Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 13: 24-30)

Some number of years ago, back in my regular gigging days, I was trying to come up with artwork for an album I was working on.  It was back when I was in seminary – hence, the budget was tight.  Actually, there was no budget.  So I called in some favors from some friends – a colleague at work who did photography on the side, a seminary friend whose ten-year old son would be part of the artwork.  The idea I had floating around in my head for this album cover consisted of a young boy walking through a field of wheat, his arms held out to the side as the tips of the stalks brushed against his downward-facing palms. 

We had to do some improvising – there were no wheat fields in Decatur, GA that I knew of.  So we found a small patch of these waist-high stalky leafy plants in the woods right behind the seminary.  We gathered there one Saturday afternoon and started picturing away.

About five minutes into the shoot, though, it became clear that things were not working.  The boy was doing exactly what he was asked, the photographer was getting all the angles, but the pictures felt too posed, too staged, too orchestrated.  We took a few more, just because; and then I thanked them for their time, and we left.

Because I’d already paid her, the photographer printed out the shots anyway and gave them to me the following week.  I started flipping through them, one by one; and sure enough, they literally looked like some kid had been told to pose standing around some green plants. 

Except for the very last one.

Looking back, what I think happened for that final shot was that it was not a shot at all.  Not intentional, anyway.  Like the photographer’s finger accidentally grazed the shutter button one last time as she begin to drop her camera down to her camera bag.  You can make out a boy in the picture, but unlike all the others, his head in this one is down and his face hidden – only the crown of his head visible.  The boy is also off-center, near the bottom of the picture.  And the “weeds,” or plants, they’re blurry – they hint at something plant-ish, but you can’t really make out what.

It was an afterthought of a picture.  It came across and unclear and uncertain.  It was exactly what I was looking for.

The CD is titled, “Among the Weeds and Wheat,”  after a lyric in one of the songs, which this accidental picture captured so well.  Life like a half-focused, off-center faceless picture.  Life among the weeds and wheat.

We find Jesus on a parable kick in the 13th chapter of Matthew, using his favorite form of teaching to gatherings both large and small.  And for whatever reason, seeds seem to be heavy on his mind, as we get earlier the parable of the seeds thrown on different kinds of soil.  In our parable today, though, it’s not the soil that’s different, but the seed. It was good seed sown at first.  But then at night, we are told, someone comes along and sows bad seed as well.

Now scholars have looked at this parable from a birds-eye view and wondered what might’ve been going on in Matthew’s congregation at the time.  Matthew, the writer of this gospel; each of our four gospels sharing the story of Jesus from different angles, different perspectives; to different communities going through different circumstances.  Makes you wonder whether there were in Matthew’s circumstances some overzealous “weeders” in the church who wanted to purify that community by rooting out the “bad seed.” It is notable that Matthew is the only gospel with this particular parable.

At the very least it makes you want to know “who” – who did this?  Who would do such a thing?  I mean, if the parable stopped right here at vs 25 – granted, it wouldn’t be much of a parable – but if it stopped here, that’s exactly what everyone of us would want to know – who?? 

Which is understandable.  It’s human nature.  We want someone to blame, someone to be at fault when things go awry.  We come back to our car in the grocery store parking lot and find a thick white scratch all the way down the passenger door – who did it?  The tables and chairs in the Heritage Room have been moved out and taken elsewhere – who did it?  Someone ate the last chocolate chip cookie in the cookie jar, a cookie we had our eyes on all week – who did it?

There’s another unanswered question in these first two verses, and that question is why.  Why would someone do this?  Come in the middle of the night and intentionally sow bad seed where there had been good seed – why?  That “why” question will get you every time.  Why would someone purposely scratch the passenger door of our car – and if they didn’t do it on purpose, why wouldn’t they at last leave a note?  Why would someone move tables and chairs and not put them back?  And why, oh why Lord would someone take the last cookie out of the cookie jar?

It is interesting – and worthy of note – that as Jesus continues his story, he does not focus on the “who” or the “why.”  Not one bit.  It simply was not a concern of his; it was not important to the story, it was not important to the message.  Which means, as tempting as the “who” and “why” questions in this parable might be, they should not be important to us, either.

What we are meant to sit with in this parable is a simple and uncomfortable reality: that there is bad seed among the good seed.  That there are weeds among the wheat.

And if you want to get technical about it, they weren’t actually weeds.  Not the kind we wrestle with in our gardens and flower beds.  The Greek word used here for “weeds” is zizaion, which is a plant found in Palestine that has what I feel certain to be the greatest plant name ever: bearded darnel.  I’m going to say it again because I can – bearded darnel.

One description calls bearded darnel “a devil of a weed” and that “it defies Emerson’s claim that a weed is a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.”[1]  There are no virtues here.  Known in biblical terms as ‘tares,’ bearded darnel looks nearly identical to wheat.  But the seed it bears is poisonous, causing everything from hallucinations to even death.

And even more to the point of Jesus’ parable, the roots of bearded darnel surround the roots of the good plants around it.  And in so doing, the weed not only hijack the good plants’ precious nutrients and water, but – as Jesus points out – make it nearly it impossible to root it out without damaging the good crop. 

Now it could be said that the parable ends on a bit of an uptick; this news that the weeds will in fact be separated from the wheat at the harvest, presumably by some super-harvester who alone has the skills and know-how to successfully pull out the bad without damaging the good.  And I guess it’s good to know that’s going to happen……someday…

But as for now, well, we’re kind of stuck – right?  We gotta live with the weeds among the wheat.

Let me ask you something, people of God: how do you feel about that?  How do you really feel about that?

Maybe on most days you can live with the idea that there’s good and bad in our world and we kind of have to be okay with that.  But I have to think you – like me – have moments when we don’t feel that way  When it’s not okay to live with the weeds among the wheat.  When we are sick and tired of the brokenness, the hurt and pain.  When we ask, “Why do bad things happen,” because we honestly don’t know and we really, really wish we did.

I am certain you’ve asked that question before, even if you haven’t used those exact words.  I am certain you’ve asked it in other ways:

Why did my grandmother have to die?
Why did the hurricane devastate my home?
Why did I flunk my Spanish test after studying so hard?
Why can’t I ever seem to get a good job?
Why can’t I ever seem to hold on to a job?
Why is traffic on Providence so horrible?
Why did I get cancer?
Why did my boyfriend break up with me?
Why is our country in the mess it’s in?
Why is my health failing me?
Why am I sad more than I am happy?
Why do bad things happen?

And our temptation, when we ask questions like this or when we are asked questions like this, is to answer them, even if they really don’t have an answer.  We answer them, because questions left dangling out there feel incomplete, and we are creatures who long for closure.  But sometimes the answers we provide others and ourselves are not really answers at all.  Answers like:

Time will heal.
Life goes on.
There’s always some out there who has it worse than you.
Count your blessings.
God needed an angel.
It’s going to get better, I know it will.
God never gives us more than we can handle.
Everything happens for a reason.
It must’ve been God’s will.[2]

Have you ever given voice to any of those answers, to yourself or to others?  Me too.

Why do bad things happen? 

I wonder, people of God, I wonder if a better response to that question involves three simple words:

I don’t know.  I don’t know.

I get it, it feels weird, right?  Feels like it needs to be more definitive, a period at the end of a sentence instead of dot dot dot…..  But consider this: what it may lack in definitiveness, it more than makes up for in honestly.  And maybe that’s what’s more important.  More important than explaining or rationalizing or postulating or theologizing, trying to make sense out of the nonsensical.

I don’t know.  I don’t know why bad things happen.  I don’t know why your grandmother died, I don’t know why you can’t get a job, I don’t know why our country is in a mess and I certainly don’t know why you got cancer.  I don’t know why we have to live with weeds among the wheat.  Jesus didn’t tell us that.  But what I do know is that Jesus said this where we are.  And that we are not here alone.

Noted biblical scholar David Lose once said this:

Yes, the sower planted with good seeds. Yes, there are now weeds among the wheat. And so now the sower must wait, living with both the wheat and the weeds until the day of harvest when they may be separated.  How often do our lives face similar dilemmas? If not with wheat and weeds, then with a multitude of other difficult choices we are faced with making:

  • like between getting a job to support the family, or staying at home to spend more time with the family;
  • between supporting someone who consistently struggles at work and pulls the quality of your team down, or firing that someone;
  • between choosing the best school you’ve been accepted to, or one that is more affordable;
  • between two different treatment options in response to a grave illness;
  • between staying in your current call where things are comfortable, or choosing to move on to newer, but unknown, pastures;
  • between giving into peer pressure because it stinks being left out, or choosing to risk isolation.[3]

Every day of our lives, choices like these.  Very little cut and dry, very little definitive. Weeds and wheat.  Here, it’s not contrived answers we’re seeking.  Here, it’s something else.

Some number of years ago, not too long after that weeds and wheat photo shoot, a pastor-to-be in his chaplaincy internship walks through the doors of a hospital room on his first night on-call.  He’d heard that the man in there was gravely ill, that death was imminent, and that his wife needed support.  He walks in and finds her sitting by his bed holding his hand; he in a deep sleep, she with the weight of the world on her shoulders.  He introduces himself as the chaplain and they talk. 

She asks a lot of those questions – she fires them off as if they’ve been building up all day long.  Question after question, all variations of “why do bad things happen.”  And he responds by doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do as chaplain and pastor-to-be: he answers them.  Answers with all knowledge and wisdom and insight and compassion.  For every question asked he happily provides an answer.

And then, mercifully, she motions for him to stop talking.  And she says in as sweet a voice as possible, “I’m sorry, but I’m really not looking for answers.  Can you just sit here and listen and be with me?”

And he most certainly could.  He could sit there and listen and be with her among the weeds and wheat.

People of God, it is okay to say we don’t know when we don’t.  It is true – one day, the harvester will come and set things right.  One day the bad will be separated from the good.

But for now the picture is blurry and the faces are hidden and things are off-center.  This is life among the weeds and the wheat.  Let us promise to live among them together, shall we?

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 3, 260.
[2] Taken from I Know Just How You Feel: Avoiding The Cliches Of Grief by Erin Linn, and Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.
[3] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/07/pentecost-6-a-on-wheat-weeds-and-ambiguity/