It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and the temperature is still over 80°. A breeze blows from the southwest, making the air feel even hotter. Black flies swarm around my floppy hat as I crawl through the dirt, weeding pumpkin plants. Every few minutes I need to lean back and stretch my aching back. My hand is cramping.
And I’m as happy as a clam at high tide.
From the swamp on the other side of the road by our community garden, sparrows and cardinals chirp and whistle. I listen and drop back to my hands and knees to pull up small bunches of crab grass, pigweed, and plantain. I’ll let the milkweed grow for the butterflies which should be here soon.
I’m not entirely sure I know why I enjoy weeding. I never used to. When I was in high school, working summers in a market garden, weeding was the worst job there was. I’d start out bending over, then drop to my hands and knees, then to my elbows, then to one side, and the next thing I knew I’d be asleep.
But now, far less agile and able than I was at seventeen, there’s something satisfying about seeing a weedless garden. Unlike grandparenting or writing or even playing my banjo—all things I enjoy—I can see immediate results. I really don’t have a lot of control over how many pumpkins I’ll get this fall. That’s up to how much rain and sun we get and whether animals chew things up. But I can control the weeds.
At least if I get them early. Once weeds take root, they take over, sending roots deep into the soil, so that when I pull the weed, the root remains, sending up new weeds, sometimes the next day, and I don’t have the strength anymore to wrestle them out of the ground. Then, my self-satisfaction turns to self-deprecation: Why didn’t you get those damn things earlier? You’re a failure as a gardener, just as you’re a failure at everything else.
So not only is it important to weed the landscape in which I move, I need to weed the landscape in which I think—those weedy thoughts that clutter the garden of my mind.
While I have a lot of trouble with many parts of the Bible, I’m continually drawn to the parables of Jesus, and in two them, Jesus talks about weeds. In the Parable of the Sower, a farmer is sowing seeds. Some seeds fall on rocky soil, some on weedy soil, and some on good soil. The first seeds don’t grow on rock, the second seeds come up but are choked by thorns, while in the good soil, the seeds produce abundantly.
As Jesus explains, the sower represents someone sowing the word of God. Some who listen are like those who hear the word joyously but can’t take it in and grow from it because they “have no root,” as one of the gospels puts it. Then there are those who hear the word, grow a bit, but then “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”
That me. How many times have I choked on “cares” and “desires for other things”! The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists 13 common weeds in Maine. I can easily come up with at least that many cares and desires that have choked my ability to become like those in the parable who “hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold”: from my sense that nothing I do is ever good enough to my judgmentalism of myself and others to my need for control and an even greater need for the approval of others to my passive-aggressive sarcasm to my perfectionism to…
I think that’s why, for me, any kind of spiritual growth has involved subtraction rather than addition. Whether it’s through meditation, Feldenkrais exercises, or working the 12-steps, I’m weeding rather than planting—trying to remove what 12-steppers call “defects of character.”
But, as 12-steppers know, we can’t do this ourselves. Step Six says, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects in character,” and Step Seven says, “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”
Which gets me to the other parable Jesus tells, the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
In this story, a man plants wheat seed in his field. That night, while everyone is asleep, the man’s enemy plants weeds among the wheat (which, I guess did happen in those days). Later, when the wheat grows, so do the weeds. Then the man’s servants come to him and say, “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?” He answers, “No, because when you pull up the weeds, you might also pull up the wheat. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest time. At the harvest time I will tell the workers first, to gather the weeds and tie them together to be burned, and then to gather the wheat and bring it to my barn.”
I like the parable. What I don’t like is the interpretation of it attributed to Jesus. The man who planted the good seed in the field is supposed to be Jesus, and the field is the world. The good seed are the people in God’s kingdom, and the weeds are the people who belong to the “Evil One.” The enemy who planted the bad seed is the devil. The harvest is the end of time, and the workers who gather are God’s angels. At the end of time, Jesus will send his angels, and they will find the people who cause sin and all those who do evil, take those people out of his kingdom and throw them into the place of fire. Then the “good” people will be taken into the kingdom of God.
This interpretation of separating “good” people from “bad” and condemning those bad folk to eternal hell fire not only seems contrary to Jesus’s other teaching about loving your enemy and his compassion for tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, but also—it seems to me—cultivates self-righteous and judgmental behavior about who’s “good” and who’s “bad,” which, as I’ve already said, are some of the weeds in my interior garden.
So, for me, what the parable promises is that at some point—possibly at my death, possibly in some afterlife— those weeds that I struggle with, that I’ve let get out of control for the past 80 years, will be removed, and that what remains will be something pure and shining like wheat in the sun. (Or pumpkins in the field.)
In the meantime, I’m trying to pull out the newer weeds, asking myself the following questions:
—What seeds have I planted for the future?
—What recent weeds—complacency, smugness, procrastination, and the like—have taken hold and need to be pulled out for these seeds to grow and produce?
Now weeds I’m happy to send to “the place of fire.”