Many years ago I met an unforgettable character. I was leaving the old Jewish Community Center at Taylor and Mayfield Road after a workout—so you know how many years ago that was– and an eighty-eight-year-old woman flagged me down and asked for a ride home. As I’ve shared this story over the years people have told me they had also met this woman, so I’m guessing she was an extrovert who made an impression everywhere she went.
Although the woman only lived a few blocks away, our ride home took a really long time. My hitchhiker turned out to be quite a storyteller. Her father had had the foresight to send her and her siblings to Israel before Adolph Hitler’s purge of Polish Jews could claim their lives. After living in Israel for a while she immigrated to the United States. At the time of our meeting she was recovering from quadruple bypass surgery and fighting her way back to mobility and health, while working as a volunteer in a program that served other senior citizens. She told me she’d promised God she would help others since she felt God had blessed her so richly.
When she found out I was a minister she felt compelled to give me good material for a sermon. (Believe me, it’s a professional hazard that happens all too frequently and has made me think about telling people on airplanes or wherever I go that I sell insurance.) At any rate, my new best friend began to hold forth on the evils of this world. She spoke of the unthinkable horrors of Nazism. She lamented the decline of American society. She talked about the divorces that were rocking her little neighborhood, the epidemic of illegal drugs and the crass materialism she saw eating away at the fabric of community life. She punctuated every story by turning to me, eyes widened in disbelief, and saying, “It’s terrible. What are you going to do?”
I wonder what this woman would say if she were alive today, thirty plus years after our encounter. I imagine she would be heartsick to see the countless examples of unethical, cruel, or violent behavior that still dominate our news.
My dad was a Presbyterian minister for many years whose signature saying was that in every pew there’s a broken heart. In other words, all of us at one time or another will struggle with loss, injustice or fear. Each of us by virtue of being human is exposed to the brokenness of life, and knows the reality of which Paul spoke when he said, “The creation is groaning in travail.”
St. Paul could have been sitting in the back seat of my car as I conversed with the old Jewish woman that day because of his understanding of suffering. But the truth of the matter is that suffering was never a binding or final reality for Paul. In Romans 8 he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He acknowledged that suffering was real, but went on to point to the greater reality of hope. In essence he was saying. “This painful reality is nothing compared to what we will see and know in God’s future. The present can’t be compared to God’s future because it isn’t even in the same league.” Hope is different than daily reality. Hope isn’t seen. If we could see what we hope for, we wouldn’t hope for it in the first place. Hope points us forward to a future we can only imagine.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a story of hope. Under cover of darkness an enemy has sown weeds in and among the wheat crop that are virtually identical to the wheat. It was most likely a weed that grows in the Mideast called darnel that looks exactly like immature wheat. The master tells his servants not to pull the weeds because they might mistakenly root up the good crop. He encourages them to wait until the harvest, until the plants are fully grown and the servants can easily see which is which.
The first time I really understood this parable I actually wept. I realized that God is willing to tolerate evil, our evil, because in not tolerating it he might injure a developing plant or an unfolding life. Like the saying that is so popular these days “Wait for it…” that assures listeners that a punch line or revelation is coming, Jesus assures us that God will act, but asks us to be patient. God’s justice will come, but in the meantime God allows for the possibility of repentance and growth in us and all creation.
I wonder if talking about God’s judgment is something we’re comfortable with. It might feel terrifying and maybe a bit too fundamentalist for our liberal/progressive mindset. But the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t shy away from talk of judgment, and if we are going to hold the full range of scripture in our embrace we can’t just dismiss the topic. But hang in there, because the parable of the wheat and the weeds teaches us several very valuable things.
First of all, at some point we will be held accountable for how we have used our time and energies. Life is precious precisely because it isn’t some random experience without limits or rigors. Knowing there will be a review of how we’ve lived underscores the preciousness of the life we’ve been given.
Secondly, ultimate judgment belongs to God and God’s mercy is great. Like the master who allows the wheat and weeds to grow together until the final judgment God does not prematurely rush to judgment but gives us room to grow, hopefully into healthy plants as opposed to weeds. Presbyterian clergyman Frederick Buechner aptly captures this exquisite tension between judgment and mercy when he writes, “Romantic love is blind to everything except what is lovable and lovely, but Christ’s love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole.”
While all this ought to be good news, if we are honest with ourselves it’s a bit troubling. We can be terribly impatient people. We like to be in control and we like to make judgments. We make judgments all the time— about ourselves, other people, and all sorts of situations. We agonize, we criticize, we condemn. We entertain juicy fantasies about what we would like to do to those people who have hurt us. The problem is that every time we want to yank at those proverbial weeds, we run the risk of injuring developing plants.
God’s perspective is not our perspective. We have a much more limited operating system. The parable of the wheat and the weeds invites us to remember that God is the God of history who will ultimately judge all things righteously. That assurance frees us to let go of rushing to judgment or collapsing in despair.
Can you think of a time when you judged a person or a situation as hopeless? Have you ever been humbled to find that great redemption came through a certain person or situation in ways you could never have imagined? It’s hard to know who is a weed and who is wheat, isn’t it? I’m reminded of a little ditty my mother taught me, “there’s so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.”
I can still see my darling old hitchhiker, her eyes widened in fear saying, “It’s terrible. What are you going to do?” Her tone was so plaintive. “What are you going to do?” was a rhetorical question that was really an expression of my hitchhiker’s despair. Some days despair may overwhelm us, but the parable of wheat and weeds speaks to that despair. It says, “Wait for it….” Wait in hope. Surrender the compulsive need to know and to judge. Give all that you have been, all that you are, and all that you will be into God’s loving care. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, and be strong in the knowledge that God can be trusted to bring in the harvest.