It is important for us to remember who this Jacob was. First of all, he was a “heel-grabber”—a usurper, an ambitious, despicable, cheat. He exploits his brother’s hunger for his own gain. He defrauds his brother of his rightful inheritance, and deceives their father to seal the deal. If anyone is a weed, this is the guy.
And for the first time in the story about him, we find him alone. We shouldn’t be surprised. He’s now on the run from his twin Esau. He’s burned all of his bridges. And now, with nothing but a rock for a pillow, his hardness and his vulnerability are on full display, and, in the deathly silence under the vast stars of the sky, he is surely confronted with his own character.
But there’s more on display as well. There is this place. Six times, the place is mentioned—so often in this short story that it is awkward, or significant. Place, and with it, earth and land five times, and stone three times. And after his dream when the heavens open and the chasm between heaven and earth is closed, and God shows up with that promise once again, Jacob doesn’t miss the significance of what is hiding in plain sight.
Suddenly he sees what has been there all along. This is no rocky wilderness, this is the gate of heaven; this is Beth-el, the house of God, a holy place where heaven and earth meet, where God is found, where no weed can choke out the good harvest God is tending.
I have found myself taking strange comfort in the messiness of these texts and the people who inhabit them these past weeks. Talk about wheat and weeds together! There is a good word here especially because of the unsettled, unsavory political climate, we seem to be navigating these days. Perhaps especially because those distractions have taken us from the human tragedies that continue to occur. I’ll admit it has been getting to me and I need a good word. I need a way to sort the wheat from the weeds. I need to bridge the chasm back to my friends who think and see differently from me in this polarized time. I need to know that we can expect a good harvest.
That’s why this story of this wheat and these weeds together, this sticky, intertwined, inseparable, and fertile mess, is a gift to me—to us!
Wheat and weeds together. As much as you might prefer it otherwise, this Kingdom, this Empire of God, this way of the world is one that always seems to have the good fruit tangled in with the noxious weeds. And these texts remind us this is, it turns out, how it has always been.
There’s more. Even as the explanation of the parable goes into great detail about what means what, there’s a group left out. We are not told who the slaves are because the slaves or servants are the disciples. They are us. And the message that comes along with this is that they and we cannot sort out good from evil without doing harm—without uprooting one with the other.
It isn’t our work.
This is a helpful reminder, I think, in this polarized world in which we are so easily moved to judgment of the other “side.”
Now this is not to say there is not good and evil. This is not to say that we lack guidance when it comes to this way of Christ to which we are called. This is not to say that the way of love is not marked for us with pillars and cairns and all sorts of stories and dreams that remind us what it takes to be the human family we are created to be in the fragile world we are told to bless.
It’s a matter of what we can do and what we can’t. It’s a matter of what is in our control and what isn’t. And this unsettled, unsavory, polarized time must surely remind us, in moments of humility, in moments of discovery, in moments of sheer awe at the muddledness of our lives in the vastness of God’s creation, that we are both wheat and weeds. We are heel-grabbers and usurpers—you and I—no matter how much we’d like to separate ourselves out.
Marie West-Johnson was in the office this week, and somehow we got to talking about flowers. That’s not an uncommon thing when you’re around a master gardener, I suppose. We got to talking about Crocosmia, which is what you see in the beautiful arrangement she left to bless us today even though she and Craig are out of town.
The Genus is Crocosmia. They are native to the grasslands of southern and eastern Africa, but you may have seen them blossoming all over the region lately. Marie says the humming birds love them. But I wonder if anyone can tell me what variety this one is? (Lucifer).
You see, when Marie told me that, I just knew we needed to have some around today as a way of remembering that our beautiful lives are always wheat and weeds together, that, as much as we find comfort in doing so, we are all in the same boat.
Our work isn’t to do the separating. Our work is to plant good seeds. Our work is to be vessels for God’s blessing. Our work is to love God’s tender, weedy world with the fullness of our hearts and our minds and our souls and our strength. And our work is to trust God to do the rest.
TIME Magazine featured an article by Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken this week. She reflects on the upheaval that occurred on many college campuses this past year when demonstrations disrupted controversial speakers. Extreme tactics have not been a problem for law schools, she notes, and for good reason: training. “Law school conditions you to know the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. That’s why lawyers know how to go to war without turning the other side into an enemy.” She explains further:
In law schools we don't just teach our students to know the weaknesses in their own arguments. We demand that they imaginatively and sympathetically reconstruct the best argument on the other side. From the first day in class, students must defend an argument they don't believe or pretend to be a judge whose values they dislike. Every professor I know assigns cases that vindicate the side she favors--then brutally dismantles their reasoning. Lawyers learn to see the world as their opponents do, and nothing is more humbling than that. We teach students that even the grandest principles have limits. The day you really become a lawyer is the day you realize that the law doesn't—and shouldn't—match everything you believe. The litigation system is premised on the hope that truth will emerge if we ensure that everyone has a chance to have her say.[i]
The newspaper columnist David Leonhardt offered us a practical exercise to grow along these lines. It was featured in Wednesday’s Seattle Times: pick an issue that you find complicated, and dive into it. In order to combat the easy self-righteousness that comes from our polarized bubbles, go deep into the weeds.[ii] Grapple with the complexity of a question. Educate yourself beyond the simplistic right or wrong, them or us, reactive responses that are far too common not just in our society as a whole, but in me, and maybe in you too.
You see, we can do this because our hope in good times and bad, springtime and harvest, is in the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau—weedy, faithful people like us. Because we have been this way before. Because our faith looks with honest eyes at our present and at ourselves. And still we know that our hope cannot be bound.
[i] Heather Gerken. “Dean of Yale Law School: Campus Free Speech Is Not Up for Debate.” In TIME, July 12, 2017. Accessed on July 20, 2017 at: http://time.com/4856225/law-school-free-speech/.
[ii] David Leonhardt. “A Summer Project to Nourish Your Political Soul.” NYTimes, July 18, 2017.