Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

What seemed to be a threat becomes a source of fuel

field of wheat
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July 23, 2023

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

This Gospel reading presents the second of seven parables in Matthew 13, as in the parable of the sower, seeds, and soils (13:3-8) featuring the activity of farming. Like that parable, this one begins with the act of planting. If sowing seeds is complicated in verses 3-8 by soil conditions that hinder growth, the problem in verses 24-30 concerns the intrusion of a hostile force. This field owner has an enemy who introduces weeds into the field. As the weeds take over the field (corresponding to the thorns of verse 7), will the crop of grain be ruined? Even those of us who do not farm but raise vegetables in a garden know well the challenge of weeds!

But this isn’t just about weeds. The parable’s introduction relates it to the character of “heaven’s reign” (my translation), as will each of the following five parables (verse 31, mustard seed; verse 33, leaven; verse 44, treasure in a field; verse 45, pearl; verse 47, fishing net). As a parable, this short story works metaphorically; it engages listeners’ imaginations as we puzzle out the “something more” to which the story is pointing. True to Matthew’s way of working with parables as a vehicle of teaching, what happens in this field reveals something of the character of the reign of God, the saving presence of God at work within the world.

The plot: Separating good and bad (but when?)

We survey a field recently planted with good grain. The field must belong to a wealthy man; after all, he relies on enslaved persons to do the hard work of cultivation and another crew to harvest the crop. That is a problem for us: exploitative, forced labor is serving the interests of a wealthy owner. This situation was common, though, within the Roman imperial economy. The parable therefore paints a picture of economic arrangements that would not have seemed strange. 

We anticipate a good crop; the plot thickens, however, when the “good grain” must compete for space and nutrients with weeds that appear unexpectedly. The weeds, zizania, resemble wheat and thus pose a dilemma for those who work the land.1 Once it is established that the presence of these weeds is the result of a deliberate, hostile act (an “enemy” did this, verse 28), shouldn’t the weeds be swiftly removed? Gardening 101 would surely commend such an approach. But not this time, and this is the key point Jesus scores with the parable: the field owner meets the urgency of the workers with the counsel to wait. Not now, he says; let the wheat and the weeds grow together (verse 29). There is time enough. At the harvest, the weeds will be removed and burned: what seemed to be a threat becomes a source of fuel! The wheat can then be safely harvested. Win-win!

The parable, like so many in Matthew’s Gospel, paints a realistic picture of the world. Good and bad, constructive and destructive are inextricably bound together. (In Romans 7:15-21, Paul observes that even the good we know and intend can produce harm we scarcely imagined.) Helpful and harmful are mixed up all around us, and indeed within us—as persons and as communities.2

How far will dualism take us?

No rose-colored glasses for Jesus the storyteller of Matthew’s Gospel—nor should we fail to reckon seriously with the forces that (sometimes systematically) harm and destroy, whatever name we assign them. Yet the question arises: Who is on which side in this struggle? And another follows: When will it all get worked out so that God’s will may be accomplished on earth as in heaven (Matthew 6:10)?

The allegorical explanation of the parable that Matthew adds (13:36-43) shifts the accent from patient trust in the working of divine justice to apocalyptic warning. Emphasis falls on the grim judgment that awaits those who cause others to fall, who serve purposes that are evil and lawless (verses 38, 41-42). Is the dualism of good and bad that drives the plot of the parable—even more, the harsh dualism of the allegorical explanation—the last word it has for us? To be sure, there is a happy note for the righteous, who will “shine like the sun” in the divine realm (verse 43). Yet are the faithful to take delight in the prospect that the unrighteous will ultimately be excluded from God’s domain (verse 42)?

Apocalyptic dualism like this has a point. In a world like Matthew’s, or ours, experience gives rise to theodicy: Why do harmful or destructive things happen, even to those who seek to be faithful? Will good prevail? Will God’s reign come in its fullness? The parable gives us courage to live with these hard questions, as it commends patient trust in the life-giving work of God in the world and insists on faithful living out of the disciple’s vocation in the meantime. Trust the present, and the future, to God.

For all the harshness of the parable’s verdict on the unrighteous, Matthew tempers the dualism.

  1. Because the world—the faith community too—encompasses both good and bad, none can presume to be good while others are not.
  2. Because the verdict belongs not to us but to God, and God is patient to allow the mix, the complexity, the ambiguity, the people of God are not to condemn others.

Still, Matthew’s robust emphasis on divine—and human—justice (righteousness) may prompt us to dig into these parabolic weeds once more. Oppressive evil needs to be named and vigorously opposed. Silence, neutrality, or failure to act in the face of oppression only serves the interests of the oppressor.3 We can’t presume to be always in the right, but when we witness injustice, patient waiting from the sidelines for God to make things right is not a faithful option. Some weeds are not okay.


  1. R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary, New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2021), 257.
  2. Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 300-301.
  3. Wisdom drawn from Desmond Tutu; see Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 19.