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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost — July 23, 2023

Looking at the parable of the weeds in Matthew, Teri McDowell Ott discerns two calls for those who read the text.

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.


Teri McDowell Ott reads her Looking into the Lectionary reflection.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Year A

Although classified as perennial weeds, quick to flower and spread wind-borne seeds across the manicured lawn, dandelions were brought to North America on purpose for their medicinal benefits. Dandelions can be eaten raw or cooked and are rich in vitamins A, C and K. The eco-advocates at treehugger.com insist that the term “weed” is relative, its definition ever-changing. Wherever dandelions grow, children are picking and playing with them; holding them underneath each other’s chins to see if they like butter; gathering scruffy bouquets to proudly present to their mothers. Does a weed in the lawn ever become a flower in a vase?

In Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds, the field workers quickly identify the weeds that rise from the soil. But in real life, weeds are not so easy to distinguish. Gardening in God’s field is complex. Weeds and wheat grow together, become entangled, mingle roots and sprouts. Good and evil plants are as difficult to distinguish in God’s field as they are in human lives and complicated societal problems.

The potential for both good and evil lives within each of us. Anger can quickly flare and easily tip into rage. Ill will and bias against others can be nurtured rather than rooted out. Dissension, conflict and even violence can be rationalized and excused. All this potential for evil lives within us — as well as the potential for good: acts of love, justice, mercy, kindness.

The master in Jesus’ parable tells his enslaved people to wait until the harvest to sort the weeds from the wheat. I’d like to think this patience is to ensure the weeds actually are weeds come harvest time, perhaps giving the weed every chance to bear good fruit rather than evil.

In interpreting this parable, full of dramatic and ominous symbols, it’s important to remember Matthew’s context. Matthew is writing to encourage and inspire an audience who are no longer confident that Jesus will be returning soon. Written later than the Gospel of Mark, which calls for urgency in light of Christ’s imminent return, Matthew’s audience is living with the delay of Jesus’ Second Coming. Jesus’ parables in Matthew often emphasize a coming day of judgment when the unfaithful will be punished. But that day is not now, in the parable of the weeds. There is time to grow, to repent of our evil doings. There is time for weeds to bear good fruit.

Two calls emerge for Matthew’s audience, and for us, from this text. First, we are called to discern what is evil among and within us. This is difficult work. It requires prayer, faithful study of God’s whole Word — not just the parts we prefer — and accountability partners within a covenant community. We cannot discern evil alone, siloed off and protected from difficult truths or diverse perspectives. As 1 John 1:8 reminds us, we are quick to “deceive ourselves” saying we “have no sin.”

Second, we are called to “shine like the sun” (v. 43). Our lives are to reflect what is good and Godly. We are to live according to the values of God’s coming kin-dom, bearing witness to Christ’s life of love, radical welcome, healing and reconciling work. We are not to be passive Christians, merely waiting for the harvest. Rather, we are to live as growing wheat, distinguishing ourselves and our lives from the weeds. It’s complicated, entangled, messy work. Repentance is a constant and necessary part of the process. Dandelions might be weeds, or they might be the makings of a vitamin-rich salad.

Regardless, welcome and love the child who presents you with a carefully picked bouquet. For this is how God greets you and your humble offering, then sends you to share the bounty of the harvest with others.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, feelings, ideas, or images come to mind as you read this passage?
  2. When have you been in a situation where you weren’t sure how to faithfully respond? Could you discern the weeds and the wheat, the good and the evil, within the situation?
  3. In what ways are you supported by a covenant community, a community bound by its promises to live good, Christ-like, lives? What practices does your community share to hold itself accountable to its covenant with God?

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