What has straw in common with wheat?
Sermon based on Jeremiah 23:23-29
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Wheat and straw
The passage that we just read in Jeremiah is one that belongs to an extensive line of prophetic tradition that calls out false prophecy that seeks to mislead the people away from God’s will.
Jeremiah is condemning those prophets that seem to be saying what the people like to hear, instead of what God wants to tell them. In God’s words, there is a curious question that caught my attention: What has straw in common with wheat? or, in Spanish “¿Qué tiene que ver la paja con el trigo?” (What does the straw have to do with the wheat?)
The truth is that straw and wheat have a lot in common. In an article called “What’s the difference between hay and straw?” there is a definition of the relationship between straw and wheat. Straw refers to the plant material that is left over after grains like wheat and barley are harvested. The stems left behind become straw. Most of the nutrition of grain crops lies in the grain. The stalks that are remaining – the straw – are generally very low in quality and not very healthy for animals.
So, straw and wheat can be said to be the same plant… but they are distinct parts of the same plant that have different types of use. Wheat is used for making things like white bread, pastries, pasta, and pizza, and has been the principal cereal crop since the 18th century. Straw is used… to feed the cows, among other things.
So maybe the question in the version in Bible can be the question that we look at today: “¿Qué tiene que ver la paja con el trigo?” (What does the straw have to do with wheat?) especially as it relates to the definition and the work of a prophet that this passage brings to the forefront.
“I have dreamed! I have dreamed!” vs. God’s word
Jeremiah has a big problem with straw in this passage. Straw seems to refer to those prophets that want to please the leaders saying that God wanted good things for them. Let’s call them “straw prophets” from now on. Wheat then refers to prophets who have the word of God and speak it.
When we read about prophets, we assume that there was only one person with this task. The fact is that kings had several counselors and prophets at court, and, just like today, there were those that relayed God’s message and those that were, as we call them today, yes men.
In the passage, you can see the difference between the straw prophets and the wheat prophets in two places where God is speaking. In verse 25 God speaks about the words that the straw prophets use: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed! I have dreamed!’” Then on verse 28 God speaks about the prophets that dream again: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.”
The main difference for me in this passage is that the straw prophets use the word “I” and speak their own words and not God’s word. Their vested interest is to please those who are in power and to have power themselves. Therefore, they use words like “I have dreamed” or maybe a more complete sentence: “I have dreamed that God said to me…” But the true prophet, the wheat prophet is the one that starts the message with “God says” as we see in this passage. Jeremiah is not the one who is speaking. It is God.
Robert A. Radcliff, a Methodist pastor and friend states in his commentary of this passage that the biggest mistake that a straw prophet makes is trying to put God in a box, because “their pleasing dreams contained only ‘the deceits of their own heart’, rather than the hard truths Jeremiah knew the people needed to hear.” Their words, therefore, are of low quality and not very healthy.
God’s answer to straw prophets, according to Dr. Christopher Davis in his commentary to this passage is to denounce their sins:
false prophets and priests broke God’s heart and distressed His true prophet,
filled the land with adultery,
misused their power,
were profane, unclean, corrupt, and godless,
guilty of idolatry and hypocrisy,
preached deceptive messages, and
ministered under false authority.
Every film that I have seen has this disclaimer at the end “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.” But the truth is that we keep seeing the existence of straw prophets and wheat prophets in actual events… and the church must answer the question: “What does the straw have to do with wheat?" with an unequivocal: nothing… they should have nothing to do with one another.
The definition of a prophet
In a conversation that Kenyatta Gilbert had with Walter Brueggemann about the prophetic call in 2018, Brueggemann defines what a prophet is for him:
“I think a prophet is someone that tries to articulate the world as though God were really active in the world. And, that means on the one hand, to identify those parts of our world order that are contradictory to God, but on the other hand, it means to talk about the will and purpose that God has for the world that will indeed come to fruition even in circumstances that we can’t imagine.
Then Brueggemann asks Gilbert about his own definition and he answers:
A prophet is someone who sees that this is not all there is, but is willing to face the fact that we are in a predicament and it’s only as we co-participate with God, can we find ourselves moving in the direction of a beloved community.
It is interesting to see how these two definitions, one from an older white man and one from a younger Black man connect. Both recognize that the world is not where God wants it to be. If that was the case in 2018, we can attest that this is the case in 2022. Both recognize that human beings that are prophetic, are the ones that can identify that the world is in a predicament, and that we are called to speak out, to announce the will and purpose of God so that the world moves in the direction of the beloved community. Brueggemann calls this a combination of judgement and hope. And, in my humble opinion, any prophet that speaks about one without the other is a straw prophet. Hope turns to into our own dreams when it does not recognize the troubles of the world and our sinfulness in causing them. Judgement also turns into our own dreams because we can get to a place of routine where we always see the speck of straw in another’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in our own.
As I watch the news, I can see that we are in a predicament. Straw prophets are all around us. But… we need to continue to articulate the world as though God is really active in it. We need to raise our voices to denounce those parts of our world order that are contradictory to God. We need to continue to talk about the will and purpose that God has for the world believing that they will indeed come to fruition in ways that you and I can’t imagine. Judgment and hope are indeed the nurture that this world needs. We need more wheat prophets. May God help us to be so… wherever we are, wherever we speak, wherever we act. Remember: God is always nearby, and not far off. Amen.