For the 7th Sunday after Pentecost in Year A, the Revised Common Lectionary assigns two portions of Matthew 13. We read Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 because these are two halves of the same story. Last week we had the parable of the sower and Jesus’ later explanation. This week we have the somewhat less famous parable of the wheat and the weeds and Jesus’ later explanation.
They are the only two parables that Jesus stops to interpret in detail, which to my mind adds to their importance
The stuff we skip this week is wonderful, so thankfully we’ll see some of it next week.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is darker than the parable of the sower. Instead of that radically generous farmer hurling seeds every which way, here the farmer plants the field in an ordinary way, but then, at night, his enemy sneaks in and plants nasty weeds.
You might have thought that weeds just grew up because… well, because weeds grow everywhere. They are a sign of the unwieldy superabundance of life. In real life, weeds are simultaneously amazing and infuriating in their omnipresence and persistence.
Not in this parable. In this story, the weeds are intentional. Somebody with wicked intent put them there to mess with the farmer’s plan.
Fortunately the farm hands are on the job. They spot the weeds. They ask if they can go pull them up.
Then comes the twist:
The farmer, who started out with a field of healthy soil and a burgeoning crop of wheat, says
The weeds must be allowed to stay. Pulling up the weeds is way too dangerous. Better to let wheat and weeds grow together, then separate them at harvest time.
And the story ends with that harvest, which sounds a bit scary:
…at harvest time I will tell the reapers,
Collect the weeds first
and bind them in bundles
to be burned,…
Matthew 13:30 NRSV
No promise of outer darkness, or weeping and gnashing of teeth, at least not until Jesus explains it with an apocalyptic twist in verse 41-42. But we get the point.
There are at least three ways to think about this passage. One comes from Jesus’ explanation, one comes from St. Augustine, and one comes from my own pondering.
Version 1: The World
We should definitely start with Jesus’ own explanation. It’s his parable, so he gets to decide. Right?
Once they leave the crowd and head into the house, Jesus tells his curious disciples that the parable is really an allegory. Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, everything in the story is directly symbolic of something else. You need to read the “something elses” in the sequence of the story to get the meaning.
- Farmer = Jesus.
- Field = world.
- Seeds = “children of the kingdom” (Can we say “disciples”?)
- Enemy weed planter = Devil.
- Weeds = Devil’s children.
- Farm hands = Angels
- Harvest = “the end of the age”
One of the questions I often like to ask of a parable is “Where do I fit in here?” It isn’t always helpful, but here it really is.
In Jesus’ explanation, you and I are the seeds Jesus has planted, hoping we’ll grow up to be the mature wheat that he wants us to be.
This isn’t about us being judgmental about who is and isn’t a child of the kingdom or a child of the devil. That discussion is between the angels and God.
The emphasis here is on the course of life in the world, prior to the final judgment. Our job is to grow, despite any problematic weeds that make it difficult to thrive. But it isn’t really about us.
(Notice that this relates a bit to last week’s parable, where a bunch of the seed landed in inhospitable places. Though admittedly, the seed there was the word, and we were the soil. The parallels are not exact.)
Maybe there is a sense where this story calls us to patience with the weeds, or perseverance in the midst of them. But mostly it is about giving us a bigger point of view, an insight into the dialogue between God and the angels.
Version 2: The Church
Though Jesus gave his clear and specific interpretation of his parable, Jesus’ understanding is not the one that has prevailed in the Church across the centuries.
The most famous interpreter of this parable was St. Augustine (d. 430), the theologically prolific and influential North African bishop.
One of the big controversies in the Church of Augustine’s day was known as “Donatism.” I’ll spare you the details, but after a notable time of persecution, the North African Church ended up with two lines of bishops leading separate flocks, each claiming to be the authentic Church.
During the persecution, some clergy had done things that seemed to compromise their faithfulness. Augustine and his colleagues were the heirs of the seemingly compromised clergy.
Others thought that a compromised clergy had lost their authority to do the Church’s work, so they set up separate and, at least relative to the persecution, purer line of clergy. These were the Donatists, named for one of their early leaders.
Augustine argued that the holiness of the Church depended on Christ, not on the objective purity of the clergy. Even a sinful priest or bishop could, in the name of Christ, offer the sacraments.
The Donatists were wrong to set up a separate Church and clergy based on the personal holiness of human beings. They were an unlawful schism in the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
One important biblical component to Augustine’s arguments was this parable of the wheat and the weeds. Augustine understood the field to be the Church, and the weeds to be the problem people —
all causes of sin and all evildoers
Matthew 13:41 NRSV
as Jesus put it in the explanation. The Church will always be a mixture of the personally holy and the personally sinful. We human beings are not to act as judge, jury, and executioner. We don’t get to pluck out the bad plants in our midst, and we don’t get to pick up ourselves and move to a better, purer field.
What do you make of Augustine doing this? He clearly left behind some elements of Jesus’ allegory. However, he faithfully did what we always need to do with Jesus’ parables: he made sense of it in light of it’s own elements and his own context.
This was enormously influential in the Western understanding of the Church. At least up until the rise of Protestantism, the Church maintained its unity amidst all kinds of diversity, and most of the time, in many ways, was patient with its sinners and problem people.
Notice I didn’t say “all of the time.” There were those pesky inquisitions and such. But for the ordinary Christian, the ordinary sinner, there was always grace to be found in the Church and its sacraments.
Notice I said “up until the rise of Protestantism.” We Protestants have quite forgotten Augustine’s lesson from the parable. We divide the Church for any old reason any old time, and often seem to think ourselves the better for it.
Personally, I think if we held to Augustine’s interpretation of this parable, we would be more prone to do the holy work of learning to truly be the Church, offering grace to sinners — like ourselves, and like those we disagree with or even despise.
Version 3: The Soul
I have gone on a bit long, but I don’t want to leave without suggesting a little imaginative exercise.
Let’s pretend that we weren’t a part of that conversation in the house where the disciples heard Jesus’ point-by-point interpretation.
Pretend instead that we were part of the crowd outside, hearing the story and nothing more. Maybe we remember the parable of the sower where the sense was that we were the soil, and the seeds were the Word.
So we drift away after our time listening to the great teacher. Jesus and his disciples go into his house, and we head home.
We roll the story around in our minds:
We are soil, the field.
Jesus has sown the word in us. It’s going to do its good work and bear fruit. That’s great.
But there is someone else at work, with bad motives. The “enemy” has snuck in when we weren’t looking and planted something else.
The enemy’s plants are not the Word. The enemy’s plants will compete for the nourishing soil, the refreshing rain, and the warm light of the sun. The enemy’s plants will bear fruit too — rotten fruit maybe, or poisonous.
What should a good and responsible soil do? Should we find some way to eject the weeds? Maybe call on those farm hands to help?
Or do I take it as an explanation of why I have such an odd mixture in my life? Some things shine with virtue like Christ’s own image. Other things in my life — well, they are frankly weedy, rotten, and poisonous.
Maybe this parable explains God’s own patience with my mixed character and behavior. God doesn’t just yank out all the problematic stuff. God doesn’t want to damage me or what is growing so well. God is busily, patiently, growing the good stuff.
Maybe I just need to be the best and most patient soil I can be. I’ll accept the seed. I’ll accept the water and the sun. That is I’ll welcome the Word, listening and meditating on it, seeking to let it thrive and grow. But I’ll also realize that I’m not the farmer. My role is patient and receptive.
I’d love to send you all my Monday Meditations, along with my other new articles and announcements. Scroll down to the black box with the orange button to subscribe, and they’ll arrive by email most Fridays.