Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

After explaining the parable of the seed and different types of ground, Matthew’s Jesus again employs an agricultural setting for the parable concerning weeds sown and growing among the wheat crop.

Jacob's Ladder
Marc Chagall. Jacob's Ladder, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

July 20, 2014

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

After explaining the parable of the seed and different types of ground, Matthew’s Jesus again employs an agricultural setting for the parable concerning weeds sown and growing among the wheat crop.

The audience seems to comprise both disciples, the audience for 13:18-23, and crowds (13:34, 36).

Jesus introduces the parable with a statement of comparison. The “empire of the heaven” is compared to the situation narrated in the parable (13:24). This introduction directs the audience to think about the following, unusual rather than familiar, agricultural situation as providing insight into the workings of God’s empire among human beings.

The parable’s scenario is initially similar to that of the previous parable in that it involves a sower sowing seed (13:3-9). The introduction stresses that this sower sows “good seed in his field.” We subsequently learn that this sower is a person of some wealth and status, a “householder” who owns slaves and land (13:27). That he would be sowing his own field rather than his slaves is unusual. This is the first of several atypical dimensions in the parable that function to gain the audience’s attention, to impart insight, and to prepare for the subsequent interpretation.

As with the previous parable, the seed experiences difficulties. This time, the difficulties involve not the types of ground on which it falls, but the actions of an enemy person. “While everyone was asleep,” this enemy sows different seed, namely weeds or literally the common and poisonous “darnel,” among the wheat (13:25). Just how such an action requiring much seed and during the night, is possible is not questioned. Slaves report to their owner or “Master” – the wealthy “householder” who owns land and slaves — the presence of the weeds growing among the wheat (13:27).

Further unrealistic features appear in the story. The owner somehow knows that an enemy has sown the darnel among the wheat, rather than recognizing that darnel is a common plant that inevitably grows most places (13:28). And when the slaves propose removing the darnel from the field (the usual practice), the owner tells them to leave the wheat and the weeds growing together until harvest time (13:29-30).

These unusual agricultural practices draw our attention to these dimensions of the parable and their subsequent interpretation about God’s empire. At verses 30-31, Matthew’s Jesus ends the parable and immediately begins another. In fact, he tells two more parables before offering an interpretation of the wheat and the weeds. He is prompted to do so by the disciples (13:36).

Jesus’ interpretation treats most of the parable as an allegory. He draws one-on-one correspondences between aspects of the parable and dimensions of the empire of the heavens that he manifests among human beings. As in the parable of the sower, he identifies the sower as himself, the Son of Man. The activity of sowing depicts his ministry of proclaiming and demonstrating (in healings and exorcisms for example) the presence of God’s empire or saving presence (1:21-23; 4:17). Jesus has also been identified previously as a householder or “master of the house” (10:25, the same word), as “Master” or Lord (8:2, 6, 8; 12:8), and as having slaves, an image for his disciples (10:24-25).

Jesus has identified himself previously as the Son of Man in relation to his itinerant lifestyle (8:20) and his determination of how to honor the Sabbath (12:8). In this parable, verse 41 indicates that Son of Man denotes Jesus’ role as the eschatological judge. This dimension of the Son of Man reflects the figure of Daniel 7:13-14 whom God appoints as an agent of God’s purposes and rule after ending the empires of the world. The evoking of this tradition here puts his “sowing” activity and its impact into the perspective of the final judgment and end of the world’s empires. This dimension was missing from the earlier parable in 13:3-9.

The field where Jesus sows is identified as “the world,” the realm of everyday political, economic, social, and religious life dominated by Roman imperial power. Jesus’ activity invades this sphere of empire to sow “good seed” concerning another empire (“the word about the empire” 13:19). In its midst, he forms a distinct community. This community comprises “the children of the empire” who live lives shaped by God’s empire and committed to doing the will of God (12:50).

But this community lives in contested space and is set in antithetical relation to those identified as “children of the evil one,” sown by the enemy, the devil (13:38-39). They coexist until “the harvest … the end of the age.” In the judgment the Son of Man divides “the righteous” from “all causes of sin and evildoers” (particularly the Jerusalem-based leaders who resist Jesus). He burns the weeds, and the righteous enjoy an existence marked by light and life, God’s saving presence (4:15-16). The parable ends with the familiar appeal to discern the significance of Jesus’ words and live appropriately in the present toward this future.

While the parable’s symbolism is readily accessible, some interpreters are rightly disturbed by its analysis and implications. For example, the parable’s presentation of two antithetical types of plants presents a view of human beings that hardly reflects the complexity of human life.

While some readily divide the world neatly into “Christians” (the righteous) and “non-Christians” (evildoers), both the Gospel and our experience tell us that such categories are fluid, co-existent, and difficult to discern at best. Most of us, including church-goers, comprise both plant-types and are not “purely” one or the other. In 12:50, Jesus declared his family to comprise those who do “the will of my Father in heaven,” a descriptor that might embrace a wide and surprising variety of people.

Labeling people as children of the devil hardly facilitates our recognizing all people as bearing the image of God. The parable warns us that now is not the time to be presuming to know final outcomes. Nor can we forget that God’s infinite and indiscriminate mercy — celebrated in 5:45 — plays little place in the parable.