Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
Last week as we addressed the Parable of the Sower we began by looking at some guiding principles for reading parables. Since we are looking at a number of parables over the next few weeks, I feel it is important to review these principles and add a few more. And for all of you out there that like big fancy words to describe what we are doing, this is a part of what we often call “hermeneutics.”
1. Do not allegorize every aspect of a parable; rather, look for the main point. Remember that a parable is different from an allegory. Not every detail of a parable correlates to some deeper theological concern. Killing the fatted calf in the parable of the Prodigal Son is not intended to condemn those who have chosen to be vegetarians.
2. Where the Bible is silent, we allow some flexibility. One of the beautiful and challenging things about parables is that they don’t always give every last detail that we might want. So if a parable does not say who a particular actor represents, we can assume that the message of the parable could be appropriately directed to or about a number of people.
3. We start with what the text clearly states. Rather than working backwards from what is unclear and ambiguous, we start with what Jesus actually says, or even what the writer of the gospel says about the parable.
Let’s look at this one a bit before we look at a few more guiding principles. Today’s parable is one of the few where we get a little more insight into what Jesus was thinking as he gave this teaching. Often he gives these parables and it seems as if he could mean any number of things, and we are just left wondering which is the best interpretation. But today’s parable is followed by an explanation from Jesus. So if we are going to start with what is clear in the text, we need to start with the explanation.
As I was reading through commentaries this week, I came across one writer who gave an interesting interpretation of the parable of the wheat and weeds. I was drawn to what he had to say, but I also had those, “Yeah, but what about what Jesus says in the explanation” kinds of thoughts. Even more interesting, this writer suggested that pastors only preach on verses 24-30, and leave off the explanation section in verses 36-43. He said something along the lines of the explanation part being too confusing and muddying the waters. Essentially, he was saying that the explanation didn’t fit his interpretation, so he was choosing to omit it.
I’ll be honest, I think this passage could be preached a lot easier without the explanation because it would allow me to claim that Jesus was talking about something else. And even if you believe, as some do, that Jesus did not actually say the things we find in verses 36-43 and that it was added by Matthew, I still believe that Matthew was inspired by the Holy Spirit in the writing of this gospel. If he included it, he included it for a reason.
Again, all of that is to say that when interpreting parables, we start with what is clearly stated.
The 4th guiding principle, and the first new principle that I’m going to introduce today is that the parables are not cumulative, or you might say that the aspects of one parable don’t necessarily carry over to the next. And this is somewhat obvious if you understand principle 3, but it is worth stating anyway. You might read the Parable of the Sower where we are told that the seed being sowed is the “word of the kingdom” (13:8) and assume then that the seed in the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is therefore also the word of the kingdom. But if we take what is clearly stated first, we find that the seed in the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds is actually people. The good seed represents the children of God’s kingdom, and the bad seed represents children of the evil one (13:37). Just because seed represents something on one parable does not mean that it represents the same thing in another. They are not cumulative.
The fifth and final thing that I want to suggest as a guiding principle for reading the parables today applies just as much to parables as it does to any teaching in the Bible, and it will lead us into the study of today’s scripture. This principle is simply that any interpretation that we have for a parable or other teaching in the Bible must coincide with the overarching themes of the entire Bible, and more specifically, with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
For instance, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus speaks of the economic division between a wealthy man and a poor man. Both men die and the rich man goes to hell, where he is punished, and the poor man, Lazarus, goes on to eternal reward in heaven. There is nothing in this parable that suggests that Lazarus was a pious, law-observing Jew. There is no reason to believe that he was a follower of Jesus. The only thing we know about him is that he was a poor man, covered in sores, who begged at the gate of the poor man. So obviously, the point of this parable is that our eternal destiny is entirely dependent upon whether we have money or not. Maybe it is the sores. That’s it. You need to have sores to get into heaven.
No, when we interpret the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, we do so in the context of the rest of the Bible, and in particular in the context of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say that the way to heaven is by being poor or having sores. When asked how to get to heaven, Jesus says, “Follow me” and “I am the way…” So when we try to discern the meaning of a parable, we keep the entire Biblical witness in mind, particularly the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
With these guiding principles in mind, let’s do something a little bit crazy and actually look at the text!
In verse 24, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.” Right away we find a clear statement on what Jesus is trying to explain: the kingdom of heaven. He is throwing out this story about the good seed to compare it to the kingdom of heaven. And he gives more information in verse 37, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.” The Son of Man is a term that Jesus uses to refer to himself.
So Jesus has sowed this good seed, but along comes an enemy in the middle of the night and sows some weeds in the middle of this wheat field. Some versions call these weeds “tares.” The weed that is named in the Greek is ζιζάνιον, and it is likely a reference to a specific kind of weed we call darnel. Darnel looks a lot like wheat, and you really can’t tell the difference between wheat and darnel until it matures and puts out seed or grain. The easiest way to tell wheat from darnel is the color of the seed. Wheat is a light brown and darnel has a black seed.
Another interesting fact about darnel is that it was once considered to be poisonous. It has since been found that darnel is not poisonous, but it is a very well-suited host for a particular kind of fungus that is poisonous. So if you have a wheat field, you really don’t want to have darnel grains mixed into your wheat grains. It could ruin the entire harvest if they were mixed together.
Verse 26 says that some of the workers noticed when the plants started bearing grain that there are some plants that have grains of wheat and some that have grains of darnel. So we are actually several months out from this act of vandalism before anyone notices it. And the servants ask the master, “You did sow good seed, right?” Maybe buying those seeds that were on sale for a really good price from the guy on the street corner wasn’t a good idea after all.
But the master explains to them that this was an act of vandalism. Someone is trying to ruin his crop.
So the servants ask the master “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” (verse 28b).
The master replies, “If you pull up the weeds, you are likely going to pull out the good wheat, too.” Instead, he suggests waiting until the crop has fully matured, and when all is said and done, there will be specially selected reapers who will do the sorting. The good wheat will go into one pile, the darnel, the tares, the weeds into the other.
When Jesus explains this parable, he says that the good seed is the children of God’s kingdom, while the bad seed is the children of the evil one. The devil is the one who sowed the bad seed, and the harvest is the end of the age. The reapers are angels.
So we try to position ourselves in such a way that we can understand this passage by collecting all of this data and trying to make something practical out of it all. And when we do this, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “Do nothing.”
Yes, there is evil in this world. And that evil exists side-by-side with the goodness of God’s kingdom. I don’t think that is too much of a stretch for any of us to believe because we have all seen it. We hear the cry of a new-born baby, and we hear the cries of a mourning widow. The news carries stories of money, supplies, and help going to refugees on the nation’s borders, and moments later we hear of 298 passengers dying when a Malaysian airplane was shot out of the air.
There is nothing surprising about Jesus saying that there are good things and bad things — kingdom of God things, and kingdom of this world things — that exist side-by-side. What is surprising is that Jesus seems to say, “Do nothing.”
Do nothing? Do nothing about the evil in the world around us and just wait for God’s judgment? That’s one way to read this text, and sometimes we would do well to be a little more patient. But remember the fifth guiding principle that I gave you. We must interpret the parables through the lens of the rest of the biblical witness, especially through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Though it might sound like Jesus is saying to just allow evil to exist and God will take care of things in the end, I’m pretty sure Jesus teaches elsewhere that we are to confront evil head-on.
I would consider systemic racism, poverty, hunger, violence, and injustice to be a form of evil or the result of evil. Did Jesus “do nothing” about these things? No, he fed the hungry, taught about a Good Samaritan, instructed us to do away with anger, violence, and hatred. In his first public sermon, he said that he came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim the release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. That doesn’t sound like “doing nothing” to me.
During his ministry Jesus had a habit of sending his disciples out to counteract the evils of this world. He sent his 12 disciples out in Luke 9 to cure diseases, cast out demons, and preach the good news of God’s kingdom. That doesn’t sound like “doing nothing” to me.
In Matthew 28 we find the resurrected Jesus giving instructions to his disciples once more: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” That doesn’t sound like “doing nothing” to me.
We must interpret the parables in the context of the entire Bible. Jesus isn’t going to teach something in a parable that does not line up with the rest of his teachings, and the rest of the overarching message of the Bible.
No, the parable of the wheat and weeds isn’t about doing nothing and simply allowing God to take care of evil in the end. The parable of the wheat and weeds is a warning about confronting evil in the wrong way.
When a 1st century Jew thought about evil, they would likely go to the source of their suffering, their poverty, and their oppression: the Roman Empire. The Romans occupied the land God had promised the Jews. They took money from the Jewish Temple’s collection plates to advance Rome’s cause. And Rome taxed the Jews to the point of driving them into poverty. Much of the evil they witnessed, though surely not all of it, could be traced back to Rome. This is why the people were looking for a messiah. And not just any messiah, they were looking for a messiah who would lead them in battle to victory over the much larger, more powerful Roman army.
The Romans were sowed all around Jerusalem. It was nearly impossible to go to the market place, to the well, or even to the temple, without seeing Roman soldiers. And the Jews wanted them gone, at any cost necessary.
So when the servants ask the master in the parable if they should go and pluck out the bad weeds, they mean, Should we go into battle with these Romans? And how does Jesus respond? He says that if they do, much of the good seed, the wheat, the people of the kingdom of God will be uprooted as well.
If you go to battle with Rome, many of you will die as well.
But this is not a parable of doing nothing. How did Jesus start today’s parable? In verse 24 he said, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” Between this parable and its explanation Jesus tells two more parables. Each one begins the same way, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” When we read this parable in the context of the others, we get a better idea of what Jesus is calling his followers to do about evil.
The kingdom of heaven is not like pulling up and tearing down those we might call evil through physical force. That isn’t how the kingdom spreads. Look at the next two parables in Matthew 13, which we will look at more thoroughly next week: the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast.
So you want to know about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God? It doesn’t spread by killing off all those we might call “evil.” But it also doesn’t spread by doing nothing. The kingdom spreads like a mustard seed; the kingdom spreads like yeast.