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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/19/2020

The Apostle Paul is a key figure, probably the key figure in the spread of Christianity in its early years. His letters also played a key role in the development of Christian theology but…even for serious students of the New Testament, his train of thought can be hard to follow. It’s especially true in the case of the Sunday lectionary readings when you just get a small portion of one of his letters. Part of the reason that reading Paul is difficult is because, as letters, you get his side of the conversation but you don’t know the other side. Most of what he writes is in response to letters he received from communities he had previously visited and where he had started churches so the challenge is to try and figure out what prompted these communities to write to him. What are the issues that Paul is addressing?

Since we’re in the middle of a series of readings from Romans, as an aside I should add that Romans is the exception to this. Paul hadn’t been to Rome yet when he wrote this letter so it is a little different, more of summary statement of his overall theology which later would be very important in the development of Luther’s theology. So, no challenge to figure out the other side of the conversation in Romans, but it is a challenge in most of Paul’s letters.

I’m not really here to talk about Paul though, except to say that the same kind of challenge inherent in his letters can also apply to Jesus’ parables. Jesus told parables but they didn’t happen in a vacuum; they were in response to a question or a situation. Sometimes we’re told the question: a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Pharisees grumbled about him welcoming and eating with those they considered sinners, he told the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In response to “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” there’s the Parable of the Rich Young Man.

While parables are by nature open to more than one interpretation, knowing the question that prompted the parable helps a whole lot in getting at what Jesus was talking about. But, similar to Paul’s letters, we don’t always get that question and that is the case with today’s Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. It’s one of a series of parables introduced by, “The kingdom of heaven is like,” or “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to,” but there’s nothing specific about what prompted Jesus to talk about the kingdom of heaven.

Unless the question or situation related to the parable is clearly stated, we can’t be 100% certain that we know what it is. Concerning the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds though, discerning the wrong question can and has led to some really bad “us vs. them” judgment theology, labeling one group as wheat or good people and labeling another group as weeds or bad people, bad people who should be rounded up and burned in a furnace of fire. I don’t think Jesus’ teaching was ever about us vs. them so one wants to avoid questions that would lead to that interpretation.

It’s more likely that the presenting question is one that would have applied in Jesus’ time and in the time of the early church and in the history of the church right up to the present time. That question has to do with doubt about the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The question posed to Jesus might have been, “If the kingdom is present, why does it seem like nothing has changed?” In Jesus’ time, related questions might have had to do with why so many people rejected his message, why Israel was still under the thumb of Rome, if Jesus was the messiah, why weren’t these things being more clearly sorted out with the emergence of a pure and faithful community?

Two thousand years later the substance of the questions hasn’t changed all that much. If anything, the level of doubt and despair about the presence of the kingdom is even greater as the ratio of wheat to weeds seems to tilt more and more in favor of the weeds. According to the numbers, the church is in decline; there are those who say that our church body, the ELCA, won’t even exist in thirty years. Evil persists in the form of us vs. them walls between groups of people, it persists in the form of violence and hatred. On the front burner these days is evil in the form of systemic racism, there’s evil in the form of those who promote or condone all of these things and there’s evil in whatever other form you choose to add to the list. The weeds seem to be taking over which is what they will do in a garden left untended.

And yet, the parable says to leave them there, so what do we do with that? As was the case with last week’s Parable of the Sower, an explanation to this parable is provided. As was the case last week, the explanation probably doesn’t come from Jesus but from the early church. It is a legitimate interpretation, but the bad thing about it is that inserting it into the text it can leave the impression that it’s the right answer and by nature parables are open to different interpretations, there is no one right answer. So, let’s leave that interpretation alone for the moment and think about other possibilities.

In interpreting parables, one of the things I find helpful is to stay focused on Jesus. That perhaps seems obvious, but what I mean by that is that you can’t read a parable in isolation, but instead you look at it in light of Jesus’ overall life and teaching. While parables are open to more than one interpretation, if you find that your interpretation strays from Jesus’ overall message, it’s a clue that maybe you need to try a different angle.

Keep in mind that as Jesus told this parable, even his closest disciples didn’t seem to understand who he was. If they had hope that he was the messiah, the expectation was that the messiah would be a political/military leader who would free them from the rule of Rome. Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of heaven in all these parables, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” but all they could see was the same old earthly kingdom full of weeds impinging on the growth of kingdom wheat. If Jesus’ kingdom was to be a reality, wasn’t it time to take action against those weeds?

Based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaching about love your enemies and turn the other cheek, I think a legitimate interpretation here is that the parable represents a caution against using violence, against the idea that such action is the way to make Jesus’ kingdom a reality. Such decisive action might in fact take care of some of the weeds, but probably not without severe damage to the wheat so Jesus is saying, slow down. Several of his kingdom parables are about seeds and growth which is a slow process that can’t be rushed.

Too often though, the recommendation to leave the weeds alone has been taken to mean that in the face of evil of any kind, the church should mostly remain passive and not get involved. Lutherans in particular have been guilty of this, sometimes using Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms as support and saying that the church has to do with the kingdom of God and because of that it should not get overly involved in the kingdom of this world. In recent years, within the ELCA anyway, it sometimes feels to me like the pendulum has swung too far the other way, in the direction of the kingdom of this world, the danger with that being that church just becomes another social justice advocacy group and the kingdom of God gets sidelined.

It is something of a balancing act as, at its best, the church has a role to play in both kingdoms so using today’s parable to advocate passivity or quietism is what I would consider another bad interpretation. Again, staying focused on Jesus, there is nothing in his teaching that says we should do nothing in the face of evil. While violence isn’t the answer, we are called to be advocates for justice, we are called to break down walls and cross boundaries as he did, we are called to be truth tellers concerning the presence of evil. Part of that though, is also understanding that the presence of weeds, the presence of evil, doesn’t mean that evidence of the kingdom of heaven isn’t there. It is, and even amongst the weeds, we can help to reveal that kingdom, but not in the role of judge.

Judgment is another important aspect of this parable. Judgment is one of those things we’d prefer not to think about at least as it pertains to us. We’re OK with being the judge, but the parable points to the fact that while there will be a judgment, there will be a separation of the wheat and the weeds, we’re not in charge of it.

That leads to another dimension of this parable which has to do with the sovereignty of God, the fact that while it might not always appear that way, God is still in charge and judgment is in God’s hands. I struggled at first to find a connection between today’s reading from Isaiah and the gospel, but I think that’s it: it’s about God’s sovereignty. “I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god.”

It’s always a good reminder, a hopeful reminder, especially at times when the weeds do seem to be overwhelming the wheat, times like right now when, along with everything else, an unseen enemy called COVID-19 hides in the garden affecting everything in it. It seems like other forces are in control so we go back to the word of the Lord in Isaiah, “Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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