“It’s no good. This isn’t working. We’ll have to turn back.” I spoke these words with a heavy heart, knowing that the decision I had just made would mean retracing a journey of well over an hour and then starting again on a new route to our destination.
My wife, Debbie, and I had taken our boys on a trip to Zimbabwe – her birth place and home until she had left for university. After enjoying the Victoria Falls and Hwange Game Reserve, we had headed south to the famous ruins in Masvingo. The next stop on our tour – the Highlands of Mutare – was north-east of the ruins, and we had decided to follow a back road that, according to our map, would join the national road en route to our destination. We were hoping to avoid the main route back to the national road, which would mean going back over terrain we had already covered, and, in the process, save ourselves both time and distance.
The road had begun well, with a good surface, clear markings and broad shoulders, but it had soon deteriorated, slowly becoming narrower and more potholed, until finally it was barely even a gravel path through the long grass of the countryside. Our car was certainly not designed for this kind of trial, and I began to worry that we would find ourselves stranded. We had seen a sign indicating that there was a hotel about two kilometres ahead, but there was little evidence of it, and I finally stopped believing we would find it or the main road, and made the decision to go back.
After traveling the long road back past the ruins, we finally joined the national road. By this time we needed to refuel and so we pulled over at a filling station. As I washed my hands and face in the bathroom, trying to get some of the stress and tiredness out of my system before going on again, I looked up to see a poster advertising the hotel which had been shown on the sign we had passed on the bad road. In the bottom corner was a map indicating that beds and food could be found just a few hundred metres off the national road. I almost wept as I realised that we had turned back less than two kilometres from the place where our track would have merged with the main route! If only my hope had held out a little longer, we would have saved ourselves considerable time, distance, money and stress.
This is what happens when we lose hope. Judas, who, in despair, killed himself, had lost hope a long time before he finally ended his life. Like zealots throughout history, Judas longed for change, but lost hope when he didn’t see the Roman oppression being brought to an end. His loss of hope led him to prejudge the world and misjudge God’s action in it, and as a result, he committed a desperate act which he finally regretted and which drove him to his death.
It is this loss of hope and faith that Jesus addresses in the parable in this week’s Lectionary reading (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). The story he told would have been familiar to his hearers. They knew about the weeds that, in the early stages of growth, were indistinguishable from wheat. They also knew the frustration of enemies planting such weeds in good wheat fields – this was something that really did happen in their world. But they would have nodded their heads knowingly when Jesus spoke about the dangers of trying to remove the weeds while they were growing with the wheat – both because of the struggles with trying to distinguish the good from the bad, and because of the way the roots of good and bad plants were intertwined. Such was their view of this common weed (which Barclay explains was bearded darnel) that they referred to it as “bastard wheat”. In his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel (p.76) Barclay explains the commonly held belief of the time that, in the time of wickedness before the flood, all creation, including the plants, committed fornication and brought forth offspring contrary to nature (the Hebrew for these weeds is zunim which is connected with zanah which means to commit fornication).
Jesus then goes on to explain the parable as a reference to the evil one who “plants” wicked people among the “righteous”. But, these wicked ones cannot be rooted out and judged immediately because they are indistinguishable from the righteous. So, at the “end of the age”, God, who alone is able to do this, finally separates the wheat from the weeds and deals with them as they deserve.
So how does this relate to hope? The parable was one that could just as easily have been spoken in our time. People were tired that evil was rampant among them, and seemingly being allowed to continue without consequence or judgement. For these poor and oppressed people, the evil that they were thinking of may well have been the Roman overlords and the corrupt religious establishment that collaborated with them. In the face of this evil, it seemed that God was doing nothing, raising the question of whether judgement would ever come. The responses of the people of the day were all, pretty much, the responses of despair – from the Pharisees and Sadducees who complied and cooperated to preserve their influence and wealth, to the Essenes who withdrew into their own, separated community, to the tax collectors and their ilk who actively collaborated with the oppressors to the zealots who sought to take things into their own hands and try to overthrow Rome by force of arms. All of these responses arise from a basically doubt that God is at work in the world or that evil will finally face its judgement. All of these responses arise from a loss of any vision of a better world and from the loss of any conviction that God’s reign would ever actually come.
But, Jesus offers a challenge to this loss of hope and faith. He gives another perspective on the world and on the people in it. Don’t lose faith, he says, in the people around you – you don’t know what’s happening in their hearts. Those who appear evil – as weeds – to you, may actually be those who most reflect God’s life, and those who appear righteous – as wheat – to you, may be anything but. So, it’s not up to you to try and rip out the weeds. It’s not up to you to decide who’s in and who’s out. You can let yourself off the hook. You are not called to be a gatekeeper, and you need not fear being “corrupted” should a wheaty looking weed slip past your notice. Do not allow your loss of hope in humanity to lead you into desperate acts of judgement, prejudice or discrimination. And, don’t lose faith in yourself. Those weeds you’re ashamed of may yet turn out to be seeds of life and nourishment for you and others. And those things you think are wheat that you’re so proud of, may yet end up being far less significant than you think. So, don’t judge your own heart too quickly or too severely. Even in yourself, you can allow the process of growth to enfold and reveal its secrets in its own time.
And Jesus gives another perspective on God’s activity. Don’t lose faith, he says, in God’s purpose. God does intend for goodness and love to win out. God does intend to deal with evil and bring the cosmos to wholeness and fulfilment. But, God’s timetable is driven by grace and compassion – for you as much as for anyone else. So don’t allow your loss of hope to make you adopt the methods of evil in your quest to drive it out. Don’t allow your impatience to lead you to attempt to enact God’s judgement prematurely. Trust in the vision of God’s reign and in God’s grace and compassion and justice that are at work even if it doesn’t seem so. Reject cynicism and pessimism and despair. Live as prisoners of hope.
These are tough ideas. It’s a tough parable. It may seem to condone evil. It may feel like we’re becoming apathetic and weak. It may outrage our sense of justice. But, it is the Gospel. There is always hope, because what may look like a weed can very well have the life and goodness of wheat surging up unseen within it. Our task, then, is not to judge – not ourselves, or others, or the world, or God’s work in it. Our task is simply to trust, and to believe and to hope. Paul expressed it admirably in his letter to the Philippians: “I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil.1:6 CEB)