The eighth chapter of Romans is among the most inspirational passages in all scripture. Paul assures us that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” and that we will be “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Rom. 8: 28–29) Lest we think that only some people are predestined for God’s family, Paul asks: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8: 31) If Jesus is interceding for us, what more powerful persecutor is there to speak against us? Do we really want any personal being to veto the advocacy of Jesus? If we are truly stirred by these words, then we must stamp them deep into our hearts and allow them to govern how we view God and how we view other parts of scripture. For today, I suggest using these words to help us understand the parables in Matthew 13.
There is a tendency to interpret these parables separately, treating each as a little gem of wisdom in itself. Each parable is indeed a gem but I think we do well to see how these parables interact with each other. Perhaps we’ll get one great big gem with many facets.
Most of the parables present images of sowing seeds and cultivating plants, a similarity that begs for comparisons. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of Weeds among the Wheat and the Parable of the Fishnet all deal with sorting the good from the bad. One comes at the beginning of the sequence, one in the middle, one at the end, providing a frame for the set. Sorting good from bad seems to be a good thing to do, but there are some cautions in these parables. The slaves of the household want to pull out the weeds sown among the wheat but the householder says that we can’t differentiate well enough to do this sorting without pulling out a lot of good stuff. And what about the seed that falls on bad soil or among the thorns? Are they bad seeds because they got tossed on the wrong places? Are these seeds just cast away? And do the fishers sorting fish caught in the net really want any fish to be so bad that they have to throw them away? Does God, who did not withhold his only son, want the angels to throw anybody away? (Rom. 8: 32)
The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Mustard Plant gives us pause. When we take the parable in isolation, we assume the mustard plant is a great good thing, a sign of God’s kingdom. But many farmers consider it a weed and try to get rid of it, although the farmers hired by Grey Poupon Dijon seem to want it. Maybe it is precisely because the mustard plant, “the greatest of shrubs,” is a weed, or in any case not an impressive plant, that it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was treated like an unwanted weed that was pulled up by the roots and thrown away. And yet this weed popped back up and grew until birds could nest in its branches. This weedy shrub continues to shelter many others who are elsewhere treated like weeds.
How did we get into the habit of treating some (many) people like weeds? René Girard suggests that it happened at the dawn of humanity when social tensions were most successfully resolved (in the short run anyway) through everybody ganging up on a victim or a group of victims. That is, somebody was weeded out. When Jesus let the people of his day weed him out, he revealed the truth of what we have been doing all these millennia. So who planted the mustard seed? Looks like the work of God.
In the other two parables, Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field and a pearl, both so valuable as to be worth selling everything to buy them. The large family that Paul says God is gathering everybody into would surely be the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, worth everything we have. But are these treasures worth giving up our desire to weed out the people we don’t like, or hoping God will do it for us? That is the route to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or will we embrace the priceless pearl that puts us in embrace with everybody else? That would give our culture a makeover, maybe like the small measure of yeast that transforms the bread. Paul concludes his inspirational chapter: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If that is so, than no number of weeds in our lives can separate us from God.
For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim