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Just Grow the Grass

July 18, 2011

“Just Grow the Grass” Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 Ordinary 16A © 7/17/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Today the poet of Psalm 139 reminds us that there is knowledge too wonderful for us, things beyond our reach intellectually and spiritually. Of course, he’s talking about mystery.

Some mysteries are fun and intriguing, like reading or watching a whodunit or noticing how a dog seems to know what time it is, without a watch or clock. There are also those holy mysteries that energize and inspire us, like the rich and immediate experience of God beyond us yet with us in the sacraments. Other mysteries are maddening, like figuring out where you put your keys or what you did with that important piece of mail that you had in your hand not five minutes ago.

But then there are those that are neither enjoyable nor energizing. And they seldom get truly resolved, like when we locate our keys or find that document we misplaced. They touch every life at one time or another and all of humanity daily. I mean the mystery of death. I also have in mind the great questions of existence, like this one: why is there evil in a world made good? Or, because evil seldom floats out there disembodied, we might reframe the question: Why are there so many evil, heartless, depraved people in the world, even in the church? And how is it that God keeps letting them get away with their wickedness?

If we didn’t believe in God or that God was sovereign and governs the world, we wouldn’t have a problem. We would simply say that people are like that because that’s how the world is. It’s nature red in tooth and claw, and we humans are not exempt from the baser instincts. Some are stronger, more violent, more competitive, willing to do anything and hurt anybody to get their way or merely survive. Others are gentle and good and sensitive, but that gets them little advantage in a world where the fit and the fierce conquer and rule. Their voices are seldom heard; they are put down and killed and enslaved and silenced.

Perhaps no one put all this reality of nature and this philosophy better that Nietzsche in The Antichrist. He wrote: “What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.

“What is evil?—Whatever springs from weakness.

“What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome.

“Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency…

“The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it.

“What is more harmful than any vice?—Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak—Christianity….”

But the fact is, we do believe in God, and not just any god. We believe in a God who governs wisely and well, who is sovereign over this earth and all its creatures, who “so loved the world” in Jesus Christ, in whom he is fully known. We confess a God who is on the side of the widow and the orphan, the oppressed and the downtrodden, the hurting and the helpless. His prophets both old and new proclaim his will to be that justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.

So why do the wicked keep winning? Why are there so many of them in governments and corporations and even in the churches and in other organizations that are supposed to be devoted to good? And what do good people need to do about them?

The first question is as old as the psalmist’s cry and as new as this hour’s top stories on CNN. It’s the one on our lips and in our hearts every time we hear yet another horrific tale of some child kidnapped or killed by a depraved monster or learn that another hate crime has been committed or justice has been denied a victim in a courtroom. But unfortunately, the Bible never answers the question. The best we can say is that the complaints are there, raw and honest, as the saints cry “how long?” And so we are encouraged to keep lifting our cries with them until the kingdom comes and righteousness and love win, as we are promised.

Then there’s the second question, about why the world and the church are so full of evil people as well as good. Today’s parable gives an answer. “An enemy has done this.” There are malevolent forces of mythic proportions at work in the world, God’s field. And they mean to undermine his purposes, damage his good harvest, however they can. The methods Satan and his minions use to work against God are many, but the parable reminds us of a couple.

It invites us to recognize, for one, how evil people typically work in secret. The enemy in the story came by night when everyone else was asleep. Two analogies might serve. Think of the predator that lies in wait, camouflaged, out of sight, striking by surprise when the moment is right. Until then, the hunter is quiet and patient and the prey unsuspecting. Or consider how the F-117 stealth fighter and later generations of such aircraft like the B-2 and the F-22 reduce and disguise their radar signature so that an enemy is fooled and can’t target an anti-aircraft weapon. They make themselves look like something else. They approach undetected and seem to come out of nowhere. They catch the enemy unawares.

Jesus is reminding us in his story that evil people and their master Satan prefer quiet, surreptitious, subtle action to overt tactics that will too readily expose them or thwart their purposes before they have done their dirty work. How often do we hear that someone who commits a horrific crime was quiet, studious, and/or religious? Neighbors say: “He was such a quiet boy, kept to himself, never bothered anyone.” Until the crime is committed, and a search is made of a basement and/or computer. Then the person’s secret activities come to light.

Evil people hide in plain sight. Think of Osama bin Laden right there in the open in that Pakistani city. Or Phillip Garrido and his wife, the couple who held Jaycee Dugard captive for 18 years. There they were, in a neighborhood surrounded by other people, and they were committing horrific acts with that girl in a backyard shed. In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Dugard tells how parole officers paid visits throughout the years to the home to check on Garrido and give him drug tests, but none reported any irregularities. “I actually talked to one of the agents,” she said, but then noted how the agent proceeded to give Garrido his test and left. “[The agent] made me feel like he didn’t really care” (see note). Dugard was only rescued from what she calls her “stolen life” when someone finally paid attention. Do any of us really know what goes on in the house next door or down the street? I’m just sayin’….

But if Satan and his children work in secret, so also do they disguise themselves so you can’t tell them from the good people. What exactly does an evil person look like? That was the problem in the story. The weeds the enemy had sown were a variety called “darnel” that looked like wheat while they were growing. You had to wait until the plants matured and were ready for harvest to tell the difference.

Just so with evil people. They look like you and me. In the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” Meg Ryan says at one point to Billy Crystal: “It’s amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.”

What she says in jest is actually true. The children of Satan look like normal people. They are of no one race or nation or language or religion or gender or sexual orientation or age or economic class or occupation. They wear all kinds and styles of clothes, including clergy collars. They sit on sessions and meet in boardrooms and walk the halls of government buildings. They work in offices and shops and schools. They’re found on the golf course and in civic clubs or sitting in front of their TVs, doing nothing. Their public persona is reasonable and winsome and sincere. How can anyone tell the difference?

That’s the problem crusaders run up against. The servants in the story said “Let’s go pull up the weeds!” “We can’t have them growing alongside the wheat!” And that seems right, doesn’t it? Evil and its servants have to be fought aggressively. “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war.” “Lead on, O King eternal, the day of march has come!” Battle the bad on every front; take action to eradicate it from the face of the earth! There’s plenty of support for such a notion in Scripture, and not just in tales of holy war.

Certainly we know people whose mission in life is to get rid of the evil they see around them. So they pick a target: somebody who represents a societal ill or some politician who stands for a viewpoint they disagree with or an organization that to them embodies evil. They act aggressively and sometimes with guns blazing or bombs exploding. It happens in society; it happens in churches; it goes on in families. There are folk who delight in digging up dirt on people, uprooting their reputations, and cutting them down to size. They want to make sure that the race, the country, the church is pure, which means it follows the agenda of these self-appointed vampire slayers. And anyone who disagrees or deviates in doctrine or demeanor is a weed among wheat and needs to be thrown out and burned.

Well, sure, you say, there are some who go overboard. But we still have to fight evil, and that means making sure evil people are held accountable and put down. It’s the urgent task of the church, isn’t it?


At least not according to this parable. Now before you get all up in arms, remember a parable is a wisdom piece. It’s not supposed to be true for every situation; it invites us in and asks us to discern when to apply it, what the way of God might be. Matthew knows about church discipline, dealing with those in the community who sin and break its fellowship. Jesus himself says we can tell who belongs to him by the fruit they bear, and he makes judgments about folk in the Sermon on the Mount, urging us not to cast pearls before swine or give what is holy to dogs.

But sometimes patience and caution are warranted. And the question is about our primary focus, our main mission, the most effective use of our resources and energy. The landowner is the voice of wisdom here. Yes, he knows there is an enemy and what has been done to the field of wheat is malicious and wrong. In other words, evil is real; there are bad people in the world. He is not looking at things through rose-colored glasses. But his concern is for the wheat above all. Because they can’t tell the difference in the plants, if his servants go out right away in their zeal to pull up weeds, they are going to get wheat, too. And that the farmer will not permit. Wait until the difference becomes evident at harvest time. Let them grow together. Let the main priority be the welfare of the wheat.

A suburban family had a yard full of weeds. They called a well-known lawn care company to get rid of the pesky plants, but the lawn was so bad the family was refused as a client. A friend offered totally to remove the old lawn and start over. The homeowner was almost ready to accept when another friend who had been a farmer offered this advice: Don’t worry so much about getting rid of the weeds. Just grow the grass, and the grass will take care of the weeds.

The family took the advice and concentrated their efforts on growing good grass. In a couple of years, their lawn looked as good as anyone’s.

The writer telling that story observes: “[The family] had to ask themselves what would be their primary focus—growing grass or killing weeds?…[T]hey decided to concentrate on the positive—on growth….”

The same author goes on to relate the tale to the mission we have: “Pulling the weeds is not the church’s business. Growing wheat, growing bread for the world, growing souls is the task of each Christian and each church.”

Someone else has this: “…our mission is to proclaim words of acceptance, love and welcome as far and wide as possible… Separating wheat from weed, valuable from worthless, harmful from harmless—all that is the responsibility of the divine Judge, the Son of God, the judging Christ.”

The mission we have is to do something positive, just growing the grass, nurturing the good, rather than spending our energy trying to tell wheat from weeds and uprooting the latter. We’ve got enough to do following Jesus, loving God and loving our neighbor as he taught us, treating others as we want to be treated. It’s a waste spending time on negativity.

We live in a moral universe. The Scriptures assure us of that. There will be a final accounting. In the meantime, with patient trust, we need to devote ourselves with zealous care to the well-being of growing wheat. Who knows? Some of those plants we thought were weeds might just turn out to be good grain after all.



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