John 12:20-33, Matthew 13: 24-30
Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday. Jesus’ final act is approaching and we must continue to reflect on his final days and focus our hearts on the message he proclaimed.
In our scripture readings today we have a parable and a short section of scripture that contains imagery echoing that parable. The parable is that of the Wheat and Weeds, and while it may at first seem disconnected from Jesus’ passion, I believe it gives us some unique insight into the nature of Christ’s power and also how Christ’s power reckons with the world. Both passages shed light on what Catholic Priest and writer Robert Capon called “The Paradox of Power”.
Capon wrote a book about the Parables of Jesus that takes a look at each of Jesus’ parables and also makes some astute and fascinating observations about how the parables fit in to the mission and meaning of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. Capon does a good job of looking at Jesus’ weird and mysterious sayings and pulling out the kernel of truth that Jesus was getting at.
But before we get to the parable of the wheat and the weeds, I’d like to focus on our text from John. The context of our scripture is Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. And while Palm Sunday isn’t liturgically until next week I think this context is important for understanding what Jesus is saying and why he is saying it.
In verses 20-26 of the 12th chapter of John we see that some Greeks have heard about Jesus’s many miracles and works of faith and upon Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem they want to come see him. When the disciples come to Jesus telling him of the Greeks who want to see him, Jesus immediately says “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!” This was perhaps an odd thing to say in response to a group of gentiles coming to visit him. Many within the Jewish community assumed that the messiah that they had long waited for would come to restore the Jewish people, but here is Jesus referring to himself as the Son of Man, not just the Son of David. Foreshadowing the universal nature of Christ’s salvation for the whole world.
After this proclamation he continues his preaching by saying, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.”
A small grain of wheat that is sown may not seem very powerful, and certainly doesn’t seem like a way to describe a prototypical messiah, but he is articulating the way his suffering, power, and ultimate glorification will bear fruit even among the gentiles. This is the paradox of the power that God wields in our world.
Capon attempts to understand this paradox in his book and comes up with some interesting terminology to help us think about these ideas more clearly. These terms are left-handed power and right-handed power. Now is anybody here left-handed? Well if you are, you might be a little closer to Jesus haha. Capon explains that right-handed power is the type of straight line intervening power that gets things done right away in the most common sense way possible. He describes it by saying:
“Direct, straight line , intervening power does, of course, have many uses…Indeed straightline power , or “use the force you need to get the result you want”, is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world…From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a.45 pistol, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways. Unfortunately, it has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight line power becomes useless.”
Luckily for us, Christ does not strictly employ right handed power. He instead ultimately operates under the idea of left-handed power that is as Capon puts it, “intuitive, open and imaginative.” And this kind of power, much to our dismay operates mysteriously and sometimes even strikes us as worthless or wrongheaded. We can think of many examples where the disciples were frustrated with Jesus and demanding that he change things right away. Or they were confused as to why he wasn’t doing something that they expected. They wanted right-handed and direct action, and sometimes Jesus would oblige.
Think of the feeding of the 5000, the casting out of demons, and many of the other miracles and signs of his authority and power. But as his ministry continued Jesus increasingly moved away from this kind of direct action and became more mysterious with his parables and increasingly withdrew from crowds. It seems that as Jesus’ ministry continued and his relationship with the Father deepened, he knew that for humanity to be ultimately redeemed, something creative, unusual, but ultimately powerful would have to happen.
But this was going to be a tough sell. Capon even goes so far as to say that living by Jesus’ left handed power, “is guaranteed to stop no determined evildoers whatsoever”. And because of this last point, we are always ill at ease when it comes to Jesus’ revolutionary message. We don’t always believe in the fruitfulness of his power.
The world is surrounded by evil, and it seems harder and harder each week to find glimmers of hope, or ways to resist such evil. The deeds of Boko Haram and ISIS, the horrors of racism and police brutality, and so many other things make us shudder with fear. So how are we to cling to a messiah who will ultimately be crucified and who bids us to a life where evildoers are not always stopped? Reflecting on these issues raises up the age old question of the problem of evil. You know, if God exists and is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing, then why do bad things happen to good people? And vice versa.
Modern, smart folks like us might see this question as a very sophisticated response to the problems we face and the God we worship, but Jesus and his disciples deal with it in our second biblical text today. You know the one talking about wheat and weeds. Not very sophisticated on the surface, but if we dig a little bit we get a glimpse of what the left-handed creative power of Jesus is up to. Let’s read the parable again.
“The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared. “The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’ “‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered. “The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’ “But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.”
Unlike some of Jesus’ parables, the message is fairly straightforward; it is only perplexing because we don’t see the left-handed approach as effective or satisfactory. In the parable God is the master of the field and the wheat is the kingdom of God. The enemy who comes is Satan, and the weeds that grow is the sin of the fallen world.
See how this fits in nicely with our “Problem of Evil” conundrum? If God is the master of the field, then why did he allow the enemy to come and sow weeds there? In fact the workers of the field in the parable ask just this, “‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?”
But instead of becoming angry and playing into the enemy’s hands, the Master simply lets the enemy think he is getting away with messing things up, and he is temporarily, but in the grand scheme of things the Master of the field has a larger mission in mind. This is left-handed power at work.
The workers in the field were certainly perplexed, but as far as we know, they obeyed. And when we look back at the first scripture we can see how Jesus is still preaching about this paradoxical power. The disciples are acting like the workers in the field, expecting Jesus to do some direct action and be a bit clearer about how he is really going to redeem God’s people, but they are still trying and failing to grasp his strange and holy ways.
Returning to our passage in John, remember that the Greeks have shown up to see Jesus. And this prompts the disciples to talk amongst themselves.
The Greeks ask Phillip, who in turn asks Andrew, and then they both go to tell Jesus. It’s almost as if they are skeptical of the Greeks and they both want to see what Jesus’ reaction will be. What could Jesus want with a bunch of Gentiles they might be thinking?
But upon hearing their message Jesus immediately knows that it is time for things to get moving. He proclaims to the disciples the scripture that we heard earlier, “The hour of the Son of Man is at hand and unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Looking back from our perspective, it would be easy to miss Jesus’ anxiety in this moment. To us it seems like a simple proclamation that Jesus has to die in order to save the world and that Jesus is feeling perfectly okay with all of this. But we would do well to remember that the writer of the Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tried and tempted in every way that we are. And if we think of what is coming for Jesus we also remember his anguish in the garden of Gethsemane.
In fact, in our passage today, we have a more succinct version of that emotion when Jesus says,
“Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time’? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. 28 Father, glorify your name!”
Writer and Theologian Alyce McKenzie sees this passage as one of Jesus’ last temptations. The most famous temptations are obviously when Jesus fasts in the desert after his baptism and the Devil tempts him to turn stones into bread, throw himself off the temple mount and resurrect himself, and finally tempts him with dominion over the world.
The temptation that McKenzie sees in our scripture here is similar. The temptation to try and save the world without the cross. The temptation to use right-handed power instead of trusting in the mysterious and divine left-handed power. Mckenzie makes her point by saying:
The coming of the Gentiles to Jesus brings with it a very subtle temptation, a temptation empowered by the shadow of the cross. The temptation is evidenced in verse 27 where Jesus says “what shall I pray?” At this point he puts forward a hypothetical prayer point, something obviously on his mind, but then immediately counters it; “Father, save me from this hour – no for this is the reason I have come, rather glorify your name.” If only the kingdom could be realized apart from the cup of suffering. In the end, Jesus submits to the father’s will. Christ will win his kingdom via the cross, but in the approach of the Gentiles, Satan suggests an easier way. Satan can give Christ all the kingdoms of the world if only he will worship him. The possibility of another way, a way apart from “the cup” of suffering, is a serious temptation for Jesus.
But instead, Christ again resists the temptation to submit to an easier but ultimately incomplete power and instead submits to the perfect will of the Father to fulfill the role of the One whose death will ultimately draw all humans to God.
But what does all this mean for us? I have referenced a couple of theologians and tried to pick out some interesting points of scripture, but for what? What does the nuance of left-handed power mean for us right now?
Well, if we call Christ Lord, and claim to be his disciples, we must reflect on what I have just relayed. Jesus has laid out very clearly what the Christ-like life requires and leads to. Christ was given many possibilities to exploit his powers or stoop to absolving himself by taking the easy way out. There were opportunities to employ right-handed and direct power that would’ve maybe made common sense, and yet Christ trusted in the mysterious and divine ways of the Father.
Jesus is the supreme example of one who finds by losing, and who brings a great harvest by dying. And this is not only what we must proclaim about his death and resurrection, but it is what we must be about in our daily lives.
Jesus is THE grain of wheat that through his death and resurrection allows for our reconciliation and justification. But as people who have been reconciled and justified through Christ Jesus, we now have a choice to make as to how or if we sow our own grain of wheat.
The ramifications and effects of this choice are encapsulated powerfully in a poem I found called “What To Do With Your One Grain of Wheat”. And I’d like to share it with y’all. It reads:
Either way you’re gonna die:
clutching your seed in your fist
buried in your Sunday suit
the lid sealed shut with a rubber gasket watertight lifetime guarantee, impermeable to the forces of nature. And the dang thing sprouts and its pale stem pushes through your dried fingers and urges upward straining for sunlight until it bumps the steely casket lid and bends and arcs downward finally surrendering. Either way you’re gonna die: You can open your hand and let loose the grain of love you bear. You can open your protected soul to life and death and mystery in the breathable air. You can plant your seed in the welcoming earth and die to your fear and let something uncontrollable grow. When you are buried like the seed it is already free to break through soil and let the sun kiss it to life and sprinkle the earth with a thousand new grains. Either way you’re gonna die: But if you let your seed go and die before you die there will be wheat and flour enough to bake bread with holy wild yeast and feed the hungry world, which gives thanks for your small grain to the One who made you to die for the fruit of love.
We can be like the wheat in the master’s field and our lives can spread the kingdom if we follow Christ and sow the seed we’ve been given. The world may be scary and fraught with evil, but we already heard in our parable, that although evil abounds, our Lord is ultimately in control and thus we have nothing to be afraid of in the end. The weeds may be growing right alongside us at an alarming rate, but the wheat will ultimately be brought into our Lord’s barn.
We may yearn for easy, quick, fast and decisive solutions to all of our problems, but our Lord Jesus simply gives us himself. Our Lord and his ways may perplex us and surprise us, but if we believe in him his ways can save us and empower us to be courageous disciples who know and believe in the paradoxical power of Christ’s death.
And we shall proclaim the power of our Lords’ death until he comes.