I have to admit that I do find today’s readings really rather difficult. They are both familiar stories, and that almost makes it worse – it’s not easy to see how they should influence our lives today.
Let’s look first at the story of Jacob’s ladder. The joy of these very earliest stories in the Old Testament is that they do present their people warts and all. They don’t sanitise them into saints! And Jacob, it has to be said, was not a nice person. In fact, he was one of the nastiest people in the Bible. He is, of course, the younger of the twin sons of Isaac, and a grandson of Abraham. He is his mother’s favourite, and spends his time indoors, doing the cooking and generally keeping the encampment going, while Esau does the outside work and looks after the flocks and herds. You remember, of course, the infamous story of how Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew one cold day when he was hungry. Lentil stew is good, but not that good! Esau also married a couple of foreign wives, and, according to Genesis 26:35, “they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebecca”.
And it was partly because of that, I think, that Rebecca helped Jacob trick Esau out of his father’s blessing. You remember how she helps him tie goatskin over his hands, so that his father thinks it’s Esau. Although I’m not sure quite how much Isaac was fooled: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau”. Anyway, Isaac goes along with it, and gives Jacob his blessing. But, of course, Esau is furious, and plans to kill Jacob, so Jacob has to flee. And it’s while he’s on the run that our reading starts.
Jacob falls asleep, just on the ground with nothing more than a stone for his pillow, and dreams of the ladder, or staircase, between earth and heaven, with the angels going up and down it. And God, speaking directly to Jacob, assuring him of his love and blessing, reaffirming that God will be with him on his travels, and will bring him safely home. And when Jacob wakes, he knows he’s been with God: “Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
I wish I could say that from that time on Jacob was a changed person. But he wasn’t, of course. For him, God was associated with places, not people. Bethel, where he had his dream, was a place where God lived, and despite God’s promise of being with him all the time, Jacob didn’t seem to want to know. He goes on lying and cheating, as do the rest of his family; his sons even plotted to murder their brother Joseph, and were only just stopped from doing so. Even though later on God encounters Jacob again, and this time Jacob does seem to realise that God is more than just a local god, one would scarcely describe them as God-fearing people. Yet God used them as an integral part of his plans for the nation of Israel.
And so we turn to our Gospel reading, which carries on from our theme last week of seeds. I seem to remember that we decided last week that a weed was merely a flower growing in the wrong place – some wild flowers are, of course, wonderful to look at, look at these cowslips which were growing in a certain field on my father’s land last May – these are for Jo, since we were talking about them after Church last week. Or how about these bluebells, growing in the woods. They’re lovely, aren’t they – we must organise a church outing to go and see them in all their glory next year, perhaps.
But the point is, while the cowslips are lovely in the pasture, or the bluebells in the wood, what you don’t want are great weeds growing up in the middle of your crop. They’re taking up valuable space, and they aren’t providing any food for the winter. Even in our day and age, where we deplore the monocultures that make vast tracts of our countryside look very dull indeed, we prefer to keep the wildflowers to the headlands and verges! It would be very difficult for even a modern weedkiller to target the right thing, especially if the weeds were things like barley-grass or wild oats – you couldn’t destroy them without destroying the entire crop. Imagine what that would do to a subsistence farmer in our day, for instance, perhaps in Africa!
But, apparently, back in Bible times, Jewish law didn’t allow you to grow two kinds of crop in the same field. So the servants were really anxious to go and pull up the weeds, it was all wrong to let them grow. But the farmer knew that it would really damage the wheat, and jeopardize the harvest, if they were to do that, so he tells his men not even to try. Time enough, he says, to destroy the weeds when the crop is harvested – by then, they won’t damage the crop itself. This must have been rather a shock to Jesus’ hearers, of course. But then, I expect they were used to Jesus saying things that might appear shocking!
In this country today, of course, the barren weeds would be harvested along with the corn, and go through the combine harvester, but back then, harvesting was done by hand with a scythe or sickle, and it was easier to separate them out before they were turned into sheaves. I expect the same would apply in those areas where modern harvesting methods aren’t appropriate, in the developing world, too.
But what does it all mean? Do these stories, familiar though they are, have any real relevance to our lives today?
I think, perhaps, they do. You see, the whole point about Jacob is that God didn’t give up on him! Jacob was a thoroughly bad lot, he didn’t even try to live a godly and moral life, he was out for what he could get. But God had serious plans for him, and for his descendants, and even though he couldn’t really get through to Jacob on the first time of asking, at Bethel, he tried again and again, until finally he was sort of successful.
So the first point is that God never gives up on us. No matter how awful we are, no matter how far we walk away from God, the Good Shepherd still straps on his Barbour and wellies and goes to look for us. Time and again God went to Jacob and his family, spoke to them in dreams and visions, tried to show them something of who He is. Time and again he met with failure, they said “Oh yes, there’s a god here, is there?” and carried on with their lives.
Then the second point is that God has confidence in us. When Jesus tells the parable of the weeds, you see how confident the farmer is that the crop won’t be damaged by having the weeds grow among it. There’s no way he’s going to risk damaging the crop by doing anything prematurely. The weeds may take up space, but the quality of the weed will win through to a good harvest. Doesn’t the same God who sows the seed in us have the same confidence? That’s something to celebrate, I reckon. Each of us, those of us who have said “Yes” to Jesus and who are touched by His Spirit, each of us has the most incredible God-given potential to grow and develop into the person God created us to be. God has confidence that we will be part of building the Kingdom of Heaven.
And the third point is that we need to have confidence in God. Sometimes we feel afraid when we look round and see that we’re surrounded by weeds. It feels as though we must be overwhelmed, that we must go under. But God knows that we won’t. God has confidence that we won’t.
We also need to trust God when he tells us to wait until the harvest. Sometimes we want to rush in, like the servants in Jesus’ story, to Do Something About It. Like them, it feels all wrong to us when wheat and weeds grow in the same field. The mediaeval church reckoned the “weeds” were heresies; we don’t fuss quite so much about heresies, but sometimes we fuss more than we need to about other people’s spiritual status before God. We fuss, too, when problems loom large in our lives, whether personal or as a church. We reckon that if we did this or that, then things would become quite all right again. Sadly, of course, it doesn’t work that way. If we rushed in and did what we thought, it probably would hurt only ourselves, and not have any effect on the problems we face. Unlike God, we can’t see round corners. We need to trust God that, in the words of Mother Julian, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”