Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The servants said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Abba. Let anyone with ears listen!
Okay, before you run away after hearing this reading, stay with me for a moment. Sure, it sounds pretty harsh. And pretty judgmental, don’t you think? In fact, you’d be right. This parable in Matthew is about judgement. And perhaps you’ve seen this–there are some who have used this parable against others. Some preachers or so-called theologians have used this Matthew passage to call some people “weeds” and some people “wheat.” They put people into two distinct categories; they are separate. Their interpretation of the parable, is that the weed, “bad” people go to hell [those who don’t believe], and the wheat, “good” people bear fruit, shine like the sun, go to heaven.
In short, those types of interpretations are eternal judgements of others. If you believe or act a certain way, adhere to certain morals, you are wheat. You are good. If you don’t, you’re a weed, and you’re bad…it is not hard to find these type of judgements everywhere you look. More specifically, certain religious sects clearly claim that they are wheat [saved] and others are weeds [damned].
But I’d like to re-frame the conversation about judgement. Unfortunately, in religious circles [particularly in Christianity] judgement is reduced to an eternal damnation or an eternal justification. Let’s bring it down a notch.
Judging is in our human DNA. Animals judge, too…
But our natural “judging” isn’t anything to do with what some Christians preach or teach, i.e the wheat or the weeds. No, our natural judgements are part of our brains just seeking to make sense of what we experience. Our minds are always looking for ways to simplify our experiences an and to put environmental clues into categories. Let’s look at a simple example. You go out for a walk in the neighborhood where you live. You see a handful of other people walking around. You say hello. Only one of them returns your greeting; the others do not respond. Now, in that very moment, your brain needs to make a judgement so that you can move through the world and keep walking in your neighborhood and not get caught up in some existential, ego-laden psychotic break. So your brain categorizes. Your brain judges. You judge the person who said hello as warmer, kinder, more open. You trust them more. You judge the others who were silent as colder, more closed, unfriendly. You are a bit mistrustful of them.
Now, in many cases, that’s the end of the story. Your brain made these snap judgements just so you could survive. But let’s say the next time you go out walking, if you see those same people and all of them say hello to you, your initial snap judgement shifts to another judgement—that indeed maybe all those folks may be warmer, more open, and perhaps can be trusted.
That superficial level of judgement can then lead to a deeper judgement. Because if you choose to let your brain do the work, your brain will then find the nuance in the neighborhood hello situation. Because the first time, it was clearer, it seemed, who was warmer and who was more trustworthy. But the second time confused you, because those who didn’t return your hello the first time now did. Your brain shifts. Now you wonder: “maybe the first time they were stressed, or tired, or you know—I’m pretty sure two of them had earbuds in and couldn’t even hear me.” And so, now your initial judgement is gone. You consider that perhaps all of those people could actually be friendly and even trustworthy.
We do this all the time. And I think knowing this about our brains helps us to avoid what is the most dangerous, harmful, and hurtful judgements—those judgements that are a direct result of a low self-image and/or self-hate; the judgements that are born out of fear.
While the first form of judgement is just your brain trying to make quick sense of your environment, the harmful, more lasting judgements come from you not identifying with someone’s belief system, values, or behavior, and that another person threatens how you see yourself. So let’s look at another example, and this one will be a bit uncomfortable for some of us.
Let’s say you were raised in a fairly conservative Christian home and that you didn’t have much exposure at all to people who practice another faith tradition. You’ve been taught and have solidified the belief that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and that’s pretty much it. So when you see a woman wearing a hijab or a Sikh wearing a turban, or a Jewish person wearing a kippah; or you see Hare Krishnas singing, or Buddhists handing out flowers, your first reaction is unrelated to your actual experience with that human being. Your brain’s first reaction is: they are different than me. Their belief systems conflict with mine. And though you may not feel any intense emotions for or against the others, your bias is there. You judge them as other before you ever even talk with them. And then, if you decide not to engage said individuals as people [i.e. saying hello, accepting their greeting, asking questions], then you are more likely to engage in the most harmful form of judgement—you will fear them. You will fear them because you see them as a threat to who you are. You will have negative emotions towards them.
Friends, we are seeing this on a daily basis. A local Philly politician, during the marches and protests for justice, went around tearing down Black Lives Matter and No Justice, No Peace signs. It’s on video. Dressed in a full suit, he sought out the signs and just tore them down. Why in the world did he even take the time and make the effort to do so?
I see this type of judgement happening to transgender people all the time. The first, non-harmful judgement occurs when, let’s call him Keith, misgenders a friend of mine who uses they/them pronouns. The first misgendering judgement is just because Keith doesn’t know. So when Keith says “he” they are corrected by me and I say “Well, actually, their preferred pronouns are they/them.” Keith looks at me, a bit confused, and then says: “No, he is a male.” “They are transgender,” I say. Keith then gets visibly emotional, can’t seem to form any more words. The deeper, more insidious judgement has occurred. While Keith’s brain would have been really happy to just find a new category for this experience [in this case, they/them], Keith has way too much fear and anxiety about losing his identity or belief system. Keith may not know it, but he’s fighting with his brain. Keith’s day could have been so less stressful and more peaceful has he just said: “Huh? Okay, yeah, they/them.”
I could give a lot of examples, but you see where this goes.
We make snap judgements about each other initially and this is normal. But it’s when we are presented with new information and then we still refuse to allow our brains to reassess that we cause great harm and division.
You’re a Republican, or a Democrat, or an anarchist or a hipster or a non-religious person, or you’re a Muslim, or a Christian, or a Jew, or a Sikh, or a Buddhist, or Hindu, or a Jain…your skin tone is pale or black or brown or something other than mine…your language sounds weird or I don’t like it…you’re too skinny or too chubby or too pretty or too ugly or you’re too poor or too rich or you’re just…different.
I’m wheat. YOU are the weeds.
It’s likely that Jesus of Nazareth knew something about our human tendency to judge others. Jesus mentioned judgement a lot, but not in the way that many Christians think. For Jesus, judgement was not a business for us to engage in—especially as it pertained to life, faith, and God. Yahweh/God was ultimately the judge of creation—a creation that was made good and balanced. A creation in which both wheat and weed could grow together.
That’s right—this parable says the opposite of what the biased search engines tell us. Go ahead, search for wheat and weed parable interpretation. You’ll mostly find people saying that it’s about separating the good [righteous] from the weed [unrighteous]. But that’s not what Jesus says.
Jesus’ interpretation of the parable reveals that we all have “weeds” in us and we all have “wheat” in us. They grow alongside each other. Eventually, because nature is awesome—the part that doesn’t produce fruit will dry up and fall away to make room for the plant that does bear fruit. So look at it like this—our tendency to harmfully judge others out of fear—can be burned away. Our reliance on empires and oppressive authorities can dry up. Our biases about gender, sexuality, skin tone, religion, and language can be tossed aside. They are not useful to our brains, nor to our hearts.
The purifying fire is not a hell-fire that somehow consumes non-believers or people who don’t follow some moral code. The purifying, refining fire is the Creator’s way of exposing our biases and they ways we can harm others. After the fire, we are left with the possibility of not seeing other humans as strangers or threats, but as kindred humans who are connected to us in this Kairos time.
To close, in See No Stranger, Valarie Kaur’s new book, she shares a story that begins halfway around the world in Punjab, Northern India, with the birth of a humble herdsman named Nanak in the year 1469. She writes: “Those were foolish times,” my grandparents would say when they told me the story. “Foolish times not unlike these!” It was a time of religious strife: Hindus and Muslims cut each other’s throats, offered empty rituals, and maintained hierarchies to divide themselves from each other.”
Valarie continues by sharing that one day Nanak disappeared by the river for three days. People thought he drowned but on the third day, he emerged with a divine revelation on his lips. “Na Ko Hindu, Na Ko Musalman.” There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim. Beneath all husks and labels, humanity is One. Guru Nanak’s devotional movement was a revolution of the heart centered around a single truth: Ik Onkar. One Reality Is. God is One. All paths lead to One.”
Nanak, now known as Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, taught that each of us can experience this vision ourselves if we overcome just one barrier: haumai, literally “I myself” – the voice inside who names itself as separate from others, who wants, struggles and dies only for itself. Each of us knows this voice well: it is the voice of fear. It is the voice that leads to harmful judgement of others.
For Guru Nanak, we overcome this fear when we see through the Divine’s eyes. “I see no stranger.” We become fearless. We recognize that separateness is an illusion.
Friends, may we walk this path with courage, and together.