In support of Weeds and the Seed by the Wayside
A few weeks ago I went on a journey I know well. It is not a very long distance to travel, perhaps a mile or so. The route is familiar, for I traverse it at least once a week, often more frequently. It goes from our own house to a school where I am a governor, and, as the saying goes, I could surely drive from one to the other blindfolded. Let me assure you at once, I have not tried this theory out!
What was unusual about the expedition on this particular day was not the route, but the method of transport. Invariably I go by car. But on this day no car was available. It was suffering from one of those minor ailments, minor but nevertheless inevitably expensive, to which cars are prone. It had been admitted to the garage for urgent treatment. It might even have to stay in overnight. But I was assured that the treatment would be successful and the car restored to full health. But my appointment at the school was pressing. There was nothing for it but to saddle shank’s pony, in other words, to set out and walk.
In spite of the lack of practice in this method of travel, I enjoyed the journey, for the day was fine, there was plenty of time in hand, and, as I repeatedly assured myself, the exercise was doing me good. Then again, I was saving money; shoe leather is cheaper than petrol.
I realised as I ambled along, how much one doesn’t see as one dashes by in a closed iron box. Houses look different, and in some cases were noticed for the first time. People nodded or passed the time of day. A host of sounds were heard which normally are either drowned out by the noise of the car engine, or fail to penetrate the windows and body work of the vehicle.
But the things I especially observed were plants. Not so much the tended gardens, some of which might have met with the approval of Geoffrey Smith and Francis Bacon, but the ubiquitous, so called weeds, and how they grew in the most unexpected places caught my eye. Grass grew between flagstones and in gutters, tree suckers pushed up through asphalt. Groundsel flowered at the junction of lamppost and pavement, dandelions forced their way through cracks in paving, willow herb poked its head through the stones of a wall. Some seed that had fallen on stony ground, or by the wayside had managed to survive, was even thriving.
It is amazing how plants can establish themselves in the most hostile of environments, clinging tenaciously to life and defying the unfriendly conditions that surround them. When our Rotherham church was still open, I used to take services there regularly over many years. The Church of Our Father, as it was named, was a large, tall building, and I recall there was a window high above the gallery visible from the pulpit. A small pane of glass had broken, and, because it was difficult to reach without scaffolding, had not been replaced. Dust had settled on the window ledge and rain had blown in, along with a wind-blown seed. It fascinated me how a plant had taken root in such a hostile, place and thrived over several months, even producing a flower, before it eventually died, as all living things are destined to do.
Waste plots of land, even in city centres, are quickly invaded by plant growth. I recall a bombsite in the centre of Sheffield, which was left vacant for some years after the war had ended before re-building work started upon it. There, in the midst of the rubble, grew a number of forest trees, still saplings it is true, obviously self planted, apparently thriving within the neglected site.
Inevitably one is reminded of the parable of the sower, even though what I had observed on my walk, or have been describing from previous memories, is the random scattering by nature rather than the more directed broadcast sowing by the primitive farmer. It doesn’t do to take analogies or parables too literally – they are illustrative without being necessarily exact parallels – but with that reservation, some points are worth making.
The sower was placing, or attempting to place, his seed in prepared ground. That which fell elsewhere, “by the wayside” for example, was wasted and either would not crop well, or would not crop at all. Only seed falling on good ground was profitable.
Apparently the disciples were slow on the uptake, and Jesus patiently explained to them that the seed in the parable was the word. Just as the ground was carefully prepared to receive the seed and enable it to prosper, so the hearts of men and women must be ready and committed to receive the word, or the message will not succeed. Plants thrive best in the conditions suited to their needs, and enjoy careful attention to their wants. The good seed flourishes in good ground, and the word is rooted and secure. That was the message of the parable, Jesus patiently explained.
What I observed on my walk was something different. It was not seed being directed to carefully prepared ground, but random distribution, to fall where it will, to establish where it is able. It was the fight to exist in a hostile world. It was akin to the unquenchable determination of the human spirit to survive.
It could be said, within limits, the more obscure the situation in which the seed fell, provided it was able to germinate, the more likely it was to endure. The alien seed which fell on to good ground, ground prepared by the farmer or gardener, would surely be hoed out, rooted out, sprayed or otherwise eliminated as an unwanted intrusion, unless the farmer or gardener be unusually tolerant or indolent. We admire a garden because it conforms, applauding the absence of unwanted or inconvenient interlopers. Sow in rows, says Geoffrey Smith so interlopers can be quickly spotted and eliminated.
If it were left to farmers and gardeners, backed up by agricultural scientists, then the dock, dandelion, groundsel, willow herb, chickweed and the coltsfoot, along with many other plants would disappear altogether. Only what is regarded as good seed would remain, carefully planted and tended in the receptive areas of ground. To survive, those designated weeds must persist in finding new habitats.
One of the more difficult problems in life is deciding what is good and what is bad. The greatest tyrannies are exercised where mankind has decided it knows with conviction exactly what is right, and pursues that course with ruthlessness and determination. It eliminates all contrary views as bad – as being the weeds of life. Racial groups, opponents who speak of different values, members of opposition parties, minority communities, any-one whose seed is regarded as inferior, must be rooted out, so that the true crop may grow untainted.
So are minorities harried, concentration camps built, and discrimination is endemic. Jew, Moslem, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Sikh, Pakistani, Croat, Serb, Turk, Greek, Irishman, aborigine all and many, many others are in turn weeds growing among cherished flowers.
In such cases hope lies with the so called inferior seed falling by the wayside, taking root, preserving life or ideals until wiser, more enlightened policies prevail. The message of Jesus some regarded as inferior, as diluting the pure seed. It had to be isolated and then destroyed. So his enemies, the righteous Scribes and Pharisees ordained.
In other parables, Jesus referred to the difficulty of differentiating between wheat and tares, sheep and goats. Our instincts are often to eliminate the weed, to regard with approval only that which grows on prepared ground and conforming to our ideas of correctness. But just as our efforts to impose upon nature our own ideas have too often brought the disasters of famine, of dust-bowls, of disease and failure, so human misery and bestial cruelty have attended foolish attempts to allow only the approved crop to survive.
In the field of human ideas and human behaviour, our tendency to judge – in spite of the warning not to judge lest you yourself be judged – have led and continue to lead to some of the most oppressive and vile examples of human cruelty, of man’s inhumanity to man.
In many parts of the world, to broadcast seed, to spread a word, to cultivate ideas, which are not officially approved, is to risk personal freedom, or even life itself. There, alien seed can only hope to grow in the obscure place, on the stony ground, in unusual settings, in nooks and crannies, if it is to survive.
In earlier times, the spread of Christianity was often achieved because it survived in obscure and hidden places. Like the seed lodged in the crevice, it sought a haven from persecution and defied attempts to root it out.
Where tyrants reign, the seeds of freedom survive, tenaciously clinging to life, not in the open field, but in the hidden corners. Survive they do, ready to spread when the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Mussolinis and the rest have perished.
In a society that values all its citizens, subterfuge need not be a pre-requisite for freedom to be secured, whether in ideas, philosophies or lives of individuals. But sadly, many societies are not free, and it is to the so called weed, struggling in obscurity, that we must be grateful for the survival of the best of the old, and the fertilisation of the new.
Of course there is a place for the formal garden, the cultivated patch, and the haven free from the invasive plant whose vigour imperils the survival of the others. There is a place for exclusiveness within the pattern of life where the weed (defined as a plant in the wrong place) is not welcome.
But a philosophy that preaches that the so-called weed has no place is a denial of a central pillar in the temple of the Christian faith; that is the unique importance of each and every soul. Without that support, the edifice is indeed shaky.
Advocacy to remove all the seeds that grow by the wayside is authoritarianism at its worst. It is a piece of Christian heresy.
It was an interesting walk, and I’m sure the exercise was good for me, even though my legs ached and I was glad to sit down at the end. But I will not pretend that I was not glad to learn later that day that the car was well on its way to recovery; or to accept a kindly offer of a lift home.
C.J. Rosling 24 May 1992
(adapted from a sermon from August 1986)
Hucklow 24 May 1992; 20 February 2000; 27 August 2006
Fulwood 31 May 1992; 17 September 1995
Mexborough 31 May 1992
Stannington 9 August 1992; 20 August 2006