Tell Us a Story: Sowing Wild Oats
My name is Kirk Neely, and I approve this message. Aren’t you tired of hearing that statement? I must tell you that I am already a bit election weary. Political announcements are inundating the airways, and signs are posted everywhere.
Please let me encourage you to be an informed voter and vote. Look carefully at the people who are running for office. Read carefully the ballot before you vote at the polls. Read the amendments, especially the first one. I must tell you that I doubt many individuals will vote a straight ticket this year. One woman told me she was not going to vote because she did not want to be called to jury duty. That might be true, but I want to encourage you to vote even if you do get called to jury duty. Voting is a wonderful freedom that we enjoy. Exercise that privilege.
A fellow from New Jersey was driving down Interstate 95 through South Carolina when he decided somewhere in the Pee Dee area to get off the interstate and follow a blue-line road for a while. Of course that route took him through acres and acres of farmland. He had heard that people in the South eat a green leafy vegetable called collards that, when boiled with a big piece of fatback, makes a delicious food.
This fellow saw a man and his sons gathering large leaves out in a field, so he stopped his car and walked over to the farmer. He said, “I sure would like to buy some of those collards.”
The farmer laughed, “Where are you from, fellow?”
The driver answered, “I’m from New Jersey. I’m headed to Florida.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a pharmaceutical salesman.”
The farmer answered, “I hope you know a lot more about selling pharmaceuticals than you know about farming. This is tobacco, not collards. You do not want to boil and eat this leaf.”
Have you ever driven through farmland and passed fields of soybeans, sorghum, cotton, or corn? Sometimes it is difficult to tell what crop is growing in a field. This time of year you may see a beautiful yellow flower called goldenrod, but do not get too close to it if you have allergies. It causes many problems for those who have allergic reactions.
Jacob Bronowski, in his book on civilization, says that a mutation in wheat transformed the history of civilization. Wheat mutated to the point that when the head of the wheat matured, the kernels did not blow in the wind. The chaff separated from the kernel, and the kernel fell to the ground. This meant that a field of wheat was replanted every year. People no longer had to be nomadic; they could settle down in one area. Some of that wild wheat, bearded darnel it was also called, was still around and considered a weed, noxious and even poisonous. The problem was that no distinction could be made between the real wheat and the false wheat until the plants matured. Only upon examination of the kernels was it possible to separate the two.
Jesus told a parable about a field of wheat sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. The story probably came right out of his childhood memory. He may have known a careful farmer who planted good seed for wheat in his field.
Please follow along as I read this parable found in Matthew 13. Hear now the Word of God.
24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
In this parable, the farmer’s crop grew into what looked like a bumper crop. His workers discovered, however, that the field was full of weeds, bearded darnel, or false wheat.
One of his servants asked, “Didn’t you plant good wheat? How has the field been fouled by this false wheat?” Of course the farmer, perhaps a man from Nazareth or that fertile area of the land of Palestine known as the Jezreel Valley, had been so careful. The farmer blamed the contaminated crop on an enemy.
The servant wanted to act immediately by pulling up all of this false wheat. The farmer had a perplexing problem. The plants had matured so much at that point that the roots of the good and bad wheat would have been intertwined. Pulling the weeds of the false wheat would have also destroyed the plants of good wheat. If you have ever tried to pull chickweed out of pansies, you know exactly what I mean. You can pull up as many pansies as you pull up chickweed if you are not very careful. William Barkley says it is from this very parable that we get the expression “sowing wild oats.” Someone has sown something evil in a field that was intended for good.
What was the farmer to do? He advised, “Let’s wait until the harvest.” It is that waiting that causes the problem in the parable. This parable confronts us with the persistent problem of evil in this world. A field that was intended to be all good now had much evil mixed in it. Of course, this farmer put his finger right on the problem. Someone who was careful and good intended to do something good with the sowing. Someone else, though, was up to no good. We see evil afoot. Evil was now mixed in with the good.
If you apply that verse from the parable to everyday life, it raises the question, What are we to do about the evil in the world? How should we react? Should we try to stamp it out, pull it up, uproot it, get rid of it? Should we take the advice of the farmer and wait? It is a perplexing problem to be sure. It is certainly an age-old dilemma.
The early church tried to deal with this parable in a variety of ways. A group of people known as the Donatists believed that they observed the only pure form of Christianity. They considered their way of doing things, their way of believing, was the only way. Anyone who diverted was considered a heretic. Their solution was to expel the heretics, saying they had no place in the church.
People like Augustine of Hippo, the man we know as St. Augustine, said, “No. That is not the way to do it. Look at the parable of the wheat and the tares. We do not need to kick people out of the church. We do not need to expel people. We need to wait.”
If you look at the history of the church, you see that this problem has existed all along. In the early church after the Pentecost, the disciples were called “men of boldness.” Two disciples in particular, Peter and John, were so bold that they went out into the city of Jerusalem, preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. The Sanhedrin ordered the men to stop this activity, to cease and desist. They felt the men were being subversive, that they were implying that the Jewish people had killed a good man when they killed Jesus. Of course the very moment Peter and John were released from prison, they returned to the streets and began preaching again. When the men were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin a second time, the Sanhedrin considered putting them to death.
We read in Acts 5 the account of Gamaliel, a well-respected member of the Sanhedrin and a very wise teacher of the law. He spoke and advised the Sanhedrin, “Leave these men alone. Let them go. If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men. You will only find yourselves fighting against God.” The full account appears in Acts 5. Here this Jewish man, not a Christian at all, encourages the council of leaders to wait. He speaks words of wisdom to the Sanhedrin. This teaching from a Pharisee aligns very well with the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and his admonition, “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). One of Gamaliel’s students was Saul of Tarsus, who later became known as Paul, the great missionary of the church. Gamaliel’s wisdom probably inspired young Paul.
Through the use of this parable, Jesus is teaching his disciples not to act too quickly. He does not want them to cast out people. The disciples were a bit worried because Jesus seemed to be collecting an unsavory group of followers: a woman caught in adultery, a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands, and an unscrupulous tax collector named Zacchaeus who had climbed a tree in Jericho. Jesus had even gone to his house. The disciples – fishermen from Galilee and a tax collector – were actually unsavory, too. Jesus was teaching his disciples, “Let’s not be too quick to judge.”
Jesus was teaching the Pharisees. The very word Pharisee means the ones who separate themselves, the ones who deem themselves “holier than thou.” Jesus is teaching them that they do not need to rush to judgment about who is in and who is out of favor with God. They are not the final authority; God is.
Jesus was also teaching us, the Christian church, telling us that evil is a part of our world. A subversive enemy that is afoot will try to sow bad seed among the good. We will find evil just about everywhere we go.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has some of the most beautiful farms you have ever seen in your life. A gentle group of Christians who live there, the Amish, are peace-loving. Even there the enemy has sown evil. You cannot go anywhere to get away from the evil. Jesus says, “You need to know that every field, every field, is going to have tares, weeds.”
I was invited to attend a class in systematic theology at Harvard Divinity School. A wonderful professor, Dr. Art McGill was trying to teach Karl Barth’s idea about cosmic evil. Karl Barth, a great conservative theologian, claimed that we must think of evil in the world as a cosmic force. He was trying to avoid saying, “The devil made me do it,” like Flip Wilson said years ago. As I sat in that class and listened to Dr. McGill teach, I realized that the students all looked like deer in the headlights. They all had glazed-over expressions.
Dr. McGill recognized their confusion and said to the class, “We are fortunate to have Pastor Neely with us today. Pastor Neely, would you explain Barth’s doctrine of cosmic evil?” I felt like I did the day I attended a worship service at an African-American church and they asked me to preach on the spur of the moment.
I used a lumberyard story to explain cosmic evil to this class at Harvard Divinity School. When I was a teenager, my father decided to build a new showroom at the lumberyard. An old carpenter was assigned the task of putting in ceiling tiles. His grandson helped him most days. On the days when the grandson could not come to work, I helped by taking boxes of tile up the scaffolding. I would lie on my back next to this old carpenter so that we were within a staple’s reach of the ceiling.
This old carpenter was addicted to alcohol. He could not hold a staple gun unless he had a good stiff drink. Just about every hour on the hour he would climb down from the scaffolding, walk out to his pickup truck, and take another drink of bourbon. Then he would come back inside and work for an hour or so until his hand began shaking again. He would climb back down and get another drink of bourbon. He honestly could not work without drinking.
I watched the man repeat this process day after day. One hot July day after climbing back up the scaffolding, he was perspiring bourbon. I asked, “That stuff really has you, doesn’t it?”
When he turned and faced me, I looked into those glazed eyes. He said, “I will tell you something, Kirk. If there ain’t no devil in this world, there’s somebody doing his work.”
An enemy that will try to destroy everything good is afoot.
Through this parable Jesus illustrated to his disciples that somebody is acting in a subversive way, trying to destroy what is good. Think about what happened among that group of followers. Do we see any weeds among the goodness of that group? Consider the doubts of Thomas, the denial of Peter, and of course the betrayal of Judas. Judas is certainly identified as bad seed. Isn’t it true that every single disciple possessed some weeds?
One point of the parable applies to all of us: Who is to say that among us there are not some weedy parts? “Look to yourselves lest you, too, be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). As far as I can tell, we are all tempted. I saw Harold Hatcher down on his hands and knees pulling crabgrass out of the beautiful gardens on Reidville Road. Even in the most beautiful garden we will find weeds. Even among pure Christians, we will find some weedy parts. We need to identify the evil in our own heart.
The second point is this: We do not need to rush to judgment. We need to heed the Scriptures that say if someone is caught in a sin, we are to restore them in a spirit of gentleness. Galatians 6:1 begins, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” The Cherokees have an expression: “A weed is simply a plant for which we have not yet found a purpose.” At one time tomato plants were considered weeds. The fruit, the tomatoes themselves, were thought to be poisonous. Think about that the next time you eat a tomato sandwich.
God sometimes uses the people identified as renegades to do wonderful things. John Wycliffe was considered a heretic because he translated the Bible into English. William Tyndale was executed because he translated the Bible into English. Martin Luther was denounced as a heretic because he dared to say that the church was wrong, that people lived eternally by grace and not by works. All three of these men were denounced as heretics? We are mighty quick to rush to judgment.
We know of another Martin Luther, not a German, but an African-American – Martin Luther King, Jr. I can remember in my own life when people thought of him as a noxious weed. They thought the best thing in the world that could happen would be to get rid of him. They viewed him as nothing but a troublemaker. Listen. Wait until the harvest. When the harvest comes, then you can tell. “By their fruits, you will know them” (Matthew 7:20). You see all the good that God did through the lives of John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King.
This parable is, most of all, about us, about our church, about our community, and about our world. Evil is afoot to be sure, but that is not the final word. The time will come for a day of reckoning. On that day, the Lord of the harvest will separate the good from the bad. He will commend those who have been fruitful for His kingdom.
What are we to do? Samuel Thompson put it in a poem. “He drew a circle that shut me out, rebel, heretic, thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that took him in.” The greatest power in the entire world is love, the love of the Lord Jesus Christ that invites people to experience him as their Savior. Have you acknowledged Christ as your Savior? If not, we want to extend an invitation to you.Kirk H. Neely © October 2006