A friend and I were talking about this summer’s weather recently, and she decided that the summer should be called 2023: the summer nothing would dry. But I had another title, 2023: the summer of the weed. I don’t know what your yard looks like, but I fear that by fall the weeds will have consumed my house. Even if you are not a gardener, you know exactly what I am talking about, no matter how many weeds we pull up, ten more pop through the soil to take their place. In my many attempts to eradicate them I start out full of energy and purpose, pulling each root fully out of the soil, ensuring that I take no plants that I want to remain and making sure that nothing of the weed remains behind. By the end of my work session, I feel discouraged and defeated and more often than not leave behind remnants of the weeds, which I know will one day rise again.
So, I feel a particular affinity with the slaves of the householder in our parable from Matthew for today. They see this beautiful field of wheat growing before them and then they look more closely and realize that overnight pernicious and noxious weeds have sprung up in this bountiful field. Of course, they want to pull up the weeds. Who wants weeds where they should not be growing? Especially a weed that if consumed by humans will make them ill. Not me. Get rid of them thank you very much. But wait a minute, not so fast. The landowner stops them from doing this very rational thing and tells them to let the weeds grow together with the wheat, and the reapers will take care of the weeds at harvest time. Huh? What is Jesus about with this story?
Well, I think to get to an answer to this question, it might be helpful to understand what kind of weed we are talking about here. The weed in question is darnel, a very common wild plant found throughout the eastern Mediterranean during Jesus’ day. It looks almost exactly like wheat and can be difficult to distinguish from wheat until the heads are broken open and the grain revealed. Darnel is a scrapy weed. One of the ways it survives is by wrapping its roots around the roots of the wheat, so that if you pull up one you pull up both. It grows best in cultivated fields, meaning fields prepared by humans for agriculture. Indeed, it is dependent upon human agriculture for its survival, depending on humans for its proliferation. Darnel competes with wheat for nutrients, water, and sunlight, reducing overall crop yield. In small doses it causes intoxication in humans and was used by some intentionally for this purpose.
So, there you have it, a scrapy, tough, sneaky weed that looks a lot like plants that we rely on for food but unlike other grains makes humans intoxicated and sick and in turn depends on humans for its propagation and survival. Not a bad analogy for evil, especially systemic evil.
We tend to think of evil in personal terms—I lied and that is evil. He stole something. He is evil. She went to prison for murder. She is evil. But the evil we see portrayed in Scripture, though often personified as an individual (Satan, the evil one), is really something different than individual evil. It is systemic evil. Systemic evil arises from structures within human society, rather than individual weaknesses or actions. It is a machine that functions without any real control or oversight by any individual. It is more subtle, sneaky, pervasive, and entrenched than personal evil.
Think of all the “isms”—racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism and so on. These are all societal structures or ways of operating that actively harm individuals who don’t or more accurately can’t fit into society’s accepted way of being. Indeed, those individuals who find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy are actively kept there by the systemic evil that put them at the bottom in the first place. And this systemic evil pervades everything so persistently and cleverly that most of the time we don’t even notice that it is there and that we are participating in it. Unless someone points it out to us and we are able to open our eyes, we may even mistake the systemic evil for good.
It is amazing what a good analogy darnel is for systemic evil. Let us think for a moment about a very specific systemic evil, racism. Racism and its close partner white supremacy have infected the system that is our nation from its very beginning. The first permanent English colony in North America was founded in 1607 in Jamestown. African slaves were brought there in 1619. Legislation passed in Virginia in 1662, 1667, and 1669 defined slavery as hereditary, lifelong, based on race, denied slaves the right bear arms, converted black indentured servants to the status of slave, and made it legal to kill a slave who resisted their master.
In less than 70 years, English people successfully settled on the coast of what is today Virginia and thoroughly convinced themselves that the best and most Christian thing to do was to capture and enslave African people because African people were somehow less human than people of European descent. Because they were less than human, slavery was the God-appointed way to save Africans from their doomed fate and they enshrined these ideas in the law. And it certainly helped that it was a very economically profitable way to run extremely large agricultural businesses. We humans are very good at rationalizing our selfish motives using philosophy and religion. The systemic evil that is white supremacy, that is an economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power, material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement had begun. The darnel had snuck in and taken root.
And boy did it spread. Let’s skip ahead to our constitution. I remember being taught about the 3/5 compromise in American history in high school, but it was not a very nuanced presentation. While my teacher and textbook did recognize that it was not a good thing to count a human being as 3/5 of a person, it was taught and generally accepted that this was simply the cost of doing business at the time and the only way to unify the country. Maybe, but what does that say about the founding of our country that the only way it could be unified was to designate a significant portion of its population as being less than fully human? White supremacy was well-entrenched in the systems that made up our newly forming nation. This “compromise” gave slave states a much louder voice than they should have had based on their voting population. They had a greater number of representatives in congress than states that had larger voting populations. It also greatly skewed the electoral college in favor of the southern states.
Now, I was definitely not taught in high school that the electoral college was created to defend slavery. I was taught that it was created for two reasons: 1. a lack of trust in the ability of ordinary people to elect the president 2. A perceived need to protect small states. But a close reading of the transcripts of the debates about the subject doesn’t support these two reasons. The primary reason voiced by those in the debate from southern states was the need to preserve the power of the southern slaveholding states in order to protect slavery.
Each state was given one electoral vote for each House district, plus two extra for each of its senators. When you combine this with the 3/5 compromise, slave states were given a much louder voice in the presidential elections of the day than non-slave owning states. In the 1800 census, Pennsylvania had 10% more free men eligible to vote than Virginia, but got 20% fewer electoral votes. If slaves had not been counted, John Adams would have won instead of Thomas Jefferson, and slavery might have ended much sooner. And we are still dealing with the consequences of the slavery-motivated institution today. In the state of Wyoming, each elector represents 194,000 residents whereas in California the number is 697,000. Is a resident of Wyoming more of a person than a resident of California? In a true democracy it should not be so. Oh, that tricky darnel.
Now you might be saying, but Suzannah, a lot has changed since 1800 and I would agree. We have been through a Civil War and a Civil Rights Movement. Both of which made important and good systemic changes that have threatened the systemic evil of racism and white supremacy bound up in our nation’s systems. This is good. But it doesn’t mean the evil isn’t still there. Remember darnel is a tricky, tricky weed.
We desegregated schools and white people created private schools so their children wouldn’t have to attend desegregated public schools. Between 1960 and 1980 private school enrollment in six states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina) increased by 200,000 students. Today nationwide enrollment in private schools is 66% white and 9% black with the overall population being 57% white and 13% black. In the 16 states listed as being southern states, the enrollment in private schools is 74% white and 12% black and with the population of those same 16 states being 60.9% white and 22.4% black. It is amazing how that darnel can change in response to efforts to eradicate it. I guess when you don’t pull out the roots, or the seeds are mixed in with the wheat seeds without being aware, the darn weed just comes back.
So why doesn’t Jesus use the analogy of darnel for systemic evil to encourage us to fight it with every ounce of energy we have? Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. First, I think he knows we will simply wear ourselves out. It is not within our power to understand why systemic evil exists in the first place or how to eradicate it. Try as they might, the ancients could lessen darnel but they couldn’t exterminate it. Desegregating schools was well-intentioned but not well carried out. We pulled out the weed but left the roots. Systemic evil alongside the kingdom of God seems to be the way of life, at least for the present time. But this does not mean that Jesus is calling us to passivity and acceptance of systemic evil.
Jesus is calling us to keep planting wheat, even if it isn’t within our power to eradicate the darnel. And the wheat is the love of God. It is a world in which systemic oppression of all kinds does not rule. It is a world in which all are welcomed and loved. It is a place where all the isms are so unwelcome that their energy dies. It is a place where everyone has what they need. It is a world in which people are more focused on what is good for the whole than on getting more for themselves. For reasons that we don’t understand, and that theologians and philosophers have been debating since the beginning of human history, the darnel and the wheat exist together. Though you will on occasion want to know why this is so because you are human, don’t get too distracted, just keep sowing the wheat.
And though this parable ends with Matthew’s apocalyptic phrase “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” and the darnel being thrown into the fire, I don’t think this parable was meant to be read as a threat—behave or you too will be thrown into the fires of hell. I think this was meant to give the hearers hope. Just keep planting the wheat. Don’t worry about the darnel. God will take care of it all in the end. Just keep planting the wheat. Just keep planting the wheat. Notice the darnel. Don’t pretend it isn’t there. Don’t be fooled or tricked by it. Make sure others know it exists. And plant the wheat. Sow the love. May we all have ears to hear. Amen.