Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest. (John 4: 35)
The New Testament contains various agricultural images, a number of which originate in the teaching of Jesus himself. The quotation from the fourth gospel is from the provision for Harvest Thanksgiving in the Prayer Book as proposed in 1928. Amongst others the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and Darnel could also be added. This should not be surprising as our Lord lived in a small place surrounded by agricultural activity and dependent upon it. The comings and goings of the agricultural year inevitably provided a source of illustrations and images. They remain effective today because the pictures Jesus presents are universal.
Jesus uses images of the fruitfulness of the earth, but is not afraid to mention the weeds. As every farmer and gardener knows weeds play a significant part in the management of the land. At the least they are a nuisance and at the worst they can choke the growing crops and reduce the size of the harvest. For this reason weeds offer a perfect illustration of the problems that have to be faced in the life of the Church and especially the propagation of the gospel. Teaching on the weeds which are pulled up and cast into the oven complements the more joyful teaching on the forthcoming harvest.
Weeds spoil the harvest, but what are they in the life of the Church? What is stopping the Church being true to itself and growing? When I was Rector of St. Bartholomew’s, Blore in the Staffordshire Moorlands a churchwarden from a neighbouring parish asked me why the church at Blore was growing. Admittedly it wasn’t growing much numerically, but there were certainly more beginning to attend, both locals and visitors to the Peak District and I think we were growing in faith and confidence. I answered without giving the matter any thought, ‘because there is nothing to stop it’. It is true that we had a good liturgy and sang strong, traditional hymns and the people were friendly and welcoming. Those were sufficient reasons for some growth. What I meant was that there weren’t many weeds. Worshippers didn’t arrive at Blore on a Sunday morning carrying an array of baggage. It is not that people didn’t have opinions or a past, but that on coming to worship they put God first. The regular worshippers didn’t promote themselves, but rather the things of God which in turn allowed people visiting the area to come to worship as themselves and to feel that they were welcome and fitted in. In other words, there were very few weeds.
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews knew of the threat of weeds.
Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled. (Hebrews 12: 15)
The New English Bible’s translation leaves no room for misunderstanding the author’s point.
Look to it that there is no one among you who forfeits the grace of God, no bitter, noxious weed growing up to poison the whole.
Sometimes we can see our own problems and failings as weeds. There are tried and tested ways of dealing with such things of course: confession, the disciplines of the penitential season, prayer, retreat and the study of the Scriptures. More frequently the problems come from elsewhere and come into the Church as an infestation. This is spiritual warfare – a reality which the saints have always been aware of. Jesus warned his disciples that there would be times of testing. Sadly the Church of England today has only a limited awareness of such things. I remember attending a meeting on church growth with a diocesan officer (who subsequently became a bishop). In the course of the meeting I raised the possibility of opposition to work of the Church and how the works of the devil might be made manifest. My contribution was ignored and no mention was made of it in the minutes which were circulated. It seems that the weeds know their own and look after themselves. Opposition is real whether it is acknowledged or not. It is surely better to face it honestly in the strength which faith supplies.
Harvest comes as a package, whether it is the harvest of crops or the harvest of souls. Preparation, sowing, nurturing and reaping are all essential to success. If the weeds are not recognised and dealt with disaster ensues; the crops fail. There is a profound point to this imagery and we ignore it at our peril. As we give thanks for the harvest this year and pray for the good of the Church it would be timely to do some weeding.
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Pray for all those who are struggling with trials and temptations.
Pray for protection from the crafts and assaults of the devil.
Image by Jason Long on Unsplash