Weeds and Wheat and Binaries
Humanity has been categorizing things in opposing pairs ever since our earliest ancestors compared the sky during day and night. The first creation story in Genesis, the first verse in the Bible does it! “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The story continues with God creating the light and the dark, the day and the night, the water and the land, the sun and the moon, male and female.
Inevitably, we began to place value judgments on these binaries.
In many cultures, light and day grew to have positive connotations; night and darkness grew to have negative connotations.
In many cultures (though not all), male became synonymous with being strong, hunting, and authority while female became associated with being gentle, gathering, and submission.
As Christianity has evolved over the last two thousand years, we eventually began to categorize spirit as positive and flesh as negative.
After the Enlightenment, Western culture began to prioritize science, rationality, and technology over art, creativity, and spirituality.
Binaries aren’t inherently bad. When we are children, binaries with clear boundaries may be able to keep us safe. We learn the difference between roads and sidewalks, for example. We begin teaching children early how to differentiate between appropriate touch and inappropriate touch. We give children rules and help them make choices, and clear boundaries are occasionally useful.
There is, however, a very real danger in binaries. Binaries can lead to us vs. them thinking. We may be tempted to label people or entire groups as good or bad. This risky thinking can lead to prejudices like racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
In today’s Gospel, Christ tells us another parable with agricultural imagery, featuring the binary between wheat and weeds. This story is about a man who planted good seeds in his field. When that good seed began to grow into wheat, weeds grew among the wheat. “An enemy planted those seeds,” the man said. And his servants said, “Shall we go pull up the weeds?” And the Son of Man said, “No, for in pulling up the weeds, you may pull up the wheat too.” The good sprouts may be damaged in pulling up the bad sprouts. Instead, Christ says, let them grow together, the wheat and the weeds. Let them grow together.
It is easy, so easy, to read this parable and the explanation that Matthew’s Jesus gives to explain it, and decide that we too can label people wheat or weeds. Binaries like this are often comfortable for us. Good and bad, right and wrong. Wheat and weeds. Shades of gray? Nuance? Those are uncomfortable.
It would be easy to read this parable and decide that people are either good or bad. They are either wheat or weeds. They are racist or anti-racist. Progressive or Conservative. Jew or Palestine. You see how easy, how tempting it is, to sort people into binaries. And maybe the next instinct would be to stay in those groups, to let opposites repel and remain separate.
But in the parable, separation is not what the Son of Man instructs. Instead, the farmer in the story stops the workers from pulling the weeds, as it may cause them to accidentally damage the roots of the good wheat by gathering it before it is time. The good seeds could be harmed if separated from the “bad seeds.” He says, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”
This image from the parable has stayed with me all week! Let them grow together until the harvest. Let the “good” and the “bad” live and grow together, in the same soil. Even though an enemy has attempted sabotage by planting weeds among your wheat, do nothing. Let them grow together.
What I take from this is that labeling and separating the “good” from the “bad” is not our job at all. Let them grow together. The roots are bound up together, and both would suffer if they were separated. There is danger in trying to separate the weed from the wheat because the wheat may be damanged, which means income will be lost and food will be scarce. The stakes are high, the dangers real when we are tempted to separate things into absolutes, into binaries with walls between them.
You might say the metaphor doesn’t hold up when Jesus explains the parable to the disciples later on. Jesus explains that this is another imaging of the end of the world, where he is the farmer and the workers are angels, who will gather up the weeds, a symbol for causes of sin and evildoers, to be burned, and then the remaining wheat, a symbol for the children of the Kingdom of Heaven, will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. But yet, when I read that explanation–even though I’m always uncomfortable when Jesus talks about burning and weeping and gnashing of teeth–I still read that deciding what or who is good, and who is not good, and separating the two is not my job. Instead, it is God’s, and it won’t be done until the end of times. The farmer, the Son of Man, forbids anyone else from separating the wheat from the weeds.
Instead, Christ says, “Let them grow together.”
Binaries collapse. That gray area, that nuanced place of overlap in between is all over nature. When we want to divide time into day and night, there is always dusk and dawn, that liminal space in between. When we might want to divide people into male and female, our transgender and non-binary siblings teach us that gender is a spectrum. When fear and hatred want us to divide people into friend and foe, ally and enemy, good and bad, there will always be deep complexity to break down those walls.
All of our fates are tied up together. We are reminded of that over and over these days! Until all are free, none are free. We are all growing together in the same field. And it is our duty to grow together. Not to divide ourselves into neat binaries. Not to build walls between us or live in a world of absolutes. Not to decide who is good, for that is God’s job and God’s alone. Just to grow. Together.
Let them grow together.