Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus tells a second parable about sowing seeds, this time about two sowers — one who sows good seed to grow wheat, and the enemy who sows weeds among the wheat.

July 17, 2011

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

Jesus tells a second parable about sowing seeds, this time about two sowers — one who sows good seed to grow wheat, and the enemy who sows weeds among the wheat.

For this parable too, Jesus offers an allegorical interpretation to his disciples in private. Like the parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and weeds offers a perspective on opposition to Jesus, and also speaks more generally to the persistence of evil in the world.

Wheat and Weeds

The sower has sown good seed in his field for a healthy wheat harvest. But in the dark of night an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. “So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well” (13:24-26).

A bit of botany is helpful in understanding this parable. Matthew uses the Greek term zizania, which in modern botanical terms refers to the genus of wild rice grasses. What Matthew most likely refers to, however, is darnel or cockle, a noxious weed that closely resembles wheat and is plentiful in Israel. The difference between darnel and real wheat is evident only when the plants mature and the ears appear. The ears of the real wheat are heavy and will droop, while the ears of the darnel stand up straight.

When the householder’s slaves notice the weeds, their first response is to question the quality of the seed. “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” (13:27) When the master replies that an enemy has sown the weeds, the slaves are anxious to take care of the problem, to root those nasty weeds right out. But the master restrains his servants, saying that in gathering the weeds they would uproot the wheat along with them. He orders them to let both grow together until the harvest. Then he will send out his reapers to collect and burn the weeds and to gather the wheat into his barn (13:28-30).

In the clearest of terms, Jesus tells his disciples what almost every element of the parable represents: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels” (13:37-39). Jesus does not, however, say whom the slaves represent.

Perhaps the slaves represent the disciples, or anyone who hears this parable and its interpretation. Who among us has not questioned why God allows evil to grow and thrive? Who among us has not wanted to take matters into our own hands and root out the evil in our midst? The master stops the slaves from doing anything of the sort. For one thing, it is not so easy to tell the weeds from the wheat, and for another, their roots are intertwined below the ground. Rooting out the weeds would uproot the wheat as well, doing more damage to the crop than leaving the weeds to grow.

Jesus says that the reapers — not the slaves — will take care of this at harvest time. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:41-43). It is the angels — not any human beings — who are authorized to pluck out the weeds from the wheat.

Stumbling Blocks

We may find the dualism of this text troubling. It seems that there are two groups of people in the world — children of the kingdom and children of the evil one, wheat and weeds — and that their destinies are fixed from the beginning. Jesus says that at the end of the age, the angels will “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin (skandala) and all evildoers, and will throw them into the furnace of fire” (13:41).

Elsewhere Jesus warns those who put a stumbling block (skandalon) before any of the “little ones” that it would be better for them to have a millstone put around their neck and to be drowned in the sea (18:6-7). Similarly he warns that if your hand or foot or eye causes you to sin (skandalizo), it is better to cut it off or pluck it out and enter life blind or maimed, than to be thrown into the “hell of fire” with body intact (18:8-9).

This is hyperbolic language, of course, meant to jar us into recognizing the seriousness of anything that leads us or others into sin. It seems to suggest that a skandalon may be something within a person rather than the whole person. We know that it is not really our hand or foot or eye that causes us to sin. Sin comes from the human heart (kardia) (15:18-20), which in Greek refers to the inner self, the mind and will. No human is able to pluck out the inner self.

Perhaps when Jesus says that the angels will collect all skandala to burn in the fire, he means that everything within us that causes sin will be burned away. It doesn’t quite fit the logic of the parable, which seems to be talking about two groups of people and speaks of throwing all evildoers into the furnace of fire. Yet it seems congruent with other texts in Matthew about stumbling blocks.

Another text to consider is 16:23, where Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In spite of these strong words and Peter’s repeated failings, Jesus does not give up on Peter; rather, he entrusts the future of his mission to him and the rest of his bumbling disciples.

So perhaps we should not press the logic of the parable too literally. In the world we know, weeds do not become wheat. Yet Matthew’s story holds out hope even for those who stumble — yes, even for the one whom Jesus calls a stumbling block!

God’s Job — Not Ours

Perhaps there were some overzealous “weeders” in Matthew’s congregation who wanted to purify the community by rooting out the bad seed. This seems to be a temptation for followers of Jesus in every age. We whip ourselves into a weeding frenzy, certain that we know the difference between weeds and wheat, and that we know how to deal with the weeds!

Jesus’ parable makes clear that any attempt to root out the weeds will only do more damage to the crop. This has played out far too many times in congregations and denominations, with some determined to root out anyone who does not agree with the “right” interpretation of Scripture, liturgical practice, or stand on a particular issue. There are also those who pronounce judgment on people outside the church — on people of other faiths, for instance — declaring them to be destined for eternal damnation. Whether judgment is focused within the church or without, it does serious damage to the church and its mission.

Jesus makes clear that we simply cannot be certain who is “in” or who is “out.” In fact, God’s judgment about these matters will take many by surprise (7:21-23; 8:11-12; 21:31-32; 25:31-46). Thank God it is not up to us! We can leave the weeding to the angels, and get on with the mission Jesus has given us — proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God drawing near.