Commentary on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Last week’s text, the parable of the sower, focused on the yield produced by the seed that fell on good soil.
In contrast, the parable of the weeds (sometimes called ‘tares’) focuses on the judgment that will befall “all causes of sin and all evildoers” (Matthew 13:41). At first read, the parable of the weeds appears to describe a “them-us” situation, tempting us to fill in who are the evildoers and who the children of the kingdom (an easy trap in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic). A closer read, however, reveals that it is a cautionary tale, as well as one intended to offer encouragement.
In the parable, the one who sows the weeds among the wheat is called an “enemy.” We encounter “enemies” three other times in the Gospel of Matthew. The first time is in 5:43-44, where we are told to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This should give us pause: If these enemies are destined for a “furnace of fire” (13:42), why should we love them in the here and now? Further, God – the one who judges all of us – causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good (5:45), without distinction. What are we to make of this paradox?
The second reference to “enemies” is in 10:36, where Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out as sheep among wolves, where “one’s enemies will be members of one’s own household.” This too, may give us pause. What does it mean that deep divisions can occur even among those to whom we feel closest, including our church families? What would make us enemies of one another? And in such a situation, how do we know if we are the enemy or the good? What is it that determines which we are?
The final occurrence is in Matthew 22:44, where Jesus speaks of the prophecy of David with respect to the Messiah, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” (Psalm 110:1). Ultimately, the enemies who sow weeds among the wheat will be defeated. They will be cast out from the presence of God where they will weep and gnash their teeth (8:12, 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30)—in frustration at being “caught out”? In remorse for what they have done? In anger at being defeated by their enemy?
Taken together, these several references resist efforts to turn “enemies” into nameless opponents on the other side of a great divide. Rather, they point to something more complex, in which lines are blurred even as ultimate defeat is assured. The complexity increases when we turn to language in the explanation of the parable (Matthew 13:36-42).
In Matthew 13:38-39, the “enemy” who sows the weeds is identified as the devil (also called “Satan”), while the weeds are called “children of the evil one.” The devil appears three other times in the Gospel of Matthew. The first appearance is in Matthew 4, when Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to be tempted by the devil (see also Matthew 6:13). This is a defining moment in the Gospel, in which Jesus must decide whom he will serve: the devil or God, the kingdoms of the world or the kin(g)dom of heaven.
Jesus faces temptation again in Matthew 16, when Peter questions the necessity of the journey to the cross. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23). The very idea that Jesus’ must resist temptation is worth reflecting on. So is the realization that Jesus can be tempted by one of his own disciples.
The final reference to the “devil” is found at the conclusion to the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus turns to the goats, who wonder when they had seen the Lord naked, or thirsty, in prison, or in the guise of a stranger, and condemns them to the eternal fires prepared for the devil (25:41). The goats had thought that they were followers of Jesus; but Jesus’ says their actions (or lack thereof) show them to be “children of the evil one” (see also Matthew 7:21-23).
Other verses in the Gospel point to additional ways in which “children of the evil one” reveal themselves: e.g. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37); and “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (5:19); and “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (18:6).
You would think that the difference between weeds and wheat would be obvious. In the parable, the slaves of the householder notice the difference right away. So why does the householder delay? Is it because we, the servants, are too hasty to judge which is which? Or because we are not in a position to judge (for example, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” [7:1])? Or is it to extend God’s grace still longer? Or is it to allow us time to reflect on whether we are wheat or weeds?
In the end, says the parable, judgment does come, when wheat and weeds are separated. Does that make us uncomfortable or fill us with hope, or a little of both? Justice denied can give way to a rage that burns like a furnace of fire. It can cause us to whither and cease to bear fruit. It can even lead us to become bitter enemies of one another and of God. In the end, judgement is necessary and important. Not as a means of self-satisfaction; rather, as a continuing process of discernment in the here and now.