16th Sunday of the Year

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The Buckwheat Harvest by Jean-Francois Millet

One of the most terrifying responsibilities that I acquired over lockdown was that of keeping the soup garden going. I think it’s been pretty successful on the whole, and I’ve enjoyed it, but I have gained a new appreciation for how much work gardening can be. Weeding is of course one of the tasks, but I have been playing rather fast and loose with that responsibility, partly because it’s time consuming and not very interesting, but also because when plants are small, it can be hard to tell what is a weed and what isn’t. So, I decided it was better to leave it alone, in case I ended up accidentally pulling up all the carrots before they had a chance. 

It’s perhaps that attitude that leads the owner of the fields in our parable today to be cautious about pulling up the bad seeds. To pull up the weeds now, he tells his slave, would mean risk losing a lot of the good plants too. But it’s a risk that he was taking. The weeds in the parable are also sometimes known as tares, or darnel. It is most likely that Jesus is referring to a type of rye grass that looks very similar to wheat. It’s a grass that is poisonous to livestock if eaten in any great quantity, and once it reaches the harvesting or threshing stage, then becomes almost impossible to separate from the good wheat. So, in choosing to wait to separate out the wheat and tares, the famer is taking a risk. Yes, he may get far more wheat if he chooses to wait for the separation, but he risks poisoning his livestock if they get it wrong. This is a choice that is not immediately apparent to us non-grain farmer types but is a fact that would have been obvious to Jesus’ rural, first century audience. 

Darnels or tares (left) and wheat (right).

The farming parallels would continue to then be obvious to Jesus’ listeners. As he goes on to explain the parable (which I don’t need to explain here, he’s quite clear), Jesus finishes by explaining that any who are evildoers will be thrown into a furnace of fire. It was the most reliable way to destroy weeds – both the plants and the seeds – to throw them into a fire. During harvest time, it would have been a familiar sight, and smell, as all the unwanted plants would have been piled high onto a bonfire in an almost macho display of domination over them. 

So, if all of this was obvious to Jesus’ audience, what is he trying to tell them, and us? As with all parables, there’s the obvious meaning, the one that Jesus explains in the text. It’s an image of the end of time, when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead. But also, as with all parables, that’s just scratching the surface. I like that the decision to leave the weeds to grow with the wheat is one that is not just made by the farmer in isolation, but in dialogue with someone else. There is a sense from the slave that there is an instant decision to be made, and an instant judgement about what is good, and what is not, in the field. Human beings are so often prone to making instant judgements about situations or other people, and we can so quickly pronounce what is good, and what is not. And having made that judgement, we can often want to act to correct whatever we have decided is ‘wrong’, whether that’s speaking about somebody’s faults with others, or wading into a situation that might not entirely concern us, or deciding to tarnish a whole group of people based on the actions of one. The farmer in the parable makes it clear to his slave that this act of malice from the enemy in planting the seed is not his wrong to right. Others will do that when they arrive at the harvest. It’s not his problem – he, instead, is just to continue with his role of nurture, and leave the hard judgements to others. 

That other, in many cases for us, will be Christ at the end of days. It is there that the difficult judgements about good or ill will receive real justice. And we of course will be subject to that ourselves. At the time of the harvest, those with the responsibility for it will be presented with the whole picture, both the good wheat, and the evil tares. It is with that whole picture that they will be able to make a fair judgement. And so for us. There can be a huge culture in society that seems to want to classify people in one of two ways: either entirely good, or entirely bad. But of course, we’re all both. And so we can present both, at the end of time and in our daily conversations with God, to him. We can offer him the entirely of who we are, what we have said and done, for good or ill, and it through offering him the whole that we receive the most justice and the most mercy. Trying to curate what we offer him before we get there will never work. We will just end up casting off some good along with the bad. Instead, it is not our judgement – we leave that to him who is the supreme administrator of justice and mercy.