Wheat, Tares, and Hobby Lobby

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
–Matthew 13:24-30

I’ve read a lot of responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Hobby Lobby to refrain from covering certain contraceptives as part of their employees’ health plan.

Cards on the table, I feel the court made the wrong decision on this one. Apart from questions about whether Plan B actually is an abortifacient, I can’t help but feel the courts are opening up a can of legal worms regarding the “personhood” and rights of for-profit corporations. I’m also uneasy pondering what this case would have looked like had it involved, say, a Muslim business with concerns about pork products in medical supplies or Christian Scientists opposing blood transfusions. I am no legal expert, though, so I will leave it to others to explicate the potential implications of the case. I like to think that I am, however, at least somewhat qualified to tackle some of its spiritual implications.

I came across an interesting response to the case, in which the author celebrated the SCOTUS ruling, arguing that now we had validation that religion could and should be played out of the public sphere—it was not truly a matter of private conviction. I get the author’s point, but I actually wonder if this situation with Hobby Lobby has proved exactly the opposite—that we are moving ever more towards a religion of absolute personal piety that is incapable of engaging in the public sphere.

The situation as I understand it is this. The conservative evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby did not want any of their money going to pay for drugs they sincerely felt terminated a life. Fair enough. I can appreciate the sentiment. It’s laudable, really, to hold to a conviction so firmly and to declare that one will not play even a minor role in a behavior one sees as a moral evil (in this case, the death of an unborn child). Until you check out all the reports of the fact that Hobby Lobby’s employee retirement plans actually invest in companies that make the very same products they refuse to provide for their employees. Not to mention the percentage of their merchandise that is manufactured in China, infamous for forced abortions and female infanticide. This is where our good old friend, the facepalm, says hello.

It is tempting to jump on the “Hypocrisy, thy name is Hobby Lobby!” bandwagon. The cynic in me wonders if this whole case was brought up as an attempt to jab another thorn in the side of ObamaCare as much as to prevent even partial participation in abortions. But the more charitable side of me wants to hold up Hobby Lobby as a case study for the inevitable failure of the puritanical impulse that resides in all of us. For all that the owners of Hobby Lobby likely have the purest intentions around their desire to be no part of a single abortion, the fact is that they also live in a messy, complicated world where it is simply impossible to achieve such absolutes. And that’s not just true for Hobby Lobby, that is true for all of us in a world where we are all (regardless of religious belief or political affiliation) more and more often trying to hold ourselves apart from any hint of “impurity.” We can see this impulse played out indeed in the responses to Hobby Lobby ruling. The craft store is either a beacon for religious freedom an increasingly secular age or it hates women and any sexual pleasure women have the audacity to experience. There is no room for a middle ground.

This is where that parable of the wheat and the tares speaks so powerfully for me. It is arguably one of the hardest of Jesus’s parables, difficult to interpret precisely. But I have to think that it speaks on some level to what it means for us to live out our faith in the messiness and complexity of the world around us. We can’t weed out every corrupting influence. If we try, we’re just going to look as hypocritical as Hobby Lobby. We all inhabit a world mixed with wheat and tares. I dare say the wheat and tares often co-exist even within each one of us. As long as we are part of this complicated, messy world we are never going to achieve such radical, absolute purity … and the uncompromising pursuit of it will often lead to the fair criticism that we value principles over people. That’s true for Hobby Lobby. But it’s also true for all the people boycotting chick-fil-a back in the day because they could not support a business that wasn’t totally on board with marriage equality. We are an ever-increasingly polarized society.

Perhaps I have written myself into a corner here. I certainly don’t want to indicate that I think it is not worth holding to principles or pushing for a cause one believes in (or, more importantly, feels spiritually called to embrace). But I do think it’s worth considering what is lost when we hold the value of personal purity above everything else in our life of faith. What good fruit is ripped up along with those tares we try to purge out of our lives? I can’t help but think it is the virtue of charity … a sense of love that tries to find away to live and work together in this strange messy, murky world we live in. Maybe that means being a little less “pure” sometimes. But it also might make us a whole lot more Christ-like.

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One thought on “Wheat, Tares, and Hobby Lobby

  1. McDevite says:

    I’d appreciate your further thoughts from that parable to this particular quote from the ruling: “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.”

    Leaving aside the optics of five old men in the majority, it suggests a problematic and perverse arrangement for religion in the public square, elevating a particular interpretation of Catholic doctrine to an absolute while leaving behind Muslim concerns about organ donation (especially from pigs), Christian Scientist/Jehovah’s Witnesses concerns about blood transfusions, and extant precedent on whether or not pacifists can exempt their tax dollars from warmaking aspects of state power (they cannot).

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