Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?” [Florence Reece, 1931]
We love to pick sides don’t we? We love to know that we’re right and others are wrong. We love to know that we are good seeds sown in good soil producing good, and abundant crops. And those weeds?…they’ve got to go.
It’s human nature. It’s part of how our brains are wired…we make distinctions like that [snap]…Our neurological systems arrive at judgements before we are even consciously aware that we’re making them….left, right; up, down; black, white; good, bad. Are you in or out? Are you with us or against us? Are you one of us or one of them? Are you wheat, or are you a weed?
Which side are you on?
Making this kind of stark distinction is not only natural, it can be a significant survival technique for communities under threat. Like the community Matthew was writing to. Roman legions had brutally put down the rebellion led by Zealots; they had laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. The Jewish world, which included the newly emerging Christian communities was devastated, and the survival of Judaism itself was in doubt. Survivors all scrambled for scarce resources and all claimed to be the true heirs of the covenant. The conflict that we see and hear voiced over and over again in Matthew’s gospel, between the “true believers” and the “Pharisees”…between “children of the kingdom” and the “children of the evil one,” is likely a result of this desperate situation. It’s Matthew’s refrain of “which side are you on?” Are you one of us? Or are you one of them? We all make decisions like this.
And when we make these kinds of stark decisions (whether knee-jerk, or carefully considered)— there’s always that niggling doubt…”but what if…I’m wrong”… we want to be sure that we’re good soil. We want to know that we’re harboring good seed—and so we want to remove all doubt…we want to purify ourselves and the people around us. We want to keep the polluting influence of those “others” at bay. We want to root it up…and cast it…out. It’s a very human temptation…but it is always that…a temptation.
Because here’s the thing about weeds…they don’t actually exist. There’s technically no such thing as a “weed” in nature, because a weed is only a plant that is growing in the wrong place. You can’t have weeds, unless you’re trying to grow something else. Next week, we’ll hear the five verses left out of today’s reading, and there, Jesus tells this amazing story of this tiny seed that when sown becomes “the greatest of all shrubs…becomes a tree” (Matthew 13:31). But unless you’re cultivating mustard…if you’re trying to grow…let’s say wheat…and someone sows mustard seeds in your field…it’s a weed!
Weed is not a botanical category…it’s a moral one. It’s a category of purity…a category of judgement. Which means it’s a category I impose. Which means I’m choosing sides…but isn’t God supposed to do that? Isn’t that what the parable says. “Let them grow up together…” and at the end the landowner will separate them.
Maybe weeds and wheat; good and bad; us and them isn’t the most helpful way to look at this…maybe we need to cultivate ways of making distinctions that are faithful, rather than puritanical. That are based in God’s reality of love and justice rather than our judgements about what’s best.
I’ve been reading a good deal of Howard Thurman. In Meditations of the Heart, Thurman tells his own version of this parable in an eassy called “The Pressure of Crisis.” He tells the story of David Lloyd George (the Welsh Statesman) who, as a child, had the job of collecting firewood for the family. On bright sunny days, he always had trouble finding enough firewood. But on days after a terrific storm, he had no trouble. Of course, he eventually figured it out. Thurman writes: “During the times of heavy rains and driving winds, many of the dead limbs were broken off and many rotten trees were toppled over. The living things were separated from the dead things. But when the sun was shining and the weather was clear and beautiful, the dead and the not dead were undistinguishable.”
The dead and the not dead—the living and the not living—the life-giving and the life-draining were indistinguishable. That makes more sense to me than weeds and wheat. As a fallible human I know that often have trouble telling the difference between what is life-giving…for me and for the community…the world, and what is life-denying for me and the community and the world.
“When all is well with our world,” Thurman writes, “there is often no necessity to separate the ‘dead’ from the ‘not dead’ in our lives.”
But all is not well with our world. We are living through a period of significant crisis. And, “Under the pressure of crisis,” Thurman writes, “when we need all available vitality, we are apt to discover that much in us is of no account, valueless. When our tree is rocked by mighty winds, all the limbs that do not have free and easy access to what sustains the trunk are torn away; [because] there is nothing to hold them fast.”
We are in a storm and all of our resources…all of our structures—our limbs— all of our roots are being stressed….being tested.
It is in the storm, Thurman says, where we learn, “what there is in us that is strong and solidly rooted. It is good to have the assurance that can only come from having ridden the storm and remained intact.”
We are in the storm. And we are learning, says Thurman, that “the things that are firmly held by the vitality of the life are apt to remain, chastened but confirmed; while the things that are dead, sterile or lifeless are apt to be torn away.”
Things held by the vitality of life remain…while things that are lifeless are being torn away.
That feels more true to what we are going through now…and more based in reality…as opposed to my judgement. And it gives me hope that we will emerge from all of this stronger…which I’m sure…given the crisis Matthew’s community was going through…was the point of the parable anyway. What is held by the vitality of life will remain…and what has already been shown to be lifeless…is being torn away. Thurman concludes, “The wheat and the tares grow up together but when the time of harvest comes, only wheat is revealed as wheat—and tares remain what they have been all along, tares.”
It’s not our job to purify our communities. It is our task hold fast to that which gives life, and hope, to all.
Which side are you on? I want to be on the side of God…the side of life. Don’t you?