Garlicky Wheat: How Long, O Lord!

The Reverend Elijah B. White

MP 11-A: Psalm 74, Wisdom & Mt; 544, 137, 576 

Today’s Sunday School Picnic reminds me how often our thoughts about the Bible are influenced by our Sunday-School-level thinking.  As a child I used to wonder about Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, the good seed and the bad; it didn’t make sense: why wouldn’t farmhands know one plant from another?  And who’d go around planting weeds anyway?

Well, we can learn a lot about farming from real farmers. When I was Rector in Casanova and Catlett forty years ago farmers had a problem with garlicky wheat. Soil in that part of Fauquier held an endemic pest that looked like wheat, but when they took their crop to market in Fredericksburg the buyers knew it, marked their wheat as “Number Two Garlic,” and subtracted a certain amount from regular market price.  I checked with Lisa Rogers at the mill the other day:  we don’t seem to have that particular problem up here in Loudoun, but we still have to deal with something like it here called ‘rye grass.’  It’s not true rye, not Secale cereale which is the good rye, but Lolium temulentum, which looks like rye, grows like rye, is often mixed in with rye, but it’s bad stuff.

So this is not a fanciful story Jesus tells.  In fact in those days it made great sense to his hearers because sabotaging your neighbor was so common by sowing bad seed in with his good seed at planting time.  Scholars have found specific laws, Roman, Hebrew, Persian, with specific punishments for anyone who sowed bad seed and mixed it in with the wheat.  Because they did grow up together; they entwined; they looked so alike at the beginning – it’s still done, I understand, in remote parts of India.

And Jesus’ hearers knew about field hands − they were rough and ready types, liable to just go in and pull out all the weeds they could and (as the master says in verse 29) they’d destroy a lot of good wheat along with the tares. The field hands wanted to judge before the time, but the master said no: wait until the harvest; then we’ll sort it out − which is probably a useful and humbling reminder to us today.

Jesus makes three important points here.  He teaches us that even in this fallen world there is a Godly power always sowing the good seed, sowing the Will and the Word of God (that’s next Sunday’s lesson), sowing the good news of His Kingdom, a sower of good seed − and also a hostile power, an evil power which actively works to corrupt, infect, destroy the good and godly growth − in this world the wheat and the tares, the good and the bad, are growing together intertwined. You and I know this for a fact, we can see it all around us − as G. K. Chesterton pointed out, “Original Sin is the one theological doctrine that can be empirically demonstrated. 

In this parable, Jesus makes it clear that so often it’s difficult for us to distinguish between those who are of the Kingdom and those who are not.  A good person can seem very bad at certain times. A vicious person can seem attractive and good.  The operative method of a con man − the word “con” is short for a “confidence” man − is to gain our con-fidence by being charming, presentable, nice, winning our trust − which makes him exceptionally dangerous. It’s easy for us to be misled, in either direction, because we tend to classify people or ideas by what seems to us to be good or bad appearances:  they look good; they sound good.

Jesus teaches us the only One with the full knowledge to judge another’s whole character is God.  You and I have to judge by actions.  We have to judge by what we can see in another.  It’s OK to serve on juries – it’s OK to be a judge – we have to – but our judgments have to be of actions, not of moral worth; there’s a vast difference between saying, “You were guilty of robbing that 7-11,” and “you are worthless scum who’s going to Hell.”  The first judgment we must make; the second is not ours to make.  Leave that to God.  As Hamlet’s father’s ghost says, “Leave that to Heaven.” 

Jesus is very clear on a fact many “modern” thinkers deny:  there is Evil in this world, Evil loose in this world and working, working always, hostile to the Good that is of God.  The Bible is not ‘philosophy’ (the Greek roots of which mean ‘love of this world’s wisdom’) – the Bible is not ‘theology’ (which means ‘man’s words about God’)  − the Bible is not human speculation, but direct Revelation of God to Man concerning the basic facts of this world and the next − one fact being that there is Evil in this world, as Jesus’ parable makes clear, verse 28:  “An enemy hath done this,” an enemy as implacable as the burning eye of Sauron in that believing Christian Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy − we field-hand humans cannot negotiate with that Evil, cannot placate it with compromises nor overcome it with our own best efforts. Only God can defeat Evil, and rescue us in the process.

There will be a sorting-out at harvest time.  There will be those set on the right hand and those set on the left – and there will be appropriate rewards. So if sinners seem to flourish around us like the green bay tree, don’t lose any sleep over it.  Do your best.  Read and believe your Bible.  Pray your prayers.  Do right and shame the Devil.  Keep straight.  Don’t envy the “successful” sinners.  God will sort them out, as Jesus makes clear.

What do we do?  Remembering the Judgment to come, we must judge our own moral worth very carefully.  There will be a judgment.  Our personal responsibility is to be able to answer the question that Quakers and Great-Awakening converts used to ask one another in the 1700’s, which is, “How is it with your soul?”  Not “Hi!”  Not “How are you?” but “How is it with your soul?”  That’s the question we should always be ready to answer – and to be ready to answer it rightly we have to have given it careful and critical thought, 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.

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