Sermon: The Wheat and the Weeds: A Riddle of Love?

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Photo by Jessica Rose

By Jim Perkinson, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Detroit, July 23, 2017

Such a rich lectionary offering this morning, I am hard put to choose among the Hebrew scripture, the Greek epistle, and the Aramean gospel.  I could easily focus on Jacob’s experience with a dreaming-stone, propping up his tired head on his way upstream from Isaac’s abode in Canaan, charged with not taking a wife from among the indigenous Canaanites, but going north and east to Aramean kin, from whence his ancestor Abraham had fled originally (Gen 28:10-19a).  The stone, likely a meteorite, births vision—Jacob seeing a ladder like a cosmic tree, granting movement between this world and the Spirit-World for angelic folk, the Powers in their proper role, and hears, speaking from the rock, the same great I AM that Moses will hear much further down the road speaking from a bush. 

Jacob rouses awe-struck, names the wilderness spot “Gate of Heaven,” sets up the baetyl stone as a pillar of witness,  enshrines the site “Beth-El,” “House of El” (a Canaanite Deity, mind you), anoints the iron-mineral composite with christening oil as a “Living Being,” throws down a gauntlet-vow: if this “Place-Based Apparition” will give bread and clothing on the way, he will embrace this Canaanite Elohim Deity as his own and that very stone as “El’s House” (somewhat similar to the Kaaba of Mecca), a fetish altar where he will tender offerings in return.

This is the first biblical moment of Someone being ritually re-made as “Christ,” “Anointed One,” and in this case it is a Desert Rock, unhewn, wild, anchoring an opening to the Other-World, what someone with Irish blood like me would call, an aperture of the Sid, Faery-Door to the domain of the Wee People on the Spirit-Side of things.  There are a good five sermons in this alone, but here I can only note the immediate Jacob-concern with bringing bread from such a stone-housed-deity—a strange affinity between rock and grain that Jesus will meet in temptation on his own vision quest into the wilderness east of the Jordan, being schooled by a dove, before he returns and launches his movement in earnest (“command this stone to become bread,” says one of the Voices he encounters there  . . . ).

Which brings us to the parable of the hour (Mt 13:24-30), told by a Jesus already laboring under the duress of a “death threat,” concocted by the authorities in response to a Sabbath-act of civil disobedience, when Jesus and his disciples pirated grain from someone else’s field (as the narrative earlier had whispered; Mt 12:14).  Matthew alone gives us this little story, standing like a bead on a string in his particular line up of such vignettes, before he later offers a simplifying interpretation (Mt 13: 36-43).  Subsequent reading of this parable has almost entirely been controlled by this later interpretation—itself likely an addition by the early church, not quite knowing what to do with the original story.

I will read the little riddle in keeping with what I know of folk proverb and indigenous epithet—and not in line with the allegorizing impulses of a power-hungry Christianity, crafting moralistic spins on radical sayings to curry favor with empire.  This means taking the original parable seriously in its place, here, in the Matthean line-up of other little food-stories told by Jesus—which are actually quite scandalous.  As we saw last week, Jesus begins this sea-side, peasant teach-in clinic with a story about a harvest that goes hyper—yielding enough grain to blow the entire tenant-farming hierarchy of debt-oppression out of the water—as a covert advertisement for the debt-release and liberation-circulation of assets his movement’s Sabbath-Jubilee practices will offer.   He then tells the story in question, and then follows it with two pithy send-ups likening “the kingdom” to a seed of mustard and a lump of leaven.

And we need to understand, mustard was considered an obnoxious invasive, forbidden from Jewish gardens by rabbis because it would take over. And leaven was a quintessentially “female” kind of substance, “leftover bread,” put in a dark, damp place until the bread rotted and decayed into mold which was then used as a kind of “wildly proliferating” leavening agent (unlike modern domesticated versions of store-bought yeast).  Unleavened bread was considered “male” and holy, alone worthy of signifying spiritual power (as in Israel eating unleavened bread just prior to embarking on the Exodus exit from Egypt). Leavened bread, inflated by mold, on the other hand, was “unholy,” “every day,” on the border between the domestic and the wild.

So we are invited to read this tale of “good” and “bad” seed under this sign: Jesus is champion of weeds and women, composting mold and out-of-control harvest—himself taking refuge in the wild and prophetically pillorying the patriarchal and the tamed.

There is more: this is a tradition in which Israel was regularly invited to reaffirm its identity on the order of a covenant renewal ceremony outlined in Dt. 26: 5-9, which literally in Hebrew began “Arami oved avi”: “an Aramean who is ‘oved’ is my father.”  What is an “oved”?  A “stray,” a “wanderer,” as our English translation dumbs it down, someone who has gone fugitive from settled society.  That is to say, a person who has gone feral, gone wild as a pastoral nomad, become a maroon, like an escaped slave.   And the emphasis is here.  It is a way of confessing that emphasizes that condition—that basically says: we are a social movement of folk who claim as “father” or “mother”—as our ancestral line—anyone in history who has dared to “exit,” to jump away from empire, to leave the oppressive city-state system, re-learn skills out in the wild with herd animals as teachers, live on the land like escaped slaves making common cause with indigenous dwellers who still know how to do such.

This is the actual reference of Sabbath-Jubilee practices that Israel learned out on the land after walking out of Egypt.  What did they eat there?  Manna.  Which is probably aphid defecation—little scale insects herded by ants, eating tamarisk leaves and pooping 130 percent their body weight every hour which puddles at the base of the plants and can be gathered up and baked into honey cakes.  Arab Bedouin dwellers in Sinai today collect the stuff and call it “man,” the probable cognate of the Hebrew “manna.”  Elsewhere on the globe it is called honeydew.    Moses learned how to rely on the land for its provision while being de-programmed for 40 years under tutelage to the African clan of herders he hooked up with and married into after exiting Egypt on the run as OG, with a price on his head.

But it gets even deeper: Job tells us—at one point in his great litany of the Creator addressing the ash-heap-sitting protagonist of his particular story with an overwhelming “run down” of all the marvelous, wondrous, crazy things in Creation that Job knows nothing about—Job tells us that even asses and oxen are possessed of Jubilee aspirations, ready at the slightest loosening of the tie-rope or yoke to run off to the mountains as feral upstarts, grazing the mountain grasses, in sheer delight at such “release” and return to the wild (Job 39:5-12).

So now, finally, the parable: there is necessity up front to note a number of things.

Parables are not “earthly stories about heavenly matters,” as exegete William Herzog remarks, but “earthy stories about heavy matters.”  They are more like political cartoons.  They tell episodes of typical scenarios from everyday life, with characters recognizable to the peasantry to whom they are primarily addressed.   But they typically have a “surprise point,” a “twisted detail,” that runs counter to everyday experience and serves as the fulcrum for interpretation.  And in keeping with this tack, in the Greek, it is also possible to read the opening assertion as a question, where Jesus is not so much affirming what the kingdom is like, but provocatively asking, with arched eyebrow and pointed stare: “Is the kingdom like this?”

In the parable here, the protagonist is not an image of God, but a typical oikedespotes, a despotic patriarch of a household estate encompassing oppressed female relatives, enslaved bondservants and hired day laborers, an elite predator on “the people,” sidestepping Sabbath-Jubilee requirements to accumulate landholdings and wealth on the back of the peasants and poor.

The seed sown is wheat (clarified as such in the Gospel of Thomas version of the tale), bread of the rich.  The people and the poor in 1st century Palestine, subsisted on barley, a less nutritious grain valued at half the price of wheat.  Wheat, not barley, is vulnerable to invasions of what is often called “tares” (see the KJV bible), which in this case is likely “darnel,” Lolium temulentum, whose seeds, stalks, roots, and fruits all mimic wheat, indistinguishable during most of the life cycle, growing and flowering at a similar time, and even after harvest at risk of being confused with the desired food.  Often bearing a fungus that is toxic to cow and human alike, darnel is a Middle-Eastern bane, a renegade weed, invading the carefully sown crop with regularity and impunity.  Once growing alongside the grain, darnel roots interlock with the wheat roots, and as having stronger fibers, cannot be pulled up without risking serious damage to the latter.   Of note: rain and darnel like each other; the tares proliferate when the skies divulge.  Wheat does better where it stays drier.

Also of note: the rich man’s field is sown first with “good” seed.  The tares are sown by an enemy “while men are sleeping.”  This is a curious detail and it hints a deep significance.  The line-up of little seed stories here in Matthew parallels Mark’s similar line-up and notoriously so.  Matthew writes with Mark in hand, as best we know, riffing on his predecessor in sketching out the good news about the Nazareth prophet.  And he not infrequently edits, adding his own spin and flavor.

The Wheat and Tares Story itself spins off of Mark’s little tale of a man who sows seed, and then goes to sleep, not knowing how the soil produces so wondrously “of itself” as Mark’s text reads (Mk 4:26-29).  The “of itself” language in Mark is a cryptic reference to Sabbath-Year practices enjoined in Leviticus (25), in which not only is debt released but the land itself is returned to itself, to grow as it will.  And all humans and animals, for the space of that year, are released from labor and domestication, to live “wild,” like primal hunter-gatherers, relying on whatever the soil grows “of itself,” in its own wily prodigality and abundance.

Which is to say: the Sabbath-Jubilee provisions of the Torah that Jesus so potently championed and radicalized in his movement (insisting on “forgiveness/release”—they are the same word in Greek—seventy times seven times, if necessary), are not about exclusively human liberation!  They are fundamentally about returning “everyone”—human, plant, animal, soil, and even water—to “him” or “her” self.

Sabbath-Jubilee insists on regular release back into the undomesticated “wild” condition of the entirety of the natural order—including wild creatures called “humans”—that was the gift of the Creator before settled agriculture and plant and animal domestication and human enslavement got set in motion.  Matthew retains the Markan detail of men “resting” (obliquely hinting the Sabbath practice), while introducing a furtive “enemy” who sows something other than crop.  And here then we come to the big question of the little tale.

Who is this enemy?

And we must remember this is being told by an outlaw healer, under life-threat and heavy surveillance from the powers of his time (the scribes and Pharisees; Mt 12:14, 24, 38; Mk 3:6,22), who likens his movement to weeds and mold.  At the least says scholar Crossan, we might imagine a Galilean peasant crowd invited to laugh at the dilemma of the wealthy lord: to pull or wait, take his chances with trying to separate out the bad stuff now, or at the harvest?  Sabotage was not an uncommon tactic in antique situations of oppression.

Not all that different from burning out exploitative landlords and predatory stores in a black Detroit under heavy stress from policy and police in 1967, whose anniversary we celebrate today.

Indeed, Roman law of the day forbade such retaliatory sowing of seed explicitly—obviously crafted to address a form of attack directed at elite support for imperial business as usual.  The possibilities in the parable are then multiple.  Perhaps the midnight “invasion” was another wealthy patron, seeking to eliminate market competition.  Or perhaps the stakes are some kind of personal vendetta for personal offense against propriety in elite dealings with each other.  Or maybe—payback by a peasant fed up and exploding with anger!  Or even insurgence of household slaves, directed surreptitiously, against their own master.

But there is another angle—less obvious to us moderns, but unwittingly tapped by early rabbinic commentary.  Jewish halakhah opinion offers that wheat and darnel are not prohibited (Hebrew, kilayim) from “crossbreeding” as are so many other seeds and animals and even kinds of cloth (wool and linen) in rabbinic tradition.  The Jerusalem Talmud even quotes a view that darnel is called zunim in Hebrew (whence the Greek zizanion of Matthew’s parable), allusion to the Hebrew word (zanah) for “fornication.”  Rabbis here imagined that the wheat mezannot (“commits adultery”) with the tares, changes character, goes feral and wild, becomes itself “darnel.”  And this, the teachers thought was because of pre-Flood trespass, when the entire created order was crossing borders promiscuously.

They were onto insight, if not science, but needed a deeper history.  As it turns out, darnel and wheat date back at least as far as 23,000 years ago in the region of Galilee, giving archaeological evidence of having been harvested together in a proto-agricultural settlement on the Lake shore, in an experiment in cultivation apparently taken up and abandoned for another 10,000 years, until it issues forth in the settled mono-crop agribusiness innovation that goes in a straight line to imperial aggression and the project of domestication that we inherit today, resulting finally in non-stop pillage of the entire biosphere, commodification of the entire food system, enslavement and re-engineering of life write large across the globe, and climate change as the divine rejoinder, saying finally, “Enough!”  “Stop!”  “Halt!”

So I conclude.  Darnel and wheat co-evolved each other, darnel kicking into action as what science calls an invasive “proto-weed,” finding its niche in the ecological disturbance humans created in cultivating wheat as a mono-crop—itself also a weed and an invasive.  And thus, with teachers like Martín Prechtel on my eyeball, I see here an indigenous story: wheat, coopted by a segment of our species opting for control and hierarchy, enslaving plant, animal, human, and seed in service to greed and elite resolve to live fat  off of everything and everyone else.

This wheat, bounded in field, segregated from family and diversity, pursued by her sister, darnel, refusing to allow the crop to be sequestered alone, rushing in to save her like a lover—a flirtatious romance between weed and weed, wheat and her mirror-plant, cavorting in soil, thwarting the intention to separate and sell, a dance of our elders—as the rabbis inferred, “adulterating” each other, remaining consorts across the ages, frustrating the imperative to reduce the wild to a package and a label, where now the gluten is subject to price fixation, hormone substitution, financial manipulation, and surplus accumulation as a lever to control the laboring masses, mound up profit, and plunge the planet into extinction.

So who is the “enemy”—called such by the landowner as a “disturber” of his profit-seeking?  Perhaps it is darnel itself, sowing itself, against the grain of settled agriculture’s intention to enslave and exploit.   A last strange detail—though toxic to human and cow, as already mentioned, darnel is food to doves—like the one who schooled Jesus—and other winged folk.  Is this what the kingdom is like—not industrial cultivation, hell-bent on mono-crop and mono-culture and even mono-theism, but community garden, permaculture innovation, agroforestry experimentation like Detroit’s own Malik Yakini and Leah McCullough and Antonio Cosme are exploring, inviting opossum and fox, crow and deer, maybe even daisy and chicory once again to co-habit with us?   And discovering God resides in stones and birds, mold and weed, and seed of every kind?  Welcome to the good news of tares!  Are you one?

2 thoughts on “Sermon: The Wheat and the Weeds: A Riddle of Love?

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