was choosing a Black author. History paper assigned? Black history was the only option for me. Like many Black students in predominately white schools, if I wanted to see myself reflected in the curriculum, I had to act on my own behalf.[8]

Writer John Beck in his book “Reviving Old Scratch” suggests that there are two kinds of Christians. One sees the great commandments, to love God and to love your neighbor, as a sequence of priorities. Loving God comes first, loving your neighbor comes second.  The problem, Beck says, is that we can then find ourselves pitting our love of God against our love of neighbor, and that seed of hostility can grow into hatred of neighbor, and into seeing anyone who doesn’t look or think like us as a weed. And weeds are expendable.  The other way is to see the command to love our neighbors as an interpretation of the command to love God.[9] Loving our neighbors is then an expression of loving God and loving God is an expression of loving our neighbor. This goes along with what John says in his first letter:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Sometimes when we think we’re wheat, we’re actually weeds.  We get things wrong.  We say and do things that do harm.

Is there good news?  Yes.  God’s mercy is greater than our sin.  If we will humble ourselves and confess our sins, God will forgive us. We’re going to make mistakes.  Though we may not have understood before, God brings us new understanding the more we are willing to look and listen.

And, thankfully, God is patient with us.  I’m thankful God is patient with me.

In one of my first jobs, I worked for an office supply company in Southern California. Many of the businesses in the area had accounts there. One day when I was working at the register a guy brought an armful of merchandise, set it on the counter, and said he was charging this on a company account.  His clothes were rumpled and old.  His hair was a mess.  He looked like a homeless guy. So I asked him to wait a moment and I went in the back to ask my boss what to do, fully expecting him to commend me for preventing a fraudulent charge.  Instead, my boss chuckled and said, “Yes, he’s ok.” He added, “I know it’s hard to tell, but he’s owner of that company.” So I went back and finished the sale.  I was polite, but I was still suspicious. I’d never heard of the company, so I assumed it must be some small home business and that’s why its owner looked like a homeless man.  There wasn’t Google back then to look it up, so I asked my boss about it later. It turns out that I was quite wrong and that not every large company is well-known to the public.  I don’t remember the name now, but it was a multi-billion-dollar business, and that man who looked homeless was a multi-millionaire.  I’m glad I had been at least polite.

We can’t tell what people are like from the outside.  That’s why Micah 6:8 puts three things together – Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Try to be fair. Help to fix the things that aren’t fair. Be forgiving. Be humble. We’re going to get things wrong. We’ve already gotten things wrong.

Romans 3:23 tells us quite clearly.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:23-24)

That’s grace.  Grace is how weeds become wheat.

We are all weeds turned into wheat, children of God through faith in Jesus, looking forward to what God’s going to do next. We ought not to treat anyone as less.

We wait with joyful anticipation for God to work in us and around us.

We watch for signs of God’s kingdom coming.

This kingdom life is messy.  Growth is like that.  But out of the chaos we get the beauty of flowers and vegetables and herbs and weeds all growing together.

We’re going to make mistakes, but if we will humble ourselves before God and one another, God will help us to be better and to make a difference.

Thanks be to God.




[1] Doug Larson, http://www.gardendigest.com/humor.htm

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4235316/

[3] Jill Duffield, “Looking Into the Lectionary: God Does the Sorting,” Presbyterian Outlook via email, July 13, 2020 http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1102135377571&ca=1bd05405-e6ec-4878-8aa4-74eb06be2bf0

[4] http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/

[5] There’s a website with some exercises that researchers at Harvard developed for testing our biases. (Project Implicit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html)  There are test to measure biases based on age, gender, skin color, religion, body type, etc. We make assumptions we don’t always realize we’re making.

[6] Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here (p. 42). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[7] Ibid., p. 43.

[8] Ibid., p. 44.

[9] Beck, Richard. Reviving Old Scratch (p. 90). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. “In this view, Jesus isn’t quoting Leviticus 19:18 to bring a second love alongside the love of God, he’s quoting Leviticus 19:18 to specify what loving God consists of. Leviticus 19:18 interprets Deuteronomy 6:4-5—the two passages are woven together to make one point: loving human beings is loving God and loving God is loving human beings. Only one love is at work, with no daylight between these two objects of love. Consequently, there is no conflict between loving God and loving people.”

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