The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Best Approach Is…To Do Nothing?

So we’re just supposed to leave the weeds?

by Danielle Shroyer

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

For Sunday, July 17, 2011: Year A—Ordinary 16

Some advice from Matthew’s Gospel: If you have a terrible sore festering right alongside your healthy skin, just leave it alone, untreated, because by remedying it you might kill some of the good skin, too.

Try telling that to someone with a terrible sore.

Just look the other way!

Weeds. Festering sores. Cancer. Even deep-seated anger. We don’t tend to advocate inactivity in any of these cases. Any good gardener, doctor, therapist, or friend will tell you that the best approach is to confront a problem and do what you can to change it. Trim back the weeds. Treat the illness. Talk out the problem. Nobody in their right mind would say to leave it alone until some undisclosed future time when someone else will come along to fix it for you.

It seems like a recipe for disaster; a sure path leading straight to a volcanic, it’s-been-festering-in-me-for-years-and-I-can’t-take-it-anymore eruption. I can’t imagine that’s a good thing. And yet, Matthew’s Jesus stands here and tells us to do this very thing. Leave the weeds. Don’t uproot them. Let them grow, right alongside your healthy plants, even if your plants suffer and die in the meantime.

Can we at least get an alarm system?

Here’s what I want to know, since I’m mining the parable for loopholes: if we believe an enemy might come to do harm and undermine our hard work, and if we know we won’t be able to do anything about it if that happens, can we at least get an alarm system?

Can we be proactive, even if we can’t be reactive? Can our doors have locks, our gardens have gates, and our bodies have probiotics and vitamins?

Exactly HOW far do we need to push against our own common sense efforts at survival? At this rate, I’m wondering if it would just be easier to sit vulnerably in the middle of a street and wait for a car to run me over.

Have a little faith

Here’s one more thing that’s puzzling about this parable. Any basic commentary will remind you that Jesus is using a play on words here, because the kind of weed he describes is one that happens to look just like wheat. It’s difficult to tell them apart. The lesson implied is of course that we often think we know what we’re doing, but we mistake the wheat for weeds, and vice versa. I’d be the first to nod my head in agreement with this lesson. I admit we tend to fumble around attempting solutions and accidentally creating more problems.

But are we really THAT dumb, that we can’t tell the two apart with a little practice? Any gardener worth her salt can learn entire categories of plant varieties, and you’re telling me there’s no way to learn how to detect the weed wheat-look-alike from the real thing?

Because the very people who brought this weed situation to the master’s attention are—you guessed it—the workers in the field. They caught it immediately, the very next morning. And they seemed to be pretty sure they could root out the weeds with little problem. But the master said, “No, let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The Hardest Question

The hardest question then seems to be: So, we’re just supposed to leave the weeds?

Danielle Shroyer is the Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.


  1. Timothy says:

    Exactly… some people are so evil it is obvious that we should uproot them, like Casey Anthony. What is Jesus thinking! We have to take out Osama bin Laden. There are easily identifiable bad guys that we need to eliminate.

    On the other hand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The line between good and evil does not run between nations, states, political parties, religions and people but between every human heart.”

    And Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

    Now I feel like joining Danielle in the middle of the street!

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for your insight. I’d never recognized that the workers could spot the difference, so why not go ahead and pull out the weeds?


    I think there’s a difference between active waiting and passive waiting. Active waiting is more like anticipating. We’re expectant. We’re preparing. We are on watch and getting ready. Passive waiting is doing nothing.

    Because sometimes we have really good intentions, but it’s not immediately apparent if the threat is a burglar or the son who decided to make a surprise visit home from college. Trust me. Sons do that sometimes. Don’t pull out the shotgun just yet.

  3. Mark says:

    Jennifer–you ask in your article: “Exactly HOW far do we need to push against our own common sense efforts at survival?”

    I think Jesus answered that question in Matt 10:38-39, “…whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Clearly self-survival is not what being a disciple is all about.

    Instead of trying to “explain” or “solve” the parable, perhaps there is an invitation here to explore the cultural assumptions (e.g. we can/should root our evil, like the killing of bin Laden) that we and our congregations bring to our reading of this story.

    I’m reminded by this parable of a paragraph in the Presbyterian Book of Order: “The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.”

    My sense is that instead self-survival is the real gospel that most churches live by. This parable challenges us to live in full faith and commitment that God will ultimately do the “sorting out” at the coming harvest. After all, who am I to say who is weed and who is wheat? For now, the call is to patience and trust in the One who is coming.

  4. Karen Gibson says:

    Listening to the video. As a farmer’s daughter (I’ve heard the jokes) I know that if you pull up weeds you can seriously damage the good crop. I’ve seen that happen in congregations too. There is some sort of “evil” going on and a person(s) want to get rid of it. They try and it blows the congregation wide open. Could it be that that congregation wasn’t able to see the difference between the good and the evil, the wheat and the weeds because they were not educated enough in God’s word? Meh… could be. It could also be that conflict, disruption, serious tearing up of “root systems” can cause more harm than good. Sometimes waiting out the weeds, the evil, the world makes more sense, especially in God’s world. We don’t see the whole picture. We don’t know what the ripple effect will be. I’m sticking to what Jesus says here – wait until the end times and God will sort it out (I think God is big enough to handle it). Even if we do step in and start tearing out the weeds, I think God will work in that too because God is smarter that we are.

  5. Thanks for your comments, all. It’s definitely a parable that causes us pause; and struggle! Since this is The Hardest Question, I’ll push a little and ask:

    Timothy: Yes, the difficulty is not just an issue of pacifism (which, for the record, I attempt to uphold). Nonviolent resistance is a form of rooting out the weeds, is it not? Is racism a weed MLK would want to leave for God to deal with?

    Jennifer: the question for us as practical Jesus followers is, to your point, to figure out what we are supposed to be doing during our active waiting. What action does that leave us? (or, more in line with the parable, what kind of garden flourishes in the meantime with weeds that go unchecked?)

    Mark: I agree of your critique of the gospel of self-survival, and I agree that many churches preach that way of life with zeal. But even if you’re in a community of faith that doesn’t, this parable challenges us in some very real and difficult ways. Even Jesus ducked out and away from harm at certain times in his ministry.

    Karen: thanks for your agricultural insight! I wonder if one of the things we have to struggle with is not only the ongoing presence of weeds but their actual necessity in the larger scheme of things. We have to put up with a lot of unpleasant things (fire ants, for one) that do a whole lot of good for us overall. It becomes more difficult when the weed seems obvious, and leaving it seems almost criminal and certainly not helpful. (An abusive pastor, for one extreme example.) The wisdom to know the balance between those seems key.

  6. David says:

    Wow, what a timely blog! I am currently struggling through whether or not to confront an issue with a good friend. The friend has been deceptive with his fiancee and has decided not to tell her. I have felt caught between feeling a moral obligation to champion truth-telling in the relationship and a strong desire to refrain from inserting myself into the center of someone else’s future marriage. The reflections you bring to the table on this parable express well the wrestling match my heart is going through. Thank you for the raw honesty

  7. Xergio Chacin says:

    Maybe the issue is that “weeds” is not individual bad or evil actions but the true core of a person. We can fight against actions and yet not condemn the person forever because it is not up to us but to God to make that final call. So I don’t think that this parable is about turning the other way when facing evil but about not judging people before time. Only God will make that call. We need to remember that Jesus can turn tares into wheat, so we need to wait and see what happens and not judge before time and, anyway, we do not have jurisdiction over those cases. This also reminds me of Gandalf’s talk to Frodo when Frodo said that it was a pity that Bilbo didn’t killed Gollum. Gandalf said that many that live deserve death but also many that are dead deserve life. Can you give it to them? asked Gandalf. Then don’t be so quick to take it away either. Gollum may still have a part to play in all these, he finished saying. Sorry I geeked out …

  8. Danielle says:

    Those are good words Xergio.

  9. I guess I’m surprised a bit that nobody has mentioned that Jesus himself explains this one. Some of his parables we are left on our own to figure out, but this one (as well as the parable of the sower) he explains. I’m prone to go with Jesus and say that this parable is simply a description of the way it is, not a prescription for how individuals should live. If you take all 4 parables in Matthew 14 together, it makes sense to me. 1.) Sow the word of the Kingdom of God generously, liberally, even foolishly. Most of the time it won’t bear fruit, but some times it will. When it does, it bears fruit. 2.) The Kingdom of God isn’t a total overthrow of the world. The Kingdom exists in the world for now. Take heart it won’t be that way forever, but for now it will do more harm then good if you go on weed pulling adventures – keep to sowing the word of the Kingdom of God generously, liberally, even foolishly. 3.) It will seem like the Kingdom of God is small because it is, but even though it starts small it will grow and grow until it’s a major force for good, safety, shelter, care, justice, etc. in the world. Keep sowing generously.

    Sometimes I think we try to get too clever with the words of Jesus instead of taking them at face value. In this case I see Jesus explaining what his followers can expect as the sign on to Jesus’ kingdom building project. Not everyone will join them. The entire world won’t change over night. Evil won’t be eradicated in a day, even thou it will happen one day. If you are addicted to being on the winning team, remember that we are starting small – like a mustard seed or yeast – but the Kingdom is growing. Keep sowing the word of the Kingdom of God – God is here, now! Repent and believe the good news.

  10. Opps I meant Matthew 13, not 14 – sorry

  11. Dennis says:

    Jesus has the householder say that the servants shouldn’t gather the tares because the wheat would be uprooted in the process. I note that he doesn’t leave it up to the wheat to decide; the process of getting rid of the tares would kill the wheat. The reluctance isn’t that the servants can’t tell, it’s that the act of removing one would damage the other. Our rush to judgment damages our own character.

    Some days I’m wheat, and some days I’m weed; would that I could tear the weeds out of myself and leave only wheat. Someday, I hope that evil within me can be thrown into the fire leaving the rest of me intact.

    Finally, we shouldn’t discount the miraculous: it is within God’s power to change the weeds into something useful.

How do you read?