This past week I was leading a small group as a part of a youth conference. All 250 participants took part in a service project during a full day of the conference. My small group of 10 met with a fellow who may be suffering from lung cancer after years of working around fires in search and rescue. He is caring for his elderly mother who also suffers from cancer. Our job was to pull weeds, clean up planting beds, trim hedges and do other kinds of yard work that he couldn’t easily get to anymore.
He carefully instructed us on what needed to be done, showing us which plants were good and which were bad, which beds needed to be cleaned and which preserved. Even though it was a hot summer day, it was satisfying to see progress, to be able to say this is good or this is bad.
It’s easy to make judgments like that, at least when it comes to sprucing up a lawn or cleaning up a garden. In reading Jesus’ story in Matthew 13 about someone who sowed good seed in a field only to discover that an enemy had come along and sowed weeds in with the good seed, might make us wonder about gardens, weeds, and summer yard work.
In Jesus’ story, the field hands ask if they should go pull up the weeds, which seems like a practical thing to do. We not only do that in our gardens, we’re inclined to do that with our relationships. If someone seems to be a weedy character or to have a thorny disposition, we’re wisely inclined to not nourish it or even uproot that relationship.
When Jesus tells this story he is using an example his hearers would have been familiar with. Sowing seeds and getting rid of weeds would have been something they all would have done. But, his story is one in which he describes the kingdom of heaven as a good patch of wheat that has had some bad seed thrown into it by an enemy.
When the workers ask about pulling the weeds Jesus tells them to wait until the wheat is mature so that it doesn’t get pulled up too. I wonder if this might have been the surprise in the story for his listeners. It wouldn’t be the ordinary thing to wait and let the weeds grow until the wheat is ready.
Maybe in telling the workers to wait Jesus was up to something else. Weeds aren’t changed into something else like wheat. But in the kingdom of heaven, even thorny characters stand a good chance of being redeemed into something new, into people whose character can be changed into something good.
There have been times over the years when I have seen people of somewhat questionable character winnowed out of an organization. Maybe they felt like they weren’t good enough to belong. Maybe they were given a subtle message that they didn’t quite fit in. Maybe they were shamed or cut out of belonging. Unfortunately, when that has happened I have seen others depart with them. Judgment took the place of mercy, and the possibility for redemption was dug up and cast aside.
Weeds may not become wheat. But sometimes seedy characters growing alongside wheaty characters may be influenced by them enough that they begin to take on the shape and form of good characters. They may begin to be redeemed to the extent that their thorns soften and fall away until they become something different, something good, something nourishing that just may be found in the kingdom of heaven.
Wait, Jesus says. Wait. Don’t pull them up yet. Let’s see what happens when it’s time for harvest, when they’re mature. Maybe it’s just what we would all hope for – God’s mercy at work in us a little while longer until we become something new, and nourishing, and good.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He obtained a degree in psychology from the University of Oklahoma before attending McCormick Theological Seminary. He lives in Sherman with his wife and three sons.