“On earth as it is in heaven…”
Is that phrase familiar? If it is – and you’re trying to place it – it’s a line out of the Lord’s Prayer. Many Christians know that prayer by heart and say it out loud at least once a week. And every time we do, we ask God:
“…your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When we pray this, we’re anticipating a day when Jesus will come again and finish the work he started. We’re asking for God to make earth to be like heaven knowing we can’t do that completely on our own.
We also pray for things to be “on earth as it is in heaven” knowing that the kingdom of heaven is now. When Jesus started his ministry he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Then when he sent his disciples out, he told them to say a similar thing, a message of good news that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 10:7). The kingdom of heaven isn’t just about some far-off day… it’s near, it’s already been ushered in by Jesus, and he has commissioned us to continue building it.
And if we’re going to take on that building project, do you know what we need?
A picture of what the end project should look like. Like this:
My kids love these Lego sets. On the front of every box is a picture of what you’re supposed to end up with. The step-by-step instructions help for sure, but just as helpful is this picture. The kids will keep the box propped up in front of them while they’re building, so they know: this is what I’m working toward, and if it doesn’t start looking like this then I must have missed a step somewhere.
To participate in this “on earth as it is in heaven” prayer, we need the same thing: a picture in front of us. Maybe, for that very reason, Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven using word pictures. A picture of someone frantically looking for a single, special lost thing – and throwing a party when it’s found. A picture of a little child. A picture of a king who forgives and expects his subjects to do the same. Jesus said that these are pictures of the kingdom of heaven.
Today’s Scripture has a few of these pictures.
Here’s the first one: a field of wheat and weeds, all mixed together. I don’t have a field in which to mix wheat and weeds, and I don’t know much about either, but I do know something about weeds. My yard has plenty of them. So when I hear Jesus talk about a field where the weeds are allowed to grow alongside the good crop, here’s what I picture:
Oh – maybe you can’t see it. You might be distracted by the view. But as the person who lives at this residence, the person who curates this little mulch pit, here’s what my eye is drawn to when I see this picture:
WEEDS. Ugh! I’ve pulled and sprayed Round Up and pulled and mulched and sprayed again. And they keep coming back, weeds where there should be no weeds! Do you know what I want to do when I see those weeds?
Pull them, of course. Because they don’t belong.
But Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven looks like this. The kingdom of heaven is a world where we don’t pull the weeds; we let them stay.
Jesus, of course, isn’t talking about wheat and weeds but about good people and evil people. But the reaction we have is the same; we want to pull them out. When a coworker or boss is consistently undermining you, you wish you could pull them out of your work life. When a friend turns your shared confidence into public gossip, you want to pull them out of your personal life. When other Christians are acting in definitively un-Christian ways, we want to pull them out of our churches. When people on the news are behaving in toxic, mean, immoral, even evil ways, we would like to pull them out of our communities, our country, our world.
To which Jesus says: don’t do that. Let them be.
First off, Jesus says, because pulling the weeds would harm the wheat. Pulling a weed is a violent, death-causing action. We’re not talking about setting healthy boundaries with others… No, pulling people like we pull weeds looks more like revenge and retaliation, name-smearing and name-calling, cold-shouldering and isolating, violence and even killing. All those are pretty effective ways to pull human weeds. They also all have a way of escalating. They encourage the weeds to fight back, which means we have to pull harder, which means the weeds fight back even more… In this way, pulling the weeds – the evil ones – causes harm to any of us who might be “wheat.”
And who’s to say which people are “wheat” and which are “weeds,” anyway?
Maybe we aren’t supposed to pull the weeds because we might be wrong. Sometimes we are. Have you ever judged someone, only to find out later that you didn’t know the whole story, that the person you judged wasn’t as evil as you once thought? The only one who can really tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat is the God who created us. That God, also, happens to be the only one strong enough, gracious enough, and wise enough to pull the weeds without harming the wheat. It is not our job to pull the weeds. It is our job to live with the weeds, and trust that living like this is somehow kingdom building.
To live with the weeds…
Let’s see that picture again.
Let’s be honest for a moment. Or, how about this: I’ll be honest, and you can agree or disagree. I don’t want to leave the weeds there, and I don’t want to coexist with people who are “weeds.” It makes my skin crawl a little to think we’re supposed to just hang out together until Jesus comes again. I know I’m not supposed to judge, I know I might be wrong – but I can see the harm they’re doing. Look at the evil they’re pumping into the world! Look at how nasty they are! If we let them be, won’t their evil just spread?
Maybe Jesus knew we’d feel this way. Maybe, for that reason, right on the heels of the “wheat and weeds” picture he gave us another one:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
Mustard seeds are tiny. So tiny, maybe I better help you see it:
Super tiny, right? But full of potential. In the ancient near east, mustard was also a plant that grew like – well, like a weed. There’s hardly any other way to say it. Weird, huh?
In southern terms, we might think of mustard as like kudzu. It grew that wild, that fast. So wild and fast that it might be odd for a farmer to intentionally plant it in a field – it could take over.
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like that – a tiny seed that can take over an entire field. Something small that has the potential to grow big. It could be a single church whose impact spreads in a way illogical to its size. Or a small group within a church whose dedication to the way of Christ inspires the rest of the congregation. Or a single person whose unrelenting devotion to loving God and loving neighbor has a ripple effect on hundreds of others.
Which makes me think of another picture, a word picture “drawn” by an author named Loren Eisley. It looks like this:
Like most good stories, this one has taken on a life of its own, evolved beyond Eisley’s original telling. The way I like to tell it is like this:
A little boy is standing on the beach, surrounded by starfish. They’ve been washed up by the tide. Now, in the mid-morning sun, they’re baking. So the boy starts throwing starfish back into the ocean.
A man walks along. He sees the boy; but more so, he sees the thousands of starfish lying on the beach. The boy could throw all day long and not save them all, even if he could throw faster than the sun can bake them.
As adults are prone to do, the man can’t help but point out the helplessness of the situation. “You might as well stop now,” he tells the boy. “What you’re doing isn’t going to make much of a difference.”
In response, the boy picks up another starfish and throws it into the ocean. He points out to where it landed – back in its watery home – and says, “It made a difference to that one.”
The man watches as the boy continues to throw starfish into the water.
And then, the real miracle happens:
The man starts picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean.
In other words: the kingdom of heaven just doubled.
Friends, living as wheat among weeds isn’t easy. But pulling the weeds out isn’t the answer. The only way to build this kingdom – God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven – is to resist the urge to “pull” the weeds, because it’s not our job, and because it only causes more harm than good. Instead, our job is to do all the good we can, even if it seems small and insignificant… because the kingdom of heaven is also like a mustard seed, where the smallest good can have a huge, beautiful ripple effect.