What Warning Did Jesus Give that Used Weeds as the Subject?
Commentary by Walter Hesford
Are we non-indigenous people noxious weeds or just an alien invasive species like the dandelion? In the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, letters upholding the value of dandelions and those declaring them invasive creatures that need to be eradicated have been flying back and forth.
Then we get a letter from the mayor of Plummer, Idaho, where we have a cabin, declaring that if we don’t do something about our big weeds, noxious or otherwise, the city will intervene, doubtless with poisonous spray in hand.
On the great Trail of the Coeur d’Alene bike path that wends from Plummer all the way to the Montana border, one finds a sign with photos of noxious weeds to look out for. No sign, however, for the beautiful wildflowers that also line the trail.
Are we unduly obsessed with identifying and destroying weeds? Is not the grass in the lawns we try to keep free from dandelions also an alien import, and thus a weed?
As you probably know, dandelions were brought here from Europe as a crop. Through the 19th century they were valued for their beauty as well as their utility. Two of my favorite New England writers, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, pay tribute to dandelions. When a few years ago the New York Botanical Garden decided to replicate Emily Dickinson’s garden, it had to include a patch of dandelions to be faithful.
Now victims of their own success, dandelions have spread everywhere (at least in our part of North America). I myself behead a slew of them with a scythe throughout their growing season. My wife tried the boiling-water remedy, but this just left us with circles of scorched grass. I used to try to dig them out, but now see it as a pointless activity after a friend, a retired biology teacher, wept with joyous admiration as he drew me a picture of the dandelion’s amazingly deep root system.
Whether a plant is viewed with admiration or disgust is a matter of learned perspective. How many kids have run to a parent with a bouquet of freshly picked dandelions? Most parents, it is hoped, welcome this weedy bouquet with delight.
Sometimes it’s a matter of usage.
One day up at our cabin, I was proud to be able to identify a pretty yellow flower through spots on the undersides of its leaves as St. John’s wort, an alien from Europe, where for generations it has been seen as having medicinal value. The label on the bottle of capsules of St. John’s wort sold by the Moscow Food Co-op claims that it promotes mental well-being. However, according to “Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia and the Inland Northwest,” St. John’s wort, also called Klamath Weed, “is poisonous to livestock [also alien!] and difficult to eradicate.”
Poison or medicine? It depends, I guess, on how it is consumed and by whom.
And consider the very pretty morning glory and its also pretty, but evil, twin, bindweed, members of the same flora family. I resisted weeding out our bindweed until it started to strangle my wife’s iris.
Weeding is usually difficult knee-bending work. If I’m looking for an excuse not to weed, I can find it in a parable of Jesus presented in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 13.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well” (vs. 14-26 NRSV).
The kingdom of heaven seems to contain weeds, at least temporarily. Surprised, the household slaves ask, “’Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ ‘He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them’” (vs. 27-29).
I’ll leave it the reader to discover how this parable ends (vs. 30) and an end-time interpretation of it offered by Jesus when the disciples ask for an explanation (vs. 37-43).
I just want to dwell on the literal level of the master’s concern that in gathering the weeds one would uproot the wheat. This surely speaks to my experience when, for example, while trying to pull up weeds among my pea pod shoots, I pull up the shoots as well.
It may be a stretch, but I hear Jesus warning us not to weed among ourselves.
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.