I was talking with a friend the other day about the latest church dramas. We were at an outdoor bar and sat on socially-distanced opposite sides of the table, so I had to shout a bit to be heard. We were assessing the faults of others with pinpoint precision. It was perfectly cordial, but the subject matter and added volume of our speech made it feel like an argument, adrenaline included. When our post-mortem analysis ran its course, we wondered what there was to do about it all — to no avail. There wasn’t a simple solution, or any solution for that matter. The lack of answers felt deflating, and as my blood pressure returned to normal, I immediately thought of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds.

The story is familiar enough: An Enemy sows weeds among a crop of wheat. Weeks pass and the farmer is none the wiser. His crop looks as it should. Eventually, the treachery is revealed and the workers of the farmer want to spring to action. The weeds must go. But the farmer stays their hands and urges patience. Pulling up the weeds would endanger the wheat. They’ll sort it all out when the harvesters come.

Of course, Jesus isn’t giving horticultural advice. The farm is the world, the wheat is the sons of the kingdom, the weeds are the sons of evil, the harvest is the end of the world, etc. Jesus connects all the dots of the picture, but he doesn’t divulge what the picture is really all about. Is he talking about the mixed state of the church, comprised of evil and good? Is he talking about the invisible workings of God in the world? Either are possible, but these miss the forest for the trees.

As I sat with my half-empty beer glass and stewed over a thorny predicament with no good answers, I realized that this parable was a parable of judgment, or better, the withholding of judgment and condemnation. The workers in the field have discovered their own thorny predicament and the response is all too familiar: Cast out the evil from their midst, a simple equation of cause and effect. You can almost hear their excitement as they come to the farmer with a ready-made solution. Judgment feels pretty good, doesn’t it?

Whether in digital or analog relationships, we love sharing our not-so-humble opinions with whoever we think needs to hear them. That perfectly crafted argument to fix the world is quite the dopamine rush.

But the farmer knows better, recognizing that pulling up the weeds is a messy business, with far too many unintended consequences. The good wheat and the evil weeds are difficult to distinguish from one another so that even the most judicious worker is bound to get it wrong sometimes. And even when they’ve properly identified the truth of evil, the intertwined roots of the wheat and weeds would only lead to disaster.

Judgment is a weapon that no one can wield properly, something well illustrated by our lives on social media. What looks like goodness could be a pernicious weed and vice versa. Distinguishing between the two is not impossible, but prone to error. That which we love could be the thing that’s killing us, and the thing we hate could very well be the grace of God. It’s not impossible to tell the difference between good and evil, truth and falsehood, but even the most malevolent of causes are driven by those convinced of their righteousness.

Judgment is a frequent topic in Jesus’ ministry and he never commends it as a course of action. The plank in our own eye is too large to bother with the speck in our neighbor’s (Mt 7:1-5). The brother who sins against you is to be forgiven seventy times (Mt 18:15-22). The teachers of the law are the ones who shut the door to the kingdom in people’s faces and do not let them in (Mt 23:13). The scrutiny with which we examine ourselves should not be directed at others, lest we cause them to fall away.

If the business of judgment is anyone’s, it’s God’s. It’s not a job for the workers to weed out evil, but for the harvesters. However righteous the intent, the collateral damage is too great to trust mere mortals with such a powerful weapon.

Like the weeds sown among the wheat, we live in a time when misinformation is as pervasive as the truth. What you deem to be fake news probably is, but it might not be. And Lord knows that COVID has made all of us a bit more on edge than usual. The stakes feel like life-and-death, and in many ways they are, but none of us is terribly good at weeding. Google gives us customized search results, and we’re all a couple of YouTube rabbit-holes away from thinking the earth is flat.

Suppose one of your real-life friends posts something deeply troubling on Facebook. Your blood begins to boil, and you have to step away from your computer. You know enough about mindfulness to resist the urge to dunk on their folly, but you’re still left with a nagging annoyance that others are reading it with approval. Perhaps your friend can be reasoned with? You sit back down and craft a tactful but firm rebuke. You link to relevant articles, try to be charitable, and finally hit “Enter.” Days pass, and you never get a response. In fact, they cease to appear on your timeline. You’ve successfully reached for a weed but uprooted the relationship in the process.

Judgment and truth are not what really make the world go round (nor ourselves, for that matter). It’s mercy, which suspends judgment altogether. Bearing with another’s faults and withholding criticism feels like losing, but they also look a whole lot like love. However gratifying it may feel to correct, admonish, or advise, we are incapable of wielding them well. The Farmer knows better than we do, and his kingdom grows without the assistance of weed-killer.