Commentary on Matthew 13:24-43
As we continue through the gospel of Matthew, we have jumped ahead to another teaching discourse, this time landing in a series of parables on what the kingdom of heaven is like. Parables, central features of Jesus’ teaching in all three of the synoptic gospels, often escape the concrete explanations we want them to have. Like describing why a certain joke is funny, parables are nebulous, connecting with their hearers in different ways
We find, however, in our text for today, Jesus giving an explanation for one of his parables. In fact, it is only one of a handful of times that we see Jesus explaining the meaning of a parable privately to his disciples.1 In verse 34, Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke in parables in order to fulfill the words of the prophet (actually a quotation from Psalm 78:2): “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” Immediately, however, the scene shifts away from the crowds to Jesus in a house with his disciples, where they ask him to explain the parable of the wheat and weeds.
When Jesus had told the crowds the parable, he said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who planted good seeds in a field only to have the enemy come and plant weeds behind him in the same field. The farmer’s servants first notice the mix of weeds and wheat and ask the farmer if they can pull up the weeds. This would have been the logical and customary next step. Here is where the parable diverges from the audience’s expectations, when the farmer instead insists both be allowed to grow until the harvest, when they are finally separated. The wheat is taken into the barn and the weeds are gathered to be burned.
This story can have a number of interpretations because, like most parables, it contains an inherent polyvalence, allowing meanings to shift depending on the experience of the hearer.
For instance, in later Jewish parables, one finds the explicit use of weed and wheat imagery to reflect Israel and the nations. The idea being that God’s people are currently scattered among the nations but that God will gather Israel back to himself and judge the nations.2 In Matthew 13, it seems logical that the wheat becomes those who believe his message within Israel and those that reject his words. The wheat are those who have ears to hear (the Christians) and respond and the weeds are those who have ears but do not hear (the religious Jewish leaders).
That said, Jesus tells the disciples in private that the wheat are the people of the kingdom of God and the weeds are the people of the evil one.3 The field is the world, giving the sense that there are the righteous and the unrighteous all living together until the final day of judgment. There is no specific mention of Israel here in the explanation. Rather it seems to be focused on the Church as it exists in the world. There is Church and “not Church,” and those within the Church will need to focus on staying faithful until the end times, when those who follow Jesus will be rewarded and those who did not will be led to eternal judgment. Within Matthew’s overall argument, this functions as warning and encouragement to his hearers to actually be wheat, bearing fruit, so as to inherit the eternal reward.
Within the history of interpretation, however, you get a different interpretation fairly quickly. No longer does the field represent the world, but rather the field begins to represent the Church, or rather Christendom, and within it, you have the true believers and the false believers. The faithful and the sinner. Augustine uses this passage to argue against church discipline going so far as to kick a person out of the Church, as long their offense did not directly endanger other Christians. He wrote: “Man should punish in the spirit of love, until either the discipline and correction come from above or the tares are pulled up in the universal harvest.”4 During the reformation, this passage was used to argue that the Church was always going to be a mixed group: those who are faithful and those who are actually evil. Even still, most of the early church fathers and the reformers held to the same final point, that ultimately it was God who was going to judge.
Which leads us to perhaps a final observation for those preaching this parable in the modern context. The story has moved through centuries with different communities finding their own ways to delineate weed and wheat, and even the field itself. All of this can and should be interpreted with care by the preacher as one uses this parable to proclaim what the Kingdom of God is like. Ultimately, like so many parables and teachings in Matthew, the driving question within the parable of the wheat and weeds is laid solely at the feet of the hearer: are you going to be wheat?
Whoever has ears, let them hear.
- The most famous explanation being the parable of the sower and the seeds found in Matthew 13 and Mark 4.
- For those really interested, you could look in the Aggadat Bereshit, a later rabbinic work which contains this parable: “This can be compared to weeds that said to the wheat: ‘We are as beautiful as you, because on you and on us, the rain falls, and on both of us the sun shines.’ The wheat said: ‘Not what you say, and not what we say [counts], but the winnowing fan comes and separates us for the storehouse and you for the birds to eat.’ Likewise the Nations of the World and Israel are intermingled in this world, as is stated: They mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did (Ps. 106:35). (Ag. Ber. 23)
- The vast majority of Matthean scholars believe this interpretation to come from Matthew himself as opposed to a direct tradition from Jesus.
- Augustine Contra Epistolam Parmeniani 3.2.14
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of stories, Jesus taught us through stories and the wisdom of the shared word. Teach us through your stories, that we may learn, grow, and love. For the sake of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen
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February 12, 2023