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"Wheat and Tares (or “Weed Sunday”)" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 23, 2017

posted Jul 24, 2017, 1:08 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Jul 25, 2017, 8:04 AM ]

SERMON: The Wheat and the Tares Reinhold Niebuhr

Recently Crystal, in our church office, started posting on Facebook teasers about the focus of our upcoming worship services. This week she made a graphic about the parable of the wheat and weeds. I’ve always thought of this parable by the older title, “the wheat and the tares.” But I like this new name, “the wheat and the weeds.” As I saw it on Facebook, I began to think about how we might market it even better. What if we advertised, “Weed Sunday?”

I do want to get into the weeds this Sunday. And to listen for what Jesus meant spiritually by his odd advice to “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.”

A deeper understanding of this parable begins by looking at the kind of weed Jesus called “tares.” The plant we call “tares” or “darnel,” officially lolium temulentum, grows throughout the same region as wheat. The words used for this plant give a sense of its nuisance. Tares comes from an Arabic word meaning “deficient.” Many people called this weed “false wheat” because the plant looks nearly identical to wheat. One can only tell the difference between wheat and false wheat when the plants go to seed.  Tares produce a darker seed than wheat.

Bread made from wheat and this false wheat tastes bitter. And the seeds, when eaten, can produce a hallucinogenic response and can even lead to death. Which gave the plant the name darnel, which comes from an old French word meaning stupefied.

Tares represented a real nuisance to farmers. No farmer would ever plant tares in with their wheat; and none would allow the tares to remain and spread among their crops. And yet, Jesus imagines the farmer letting the wheat and the weeds grow together.

It’s this element of the parable which would have perplexed people in Jesus’ audience. And it’s this very oddness which I want to probe. Why did the farmer delay action against the invasive weeds? Why did Jesus speak against a rush to judgment against evil?

Years ago, I read a sermon on this very question by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr lived early in the last century, becoming in many ways “America’s Pastor” because his sermons and essays so influenced public thought. Niebuhr died in 1971 but his ideas continue to live on, with a notable resurgence of interest on both the right and left: Sen. John McCain and David Brooks on the right, President Barack Obama on the left, and even James Comey, all read Niebuhr.

The parable about the wheat and weeds speaks to the human condition as Jesus made clear in his interpretation of his own story. God sowed good seed in the human heart; the devil came along with bad seed; and now our hearts grow thick with wheat and weeds. We can of course read this metaphor on two levels - as story about our own hearts or a story about human community.

St. Augustine, reflecting on this, coined the term “corpus permixtum” or mixed body. And that, Jesus said, is our condition both individually and communally. We are mixed with good and bad.

To this continuum of good and bad, Niebuhr adds another sense of our mixed condition.  In a number of places, he wrote of the ways humans are both finite and infinite. Or, as our morning Psalm had it, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” That is, we humans exist but for a moment - a wisp of life; our lives a nano-second in a universe billions of years old. “Yet,” the Psalmist answered, “you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” That is, we humans, though finite and fragile, stretch towards an infinite transcendence: the eternal, the divine. (We could even sketch these two continuums out: a horizontal continuum, good to bad; and a vertical continuum, finite to infinite).

We humans run into trouble when we forget this mixed nature of our existence, our simultaneously fragile and grand life. This trouble comes when we make judgments; as Niebuhr explained:

“Our life story is concerned with making rigorous distinctions between right and wrong, between good and evil.  Part of the Christian faith corresponds to this interpretation.  Certainly a part of [the scriptures] is not quite sure whether [humanity] is in relationship to God, or whether the primary job for the righteous is to war against the unrighteous.  

But here lies our great danger. Our rush to judgment represents an attempt to transcend our own fragility and finitude; to make ourselves great by the judgment of others.

Recently I got into an argument with someone. We disagreed about the right thing to do. And in his frustration he laid out stark alternatives: I could agree with him and all people who love children or I could be narrow-minded and selfish and pursue my own agenda. In that moment, the substance of our disagreement didn’t matter because it had been reduced to a simple equation of joining him in being absolutely right or being the embodiment of all that was wrong.

This kind of stark choice represented for Niebuhr the human attempt to transcend our own limitations in order to judge with the insight of God into the absolute difference between right and wrong.

I saw this tendency in the man I argued with; and of course, seeing it in him made me see it in myself too. In so many ways, we’re moving more and more into a cultural moment when we think our own decisions come not just as opinions but as transcendent judgments.

Which is why Jesus told his disciples, “Let the wheat and weeds grow thickly together.” It may not make sense for gardening, but pausing in our rush to judgment matters in how we see ourselves and others.

We can all easily get wrapped up into a rush of judgment in our own versions of this parable. Can’t you identify with the farmhands? The farmer planted wheat. I’m sure the farmer went to bed satisfied with hard work well done. But then morning came: someone had planted weeds - in with the wheat. When have you had your best laid plans sabotaged?

It’s happened to me in my garden. I love the Knock-Out Roses which were developed here in Milwaukee and I plant them around my house. A few years ago I put three in my backyard. But soon I noticed something was eating them. The stems got shorter and shorter. Rabbits! They had attacked some other rose bushes over the winter; I was sure it was those “wascally wabbits.” There is no purer hatred than that of gardener for those thieves in the night.

I started to plan my revenge on the rabbits. And, as a cook, I could already taste the rabbit, braised in honey, the best way to eat those rose desecraters. Basically, it was full on Elmer Fudd time at my house.

And then one day I looked out in the backyard. Duchess ran about, the stump of a rose bush in her mouth. My loves clashed. I don’t know why my dog thinks thorn bushes are good treats; but the rabbits are safe for the moment, Duchess has the backyard, and the roses the front.

But more is at stake in our rush to judgment than the potential to finger the wrong culprit. For we are truly corpus permixtum, mixed bodies, and this doesn’t just mean that we have good and bad motivations at the same time, but that, in fact, the good and bad live tangled inside us and more broadly in society.

Niebuhr teased out the interwoven nature of good and bad by looking at the connections between selfishness and creativity. As Niebuhr explained, “Let us consider the matter of creativity and the desire for approval. What could be more evil than the avaricious desire for the approval of our [fellow people]? But how closely related it is to the impulse of creativity.” In other words, what actor in a play doesn’t read with keen interest the reviews?

Niebuhr wanted us to see the ways a base emotion and a grand one grew together. He pointed to Cervantes. Some say he wrote Don Quixote to pay off his debts. Others because he wanted revenge on his critics. But does it make Don Quixote any less of a great work to be written for such reasons?

Yet in our desire to separate the wheat and the weeds, we fail to see people as they truly are; something we see in much of the celebration of Jane Austen. People often speak as if Jane Austen was embarrassed by her novels, too shy and retiring to ever want them published. This story of the modest mouse writer began with her nephew’s biography. He claimed his aunt hid her writing whenever anyone entered the room. The story of her modesty grew with retelling until later biographers imaged her stuffing sheaves of paper in her dress whenever someone walked in the room.

But why must Jane Austen be modest in order for us to celebrate her creative accomplishments? Her first novels were published anonymously; but so were the majority of books published at the time. Her friends and family certainly knew what she was doing; and her identity as an author quickly became known. Why would it take away from her literary grandeur for her to want to tell her story? Does it make Pride and Prejudice any less great for Austen to be proud of it? Must we be prejudiced against the ambition of a woman?

Austen - like all of us - had her own ego. We don’t have to deny it in order to make her great. And yet we know all too well that self-love, a tremendous self-regard, can become a monstrous egoism. Niebuhr wondered, “We know certain people to be monstrous egotists, but can we put our finger on the spot where this mixture of love and self-love, which we all have, turns into monstrous egoism? We have to make our judgments, but we cannot be exact in our moral measurement.”

Which is why Jesus advised, “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.” We can’t navigate our world without making decisions between right and wrong. But we can avoid seeing our decisions as transcendent judgments, to know ourselves as making partial and incomplete ones. To let the wheat and the weeds grow together means to recognize ourselves as mixed bodies, to see the limits of our wisdom and the ambiguity of our own virtue.

The importance of seeing how the wheat and weeds grow in our own hearts came home to me recently when I read of a Muslim man arrested in Florida for shaking the hand of white Christian man. The Christian wanted to leave a party but the Muslim’s daughter was playing in the street; he started honking. The Muslim came over to talk with him. At one point they shook hands. Later, the Christian claimed it was assault: the police arrested the Muslim on entering a vehicle (he reached his hand into the truck) and assaulting the elderly (too firm a grip). The Christian claimed to have become panicked when the Muslim mentioned Allah; “He’s a Jihadi,” he thought.

These men got caught up in the legal system, one accusing the other. But reading their story it became clear how many similarities they shared, both good and bad. They both used their faith as a shield: the Christian against any who didn’t worship like him and the Muslim egging on Christians who annoyed him with attempts to convert them to Islam.

Why rush to judgment? Why not let the wheat and weeds grow thick together? And perhaps we’ll learn along the way the truth of what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of weeds: “A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

Alleluia and Amen.


  • Looser, Devoney, “Jane Austen Wasn’t Shy,” New York Times, July 15, 2017.

  • Niebuhr, Reinhold, “The Wheat and the Tares,” The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, 1986.