< July 20, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 

Matt 13:24-30 and 36-43, the parable of the tares and its interpretation, recall in several respects 13:3-9 and 18-23, the parable of the sower and its interpretation.

Not only are certain motifs--sowing, seeds, soil, kingdom, obstacles to growth, the devil or the evil one--repeated, but both parables stress that while the victorious arrival of God's good future is assured, the way from here to there is strewn with sin and unbelief. The parallels are due to the fact that both parables and their interpretations address the same problem, namely, the failure of Jesus' proclamation to win over collective Israel. Just as seed may fall upon different types of soil and just as weeds may be sown among wheat, so too is it with Jesus' ministry: the good comes with the evil. The chief difference between the sower and the tares is that while the former concentrates on human responsibility, the latter focuses on the devil, who shares responsibility for the negative response to God's word.

If 13:24-30 relates a parable, 13:37-39 offers a series of equations that explain the meanings of the figures in that parable. Then 13:40-43 uses those meanings to construct a second narrative. The result is that the story in 13:24-30 uses the figures on one side of the equations in 13:37-9 while 13:40-3 uses the figures from the other side:


13:24-30 13:37-9 13:40-43
sower sower = Son of man Son of man
field field = world world
good seed good seed = sons of the kingdom sons of the kingdom
weeds weeds = sons of the evil one sons of the evil one
enemy enemy = the devil the devil
harvest harvest = judgement judgement
harvesters harvesters = angels angels

We have two stories with one meaning.

The parable of the weeds is inevitably about eschatology and the last judgment. This can be a problem for those of us in the mainline churches. We seem to have conceded the last things to more conservative churches, especially those hoping for a near end and reading the sort of popular eschatology represented by the Left Behind series.

The wedding service in the old Book of Common Prayer once had this: "I require and charge you both, as ye will answer in the dreadful Day of Judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you knows any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together, ye do now confess it." The updated version reads: "I require and charge you both, as you hope for joy and peace in the marriage state...." This dramatic change stands for a host of changes in our liturgies and sermons and theologies. We seem to be more at home in the world than ever before, and so much less interested in the world to come.

Perhaps we have made our own the old Marxist criticism of religion, in which there is of course some truth: the hope of future reward and punishment has too often encouraged toleration of present injustice and diminished Christians' desire to fix things. Or perhaps we are a bit embarrassed by the simple, conventional dichotomy between heaven and hell, or by the fact that the last judgment seems so unecumenical.

Whatever the excuse may be, our text is the opportunity to rethink the lack of attention so many of us give to eschatology, except maybe at funerals. We know that the meaning of a novel whose ending has been lost is up for grabs. It is the same, as the Bible well knows, with our individual and collective histories. We cannot grasp the meaning without knowing the end. This means for us Christians that we should interpret life according to our faith that God's kingdom will finally win, that death will be no more, and that every tear will be wiped away.

Furthermore, the notion of a last judgment, which is the focus of 13:40-43, is a vivid way of insisting that what we do really matters, in this world and the world to come. We need very much to worry about this today. We have a tendency to assign less and less responsibility to individuals as moral agents. We are often inclined to suppose that we are largely or entirely the products of our genes and our environment. This is one reason the word "sin" has died out in many circles. It is also why some now affirm that we need to get beyond the concept of personal responsibility, which they regard as merely a cultural construct.

Now we have of course learned much in recent times about human nature, and modern knowledge probably does compel us to confess that we are, as individuals, only partially responsible for our sins. Yet we must not let this circumstance erode our fragile sense of moral responsibility. We, like Adam and Eve, are only too happy to place blame elsewhere. We must, however, resist the superficial proposition that, in general, we are unaccountable for our deeds.

The Bible's expectation of a last judgment, with its verdicts of reward and punishment, should help undo our frivolity by confronting us with the import of our actions. It is the antidote for the sentimentalism, cheap grace, and lack of seriousness that so often conspire to wither moral responsibility. And it tells us that God is something other than an amiable chap who looks the other way no matter what.