Sorting the Wheat from the Weeds: Now or Later?

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I went out and did some weeding yesterday.

Having been away for a couple of weeks, I found that the tomatoes and the peppers, the cucumbers and the butternut squash were getting a bit crowded out by the weeds which threaten to overtake my vegetable gardens every year at about this time.

The job is a little easier now that it was even a few weeks ago — back when that which had been planted from seed was a little harder to distinguish from the other green shoots pushing through in late spring.

Anyone who has ever worked the earth — whether in one’s own back yard on one’s knees, or from the high seat of a tractor/cultivator/combine — everyone who has ever looked to the ground beneath us to provide the food we so enjoy, knows what it is to battle weeds. Which is why today’s parable is so familiar to so many of us.  Even if we have never actually heard it before.

Indeed, I cannot hear these words without being taken back to a time which has long been my lens through which I struggle with this teaching of Jesus. (I expect I have shared this story before, but like the parable itself, it is that to which I continue to return, seeking new meaning or at least deeper understanding.)

It was late June when I was in college. I was working pea pack at Del Monte in Rochelle, even as I had the previous summers.

My job was better than most afforded young people (and certanly migrant workers) at the time. I was in charge of taking a sample off each truck load of peas and running it through a series of tests. The numbers I recorded helped determine the worth of the peas which would then be washed and sorted, blanched and canned and labeled for sale.

Mine was not hard work, and I was grateful that it was also not mind-numbing. Indeed, one of my tasks was to pour the bucket of peas through a large shaker with each level having different size holes, which would sort them by size. I would then weigh each tray size and record those numbers, along with the amount of waste (see weeds here) which was present in the bucket.

It was early on one of those hot summer nights.

I had noted when I took the sample that the truck did not have its usual tarp covering the load. (As I recall, it had been diverted from another plant thirty miles south, and no doubt the driver just hadn’t taken the time to re-cover it before driving again.) Either way, this probably made no difference for what happened next, for the sample came from the bottom of the load, not the top.

I carried my bucket of peas inside and poured it into the shaker. I turned it on and the peas did what they always did, shaking and sorting by size. I went to take the top tray off to weigh it and there glistening amongst those largest peas was a piece of glass about the size of my thumbnail.

I set it aside and went about with the series of tests, recording the numbers as I had hundreds of times before.

And yet, I had a decision to make.

I could toss the piece of glass, presuming it was an aberration, which it probably was.

Or I could report it.

Indeed, I knew I was low enough on the pay scale that what happened next was not really mine to determine. Even so, it was the kind of moral decision which has stayed with me nearly forty years later.

So it was that I carried that piece of glass to the weigh station across the street, and pushed it across the counter to the High School English Teacher who also made extra money by working summers at Del Monte.  I can still see him looking over his glasses at me, although I could not read his gaze. Surprise? Disappointment? Judgment? I expect that now I will never know.

He turned and picked up his phone to report my finding.

And the decision was made to take that whole load of peas (some 8000 pounds in total) and dump it in a nearby field. For surely the possible consequences of doing otherwise were dire not only to the operation of the plant that night should more glass be found as the peas were sorted, not to mention to some unsuspecting one who might later open a can of Del Monte peas only to find and possibly consume glass.

Necessary? Probably.

Wasteful? Absolutely.

And I have never forgotten it.

Indeed, it always comes to mind when I read this parable of Jesus, for in this vivid memory I am reminded once more that the perhaps necessary ways of a corporation are not the way of God. And I am ever so grateful.

Now there is a great deal I recoil against in this parable.

I for one, cannot think of many people who are truly, fully, unquestionably ‘evil.’ Most of us, myself most especially included, are a mix of good and bad, upstanding and not so much. How would one come to the conclusion that a precious life falls so short (as to be weed-like even) so as to be ‘thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?’ This I do not get. I cannot imagine I ever will.

I, for one, prefer to think of this winnowing process as one that happens not once but over a lifetime with God patiently sorting out the good and the bad and yes, my submitting myself to this often painful process in my own heart, my own living, my own living out in public who I am.  This may not be where the telling of the parable ends, but it where I always go.

At the same time? There is great comfort for me in this. God is not hasty in God’s judgment. God waits until the harvest to sort it out. And God will not trash the whole field because of a few weeds. (Or a small piece of glass.)

And yet, for all of this? This time through I am wondering what it means to be standing as ‘wheat (I hope) among the weeds.’ How is it that our lives, our roots if you will, are all caught up together in such a way that we must live side by side until some later time. Apparently there is promise in this that these ‘weeds’ do not threaten us — unlike those weeds which grow up threatening to take all the sunshine and nutrients away from my butternut squash. Surely this certainty leads to patience for you and me, does it not, with at least some of what is wrong in the world? (Although I do still find myself leaning on the side of weeding out the evil now.)

I don’t know. It would seem this teaching of Jesus should be a straightforward one today, and yet, for all the times I have come up against it, it seems to only raise more questions than it answers. And maybe that is the point in the end. What do you think?

  • What difference does it make to you that God is more discerning than the corporate decision I prompted and witnessed so many years ago? What difference does it make that God takes the time to sort out ‘the wheat from the weeds?’
  • Do you struggle as I do with the interpretation within this parable that some among us are simply, fully evil and one day will be sorted out and disposed of in a ‘furnace of fire?’ Why or why not?
  • If we hear this as a parable of grace where God takes the time to sort out the good and the evil within each of us, where and how is God sorting in your life even now? If we are allowed to hear this as an ‘ongoing process’ instead of a once and for all one which will be ours to undergo in the seemingly far distant future, are there ways in which you are experiencing the roots being teased apart within you in these days?
  • Indeed, in a time when so much for us as individuals, as congregations, and as leaders within congregations is up in the air, I find myself wondering at what may forever be cast aside as no longer necessary or helpful or life-giving — even things which I did not necessarily recognize as weeds before, but which may now well be revealed as just that. What do you think? Does anything come to mind as I ask that question? What does this look like in the place you live and serve? How is this playing out in your own personal experience, in your own heart?
  • If it is your call to do so, how will you preach the parable of the ‘wheat and the weeds’ this week? Will it be a parable of judgment or of grace or both?

One comment

  1. Ed Foster says:

    ” And maybe that is the point in the end. What do you think?”

    I am pretty sure this is why Jesus taught in parables, not to make things easy to understand or relevant or relatable, but to help us find the truth in the ambiguity.

    Thank you as always, Janet, for being so thoughtful and so faithful.
    Ed Foster

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