“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first, and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:27b-30)
Today’s parable, is an agricultural tale that Jesus tells to address the problem of evil in the church. The parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel, which may signal ongoing trouble in his congregation. Matthew writes from Antioch somewhere between 80-90 AD, which is after the Jewish persecution by Rome and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. At that time Antioch was largely a community of dispersed Jewish Christians. This shift undoubtedly led to a struggle with religious diversity in the church.
In any case, this parable can be read in at least three different ways - as it applies to Jesus, as it applies to the church, and as it applies to the future of the whole world. It should come as no surprise that Jesus would breach the subject of evil, after all, he has been under attack from the religious authority almost from the beginning of his ministry. This attack intensifies as he enters Jerusalem that Jesus knows his days are numbered. The Pharisees are plotting against him and, ultimately, they are the ones who bring him up on charges before Pilate.
Jesus begins this way: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” When asked where the weeds came from the gardener says, “An enemy has done this.” So, Jesus makes it clear that the problems he’s having spreading the gospel are not the result of some defect within the message itself, rather it’s specifically because of enemy action. The gospel has its opposition - there are people who obstruct God’s ways and the cross is proof of this. Jesus did not commit a crime deserving of crucifixion and yet he ended up on the cross regardless... and had prior knowledge that this would be so.
Now, the second way to read this parable is from the perspective of the early church. Matthew tells this parable because there are weeds among the wheat of his own congregation. The church is not unlike the field in the parable. And Augustine of Hippo probably had his mind upon this parable when he described the church as a “corpus permixtum” ... a mixed body. The great reformers of the 16th century also understood this very well, which is why they held such strong views on the sinfulness of mankind, and insisted that we are saved only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and not by our own works (or merit). And to this day, Presbyterians begin worship with a prayer of confession - to assure that we are under no illusions when it comes to our need of grace for our salvation. The problem is, some people in the pew accept God’s grace and live into it, while others brush it aside and continue to live unchanged.
Perhaps most revealing is how this parable speaks to the future of the world, which is how it’s interpreted in the second half of today’s reading. This explanation is given after the crowds have dispersed and Jesus and his disciples have entered the house. Jesus explains the parable as an allegory - each character or object in the parable represent something else. The farmer who sows good seed is Jesus (obviously), and the one who sows weeds in the wheat is the devil. The field into which the seed is sown is the world. The harvesters of the crop at the end of time are the angels of God, who will throw the weeds into the fire (hell) but will gather up and save the wheat - namely the children of God.
The thing to remember about this interpretation is who Jesus gives it to: namely, the disciples - those faithful to him and to the gospel. His interpretation is meant to reassure the disciples that the future belongs to God who will deal with the weeds – separating it from the wheat and throwing it into the fire. This interpretation says to the disciples, ‘God will sort out the good from the bad and will deal with the enemies of the gospel when he comes in judgement.” So be encouraged and don’t make your enemies the focus of your ministry. Instead, get on with the crucial business of loving your neighbors and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with people.
This does not mean that sin and sinners simply be ignored within the church. In fact, there are instances when it should not be, indeed when it’s illegal to do so!
For example, Christian churches are required by the law to report all allegations of sexual abuse to the police. If a child or minor claims to have been sexual abused then it is the minister and/or elder’s duty to report that to the presbytery and to the police. A failure to do otherwise is punishable in both civil and ecclesiastical courts. The reason for this policy of course, is that sexual abuse cases often were ignored in the past, and at times even covered up. The damage from such practice was catastrophic to the people.
So, this passage does not negate the church invoking its ecclesial discipline to handle any charge. Indeed, our denomination has an entire section in the Book of Order devoted to church discipline - the process of handling charges against an individual or group. And the word discipline is meant in the broadest sense here - not as “punishment,” but “how we are to live.” It’s discipline the way we say an athlete is disciplined in their sport. They act a certain way and that is what makes them good at their sport. So, it is in the faith also.
For the most part, however, today’s parable encourages restraint and patience when dealing with the “weeds” that grow among us. We are encouraged to keep our eyes on Christ and on our focus on the sharing of the gospel of love. Why? Because the greatest contributor to evil in our midst is not hate - not a dark heart – but fear. People who fear run off in all the wrong directions... they do all the wrong things and they often take others with them. Think about it: when people fear a scarcity of resources, they get greedy. When people fear those of different color or sexual orientation - they grow prejudiced about them. When people fear for their physical lives, they grow distrustful and buy protection. When people fear, they run around like Henny Penny saying to whoever will listen: “the sky is falling!”
Ultimately, this parable says, “do not fear - keep loving your neighbor, and sharing the gospel because the sky isn’t falling.” God is keeping the sky right where it belongs. Continue to keep your focus in the hopes that the fearful person will come around. And know if they don’t or won’t, that God will handle things at harvest time.
The opposite of fear is faith or trust. And it’s Jesus who says: “do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid, trust in God, trust also in me...” Jesus says, “do not fear” many times in the New Testament. The phrase occurs almost 120 times throughout the bible! In its own way, this parable is saying it again. The only questions then, is who are we going to listen to - Henny Penny, or Jesus?