Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43
July 23, 2017
In the Fall of 2013 I took a class at Wake Forest Divinity School centered around Spirituality and Art. One of the requirements for this class was a field trip to the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. So on the appointed Saturday I woke up, traveled to Winston-Salem and along with my Professor and classmates, spent the majority of the day observing the artwork hanging on the walls of this mansion.
Now the average age for students entering Wake Forest University School of Divinity when I began was 23. So, here I was, a 40-something year old man walking around the inside of this Mansion with another man in his 60’s and 9 classmates in their 20’s. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love pretty things, but spending my Saturday looking at paintings in fancy frames in an attempt to gain some deeper insight into what some artist was thinking when he/she created this masterpiece, has never been on my bucket list. Yet, I did enjoy spending time with my classmates and my Professor, until a security guard grabbed me from behind and with his finger pointed in my face ordered me not to get that close to a painting again. In shock, I laughed one of those something feels odd and I’m upset but I’ll just blow it off kind of laughs and responded by saying “Excuse me?” Which only prompted him to point his finger closer to my nose and repeat the order that I was not to get that close to another painting or I would be escorted out. It ruined my day, and if I had any inclination to ever return to this larger than life statement of privilege and materialism called the Reynolda House, it was gone forever. The thing is, I had a sense it was coming as it had been building all day with this Security Guard. He saw me enter the premises and followed me from that point until he put his hands on me and talked to me like I was something less than him and subservient to his orders.
Now, in order to more fully understand why I think this happened, I believe I need to back up and give you a little more detail about how I looked that day. At that time Emma Grace was in 3rd grade and Elementary School Science project mania had come to town, and after thinking over a few possibilities she landed on a project to determine if the quality of fingernail polish was linked to the purchase price. Meaning the lower the purchase price the lower the quality and the higher the purchase price the higher the quality. Sounds simple enough, right?
Once she chose this project she needed people to volunteer so she could test her hypothesis and complete her project. And of course, when your baby girl needs volunteers, Daddy is always there. So, for about a month 9 of my 10 fingernails were painted with fingernail polish. Three were painted pink, three were painted lime green and three were painted dark purple. I never hesitated to volunteer for my baby girl, and I’m sure you Dads know what I’m talking about. I considered it an honor that she would even think to include me in this project, and I believe she saw nothing strange or out of bounds about asking her Daddy if she could paint his fingernails and then asking him to keep them painted for a while. For me, there is a certain beauty in believing this to be her view of this project.
Now, almost everyone I came in contact with during that month were friends or casual acquaintances which meant that I could easily explain if they asked. And for those who asked and found out what I was doing, their response was always the same… That is so sweet… Aren’t you a good Dad. Now I want you to know, I have no idea if my willingness to have my 8-year-old daughter paint my nails made me a good Dad at that time or not, but I graciously and a bit sheepishly accepted their compliments. But more than their compliments, I appreciated that each of them resisted the urge to judge me, or think something negative about me because 9 of my fingernails contained paint. This urge to judge, or think negative thoughts is so pervasive, even for those who are friendly, so knowing that they resisted that urge, and then complimented me was a wonderful gift to receive.
In addition to my painted nails, on this particular Saturday I wore some faded blue jeans, an Adidas coat and a pair of checkerboard Vans. Now, in case some of you aren’t familiar with Vans, they are skateboard shoes that were 1st made popular in the 80’s and have since made a bit of a comeback. The pair I wore that day had black and grey checkboard and were the low top slip-on variety. I really do love those shoes and they are very comfortable. In fact, I still wear them today.
Now, I didn’t think anything about my chosen attire as I left my house early that morning, but then I walked through the metal detector at the entrance to this mansion and the security guard eyed me like I was a filthy excuse for a human being. And then if that wasn’t bad enough, from the first moment he glared at me to the time he put his hands on me, he followed me everywhere I went. We are talking hours here. Everywhere I went, he followed and I knew it. It didn’t matter to him that I was part of a Divinity School group on a field trip. It didn’t matter to him that I was with my Professor and classmates the entire time. And worse than that, it didn’t matter to him that when I stepped closer to that painting that afternoon I was only doing what my Professor had instructed all of us students to do. He heard my Professor give these instructions. He even watched my other classmates get closer than I before watching me take that 1st step toward the painting. None of that mattered to him, because there was no doubt in his eyes I was trash and needed to be removed. In his eyes I was unworthy of being in that space and therefore I needed to be dealt with. In his eyes, my presence was like weeds in garden and he had one mission and one mission only, uproot the weed.
Sounds a bit drastic, doesn’t it? This story, about me a 40-something year old man being singled out and labeled so negatively by someone else who I had never met and who had never even spoken a word to me before barking his orders about my distance from someone else’s artwork. Unfortunately, I walked away from that experience knowing something I had not previously known in such a personal way… negative labeling… discrimination… knows no boundaries, and when you are on the receiving end it hurts and no matter what anyone says, no matter how others attempt to justify acts of discrimination, when you are subjected to them just by showing up and being in someone else’s presence, you have every reason to be angry about it.
In today’s parable, I believe it safe to say that Jesus is teaching everyone that that the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a place where judgment, discrimination and the urge to eradicate something deemed unworthy of living, is not practiced. As noted by former Chaplain at Yale, Harry Baker Adams, this teaching “saves us from having to make judgments that are beyond our competence.”
Instead, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a place where everything, including the good and the bad, is given time to grow. Everything, the things that look so good now, as well as the things that look so bad now, are given time to mature. This Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where no one rushes to judge another and no one gives in to the urge to segregate, ostracize, uproot, anything or anyone just because of the way they look early on in the journey of their life.
Unfortunately, overcoming these judgmental urges, is hard work, or so we think. I am the first to admit that we have certainly made it hard on ourselves. We love making lists that have only two options, like lists of good/bad, right/wrong, in/out. Those lists seem to make us feel better about where we stand. The thing is, each time we succumb to that list making desire, we judge. Each time we succumb to those urges, we discriminate, and while there might be rare occasions when we place ourselves in the negative side of that list along with the other outsider, we are still discriminating. We are still judging.
That desire, that urge is why I think we like to hear Matthew tell us about the final judgment, and the burning fire and gnashing teeth that come with it. The problem with making the judgment part of Matthews’s account of Jesus’ parable our focus, is that we may miss Jesus’ main point… the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a place where everything is allowed to grow, everything is allowed to mature. Oppression, discrimination, eradication, those might be ways to describe other kingdoms, or empires like the Roman Empire, but not the Kingdom Jesus is teaching the crowds about. That Kingdom is altogether different, because in that Kingdom people don’t get to make ultimate decisions about the worthiness of other people.
Maybe other kingdoms or empires believe they have the right to make decisions about what or who is worthless and who or what is worthwhile, but that is not the Kingdom Jesus is teaching about. Even though we may not always realize this about ourselves, it’s as though Jesus knows we just aren’t equipped to make these distinctions about someone or somethings worth. Today’s New Testament Scholars seem to agree that Jesus’ audience would have picked up on this when they heard this story because in it Jesus said the servants asked if they should uproot the weeds, and here’s the thing, even though most English translations use the word weed or weeds, in doing so it may just take this story out of its historical context. You see, the original word was darnel or tare and you want to know something, darnel/tare actually look just like wheat. As a result, servants would not have been able to distinguish these tares from the actual wheat and would have most likely ruined the good crop.
From all accounts, it seems safe to say that the servants in this parable really wanted to please the landowner. Their intentions were actually good. The problem though was in their passing of judgment on something they didn’t understand. Their desire to get rid of the weeds, might at first seem admirable, but there was no way for them to decide what was a weed and what was wheat.
It is widely believed that Jesus’ audience would have known that servants were not equipped to determine, not equipped to pass judgment on these things. That was not their job and Jesus points this out when later he says the Reapers, the Harvesters will be responsible for making this decision, but only after the harvest has grown and matured.
The thing is, even today we tend to act as though we get to make these same types of decisions about other people. I wonder why it seems so difficult for us to stay away from judging others? What it is that makes us think we are qualified to determine exactly who is right and who is wrong?
The danger for all of us when we act in such a way is outright dismissal of someone or something. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Turn us loose with our machetes and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare.”
But wouldn’t it be better if we listened to the landowner who lets us know “that he does not share our appetite for a pure crop, a neat field, an efficient operation? Wouldn’t it be better if we listened to the landowner who is letting us know that growth interests him more than perfection and that he is willing to risk fat weeds for fat wheat? Maybe, if we listen then when we try to help him out a little, to improve on his plan, we will have ears to hear him say that our timing is off… we will have ears to hear him say judgment is not part of our role.
And maybe, just maybe, if we listen we will know that a man with 9 painted nails is simply a Daddy of a wonderful vibrant girl doing a science fair project for her 3rd grade class!
 Taylor, Barbara Brown, The Seeds of Heaven p. 148
 Id., p.36