The gospel today (Matthew 13.24-43) brings together parables with an agricultural theme. Parables like these tell us that Jesus had a keen eye for the sights of the countryside. We can imagine him walking the paths of Galilee, observing the work of the farmers. When he tries to convey to his hearers his divine teachings, he illustrates them by talking about seeds, harvest, birds, weeds – word pictures that were familiar to them from their own world.
Take for example the well-known story we hear today about darnel and wheat. Darnel was a grass-like weed. If harvested along with the wheat then it was poisonous and could result in vomiting. Those who were listening to Jesus would have imagined the scene at once, and would have understood the necessity of getting rid of the weeds. But there was a danger here – in the early stages of darnel growth it looks, apparently, remarkably like wheat, and so if you pull it up too early, you risk losing some of your wheat crop along with it. You have to wait until nearer harvest time when it is clearer which is which.
The parable is a remarkable lesson in learning not to rush to judgement. It tells us that we are in a mixed world, in which good people and bad people are side by side. We look around us and we see saint and sinner, spiritual people and unspiritual people, compassion and callousness, generosity and meanness. In fact, perhaps we can go further and say that we look within ourselves and we find the same mixture there in our hearts.
The words of Jesus remind us of some other words of his that ring in our ears: ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned’ (Luke 6.37). The parable of the wheat and the weeds is more than a call to kindness. It is a safeguard against violence in our world. One of the oldest temptations is what some academics call ‘the sorting myth’. This is the belief that we can live in a perfect world, and that we can create that world if we get rid of certain types of people. Sometimes this kind of belief has resulted in horrible violence, even genocide.
Instead, Jesus invites us to wait for the harvest. Those listening to him would have understood him as referring to God’s final judgement. We cannot rule some in and some out. There is always, this side of heaven, the possibility of repentance – and we must be grateful for that, because it applies to us too. Here and now there is no group of pure, righteous people. If we consider others as beyond the pale, outside the community, then we are becoming judgemental and self-righteous. After all, Jesus taught us a prayer that we use every day: ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ And he gives us a lifetime to put it into practice.