Matthew 13, 24-30 + 36-43
Recently, I delved deeper into BIOTOPES. Have you come across that concept? I’m not surprised if you haven’t because in English-speaking countries the word HABITAT is the more usual descriptor; and we all know what a habitat is: the living conditions or the place that a given species requires.
What I like about the word biotope, in favour of habitat, though, is the fact that it is broader and therefore richer and all-encompassing. Biotope, from the Greek, literally means “life-giving place”, and it most often includes several habitats. Like in the Parable of the Sower we heard last week:
- there were the rocks – actually very important to keep the soil from washing away in a big rain, and home to many a critter
- there were the thorns and brambles – wildflowers to attract useful insects for pollination, as well as – so I’ve learnt – being the ‘doctors of the soil’: they live, die and decompose to replenish the soil of nutrients and microbes
- the birds loved the well-trodden path for ease of nourishment
- and, of course, the humus-rich soil that bears the crop
It’s a very different agricultural setting to our modern farmlands, which are vast and are ploughed year in and year out.
The sower in the parable is content with knowing that everything has a place and a purpose; the sower is happy with a much smaller harvest, much less of a profit margin.
And, sowing the seeds extravagantly, generously, haphazardly – some would think: wastefully, everywhere; for, who knows, something may grow from it; it may nourish and sustain even there – the sower surprises us in our conventional thinking.
The Kingdom of God, as I see it, is a biotope par excellence: it is life-giving, life-affirming and life-supporting.
Nothing and no-one is to be deprived of God showering grace and love and hope. Abundant life is for everyone.
Today, the Gospel reading takes us back to the farm; and, yes, we’re in for another surprise.
God’s Kingdom, God’s Biotope, we’re told, can be likened to a cultivated field. Nonetheless we’re met with divisions in this parable, too.
Divisions. They make for different sides, don’t they.
And, most often, we have a clear notion of where we see ourselves in the divide – or, at least, where we’d like to see ourselves.
When we heard about the seeds falling on the four-fold plot last week, we like to think of ourselves as the good soil. As we hear today’s parable of the weeds amongst the wheat, we like to think of ourselves as the wheat.
Then, all too often, we’re like the slaves in the story, wanting to take matters into our own hands and root out all those weeds — the evil, the wicked, the bad.
And, alas, hasn’t history taught us a thing or two about that!
Think of the many well-meaning examples of folk wanting to establish a prefect, a pristine Christian community – think of the Puritans moving to North America for just one example, hoping to create the “City on a Hill”, shielding themselves from both, hypocrites and riff raff.
The problem is always that we – rather than God – make the decisions who is wheat and who is weed. And we get it wrong.
The weed mentioned in the parable is most likely darnel – a wheat look-alike until it fruits; a plant that sends its roots deep to intertwine with the roots of other plants, in this case wheat. Hence the farmer’s alarm when the slaves make their suggestion to have a weeding session: No! (1) it’s far too difficult to tell the one from the other, (2) the roots are so entangled, you’re bound to uproot the whole lot.
And there is our next problem, for every time we play the “them and us” game, thinking ourselves as wheat, of course, and ‘others’, ‘out there’ far away from our own circle of being, or a different faith a different denomination to ours, as weeds:
We get them mixed up, good and evil – the darnel does such a good job of looking like wheat. And whether it be the Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, the Apartheid regime or the White Australia Policy – all of them substantiated with biblical references — terrible wrongs were committed for supposed good; unfathomable hurt resonates, even today, for the latter two examples.
And the roots of the evil posing as good can run deep, making a tangled and tender mess.
As Allison Zbicz Michael puts it: “Welcome to the Church.”
And she is right.
However, it isn’t only the Church that holds both weeds and wheat side by side. We do, too. You and I, all of us.
It reminds me of the person who had seen this really brilliant reflection in a window – the effect was so amazing, he consulted a photographer to capture it for him. But the photographer was cautious. “Our eyes lie, but the camera doesn’t,” he said. “Here, look!” And, showed the man the pictures on the laptop. To be sure, the reflection was there; but so was a whole lot of stuff inside the window, which the man hadn’t even noticed while focusing on the reflection.
We would very much like to be classed as wheat; but the weeds are there, too.
We only need to look at the other readings today, to help us admit it to ourselves.
There we have Jacob, the great patriarch, running for his life. Why? Because he tricked his brother out his birth right, and deceived his aged and blind father.
There we have the Psalmist who confesses, “Lord, you know me completely – I might fool people but there’s no place I could hide from you.”
And there is Paul speaking about the flesh and the spirit having a continual tug-o-war within us. In the previous chapter, he writes those heart-felt words, and I paraphrase: “I keep doing what I don’t want to do; and I don’t do what I want to do. Oh, who can help me!”
Isn’t that one of the great things about the Bible, the fact that it’s full of people who’re not perfect – just like you and me.
Wheat and weeds.
Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst spoke of our light and our shadow sides.
Martin Luther, the reformer said in Latin simul justus, et peccator – we’re both, at the same time: justified and sinners.
Wheat and weeds.
“No! Don’t go weeding. Leave them; let them grow side by side until the harvest is ripe.”
If the Sower in last week’s parable is extravagant; in our parable today, we see him as patient.
Or maybe I should say long-suffering.
The Greek word that’s used here, aphete, means “let, permit, suffer”. In our vernacular we might transcribe the farmer’s comment as, “Leave them be”.
But there’s another meaning for this Greek word, and that is to forgive. Guess what, every time we say “And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” – well, in the Greek it’s exactly that word: aphes.
Quoting Robert Farrar Capon:
“… the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the lives of real people is not to be dealt with by attacking or abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells; rather, it is to be dealt with only by an aphesis, by a letting be that is a forgiveness, that is a suffering …”
That’s the beauty and the surprise of this parable: the sower, God is patient, long-suffering, forgiving.
Not just for “all the wickedness in the world” and “all those evil people” – but equally for us and our weeds.
Just as God surprised and assured Jacob at Bethel: I am with you always, so the Psalmist and St Paul don’t write out of anxiety but as being liberated and transformed in the face of God’s grace.
Weeds and all, we may know ourselves as God’s children.
Yes, there is wickedness. This is a fallen world.
But the Sower is completely committed to his seed, i.e. his children, their growth and future.
Many a farmer would choose to plough the whole mess under and start over – reminiscent of the story of Noah and the Flood; but how does it end? “Never again …”
No, as John’s Gospel puts it, “God so loved the world…” God enters the field. The Sower and Lover becomes part of the grain; becomes wheat with us and for us, enduring the pain of the weediness.
And what does Christ say on the cross? Aphete, forgive them.
“Who can help?”, asks St Paul, and answers his own question in the same breath: Christ.
Friends, our own weed selves find transformation in the death and resurrection of Christ. It’s a transformation that has begun with our baptism; and it’s one, Luther reminds us, we need to rehearse and practise every day.
“I turn to Christ” – it says in the baptismal liturgy.
And when we do, we turn to grace and love – not just for ourselves but for the whole field. The Sower is patient, long-suffering and forgiving. God lets the sun rise over good and evil, sending rain for the righteous and the unrighteous. For God’s gift of abundant life is on offer for everyone, and – who knows, what appears as weed now, may turn out to be wheat in the end.
The Kingdom of God is a biotope – patiently nurturing and transforming lives.