The parable of the weeds
Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
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Many of you will know that I’m not a very good or keen gardener and so I’m always quite struck when I do my doorstep visits of how many of the congregation keep their lawns and their gardens so immaculate. Not wishing to single out any particular person or a garden out, but Ruth and John know how much I covet their garden. Aside from the manicured lawn and beautifully kept flower beds, I must always feast my eyes on the fantastic view from the bottom of their garden, over fields and meadows reaching far into the distance over to the Peak District. The reality, of course, is that I can’t even keep my own patch of grass under control. It’s about 20 foot by 20 foot, and I grudgingly mow it when I judge that the grass is becoming too long. Recently, I’ve noticed that there seem to be more weeds in the grass, and so I’ve got into the habit of just mowing the weeds down with the grass, whilst not dealing with the weed problem itself. John and Ruth to the rescue with a bottle of stuff that removes weeds from the lawn. We’ll see what occurs this week when the grass grows after its most recent cut last week.
There’s a similar story with a different viewpoint about weeds in the Parable of the Weeds in the parables of Jesus, a series that we begin today, which might offer us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is like. How, as the bride of Christ, we as church might reflect this. In these next weeks, we will be looking at some of the parables that Jesus taught in Matthew 13. A number of them begin with the intriguing phrase, “The Kingdom of God is like —”. In Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, Jesus refers to the kingdom as the Kingdom of God. If, as suspected, Matthew’s Gospel was written for mainly a Jewish audience about Jesus the Messiah, the word God or Yahweh could not be uttered, so this is replaced with the word heaven. Matthew talks about the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom of Heaven. Just to be clear, in the Parables of the Kingdom, Jesus is not talking about heaven as what Tom Wright would call the final postmortem destination of God’s people, i.e. heaven when we die, as we often think about it. We’re talking, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray. That is to say the arrival of God’s heavenly rule on Earth. On Earth itself, the presence of Jesus heralds in. In Matthew 13 there are two series of Kingdom parables. The first focuses upon the nature of the Kingdom, whilst the second talks about the value of the Kingdom. For example, the Pearl of Great Price that I think Martin is speaking about in two or three weeks time and the joy that comes from being part of that Kingdom. Last week’s second Sunday, looked at the famous Parable of the Sower. Today we follow on with that next parable, that of the weeds or the tares, and Brenda, my mum, is going to un-mute herself, hopefully, and is going to read to us from Matthew 13:24 onwards.
Brenda: The parable of the weeds
Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.
‘The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”
‘“An enemy did this,” he replied.
‘The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”
‘“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: first collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”’
Matthew 13:24–29 (NIVUK)
The parable of the weeds explained
Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.’
He answered, ‘The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
Matthew 13:36–43 (NIVUK)
Paul: Thank you. We imagine we are part of a crowd on the beach below the hills where we might live on a patch of ground that we tend, sowing enough seeds to grow crops for the family with perhaps a little extra to sell. It’s a simple life where the trust of the faith community is at the heart of it. As non-theologians, we think we can grasp what Jesus is teaching as he sits in the boat just off the shoreline. Jesus is talking about stuff that we know, we get it, the day to day stuff of planting seeds and harvesting. He’s also talking about the enemy who comes in the night to sow seeds among the good crop that we’re tilling. A bit like what Jesus teaches in John 10. Enemies coming to plant weeds amongst the crops. It happens. Someone wants you not to live, not to eat. They sow weeds into your potential harvest, leaving you destitute, unable to eat. It’s a bad thing to do. There’s no way that you can just pop down to the supermarket.
The first thing I noticed about this parable is that even in the loveliest best-tended gardens, like John and Ruth’s, I’m sure if we looked hard enough, there would be a few weeds because there are no fields or gardens on the planet, where only crops or flowers grow. There will always be weeds. Jesus makes a number of points in this parable. We often make the mistake of believing our own understanding of it instead of His. We often listen to His explanation and it seems quite straightforward, but let’s examine it in context rather than leaping to the ultimate conclusion that this is all about those who do and those who don’t get into heaven in the end.
As a Jewish rabbi who believes and teaches that he is the promised chosen Messiah foretold in the Old Testament, he has various ears listening to hear. Some will be religious leaders of the law, who want to ensure that he’s teaching to the letter. Even there might be some revolutionaries, Pharisees perhaps, wondering if this man’s teaching is going anywhere. In amongst the mix, of course, there will be the ordinary Joe and Josephine public who wants to know whether this kingdom has anything for them, not just in future, but now. Today, we often see parables of how the sower will reap the harvest at the end of the age, at the end of time, on the day of judgment. The Jewish people would be looking forward to that day of judgment because they knew that they would be safe. They had God on their side, and they ’d shrug their shoulders as if to say, “Well, if you’re not a Jew, if you’re a Gentile, you haven’t got God on your side,” and they shrug their shoulders, they’d say, “You bet on the wrong God, no place in that kingdom for you.”
Even today, we look at this parable and, similarly, the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 24, and pray and hope that we are a sheep, a good and faithful person, recognized as such by God. We hope and we pray that we are the good crop and not the weeds, fearing those we think might be classed as a weed to be chopped down and thrown into the fiery furnace. What if we miss out on a whole chunk of the story that alters our outlook and keeps the context of Jesus’s original hearers? Because they would have known the binary language of good and evil, of sin and righteousness, and of wheat and weeds. When we think of our own lives, are they so binary? Are they so black and white? Are our life experiences mixed together, good and bad, positive and negative, hopeful and hopeless, all bagged together, rather than nicely placed with good experience here is here and bad there? These things aren’t so black and white as we might have first thought. As we pointed out earlier, weeds are always in the mix with the lovely plants. As one commentator put it, “Weeds are always mixed with the divine seed.” Who of us can say, even as Christians, that we are perfectly respectable and have no skeletons in our closets or to keep the topic, no weed in our gardens?
In his book called “The Waiting Father,” Helmut Thielicke asks,
How many a father, how many a mother, has had the same experience. They have reared their child carefully, surrounding them with a clean atmosphere, cherished them with love, and prayed with them … at night. And, despite all this, something else begins to grow. Strange things seem to happen. They see stirrings and impulses they do not want to see at all. Another influence comes beaming in from another altogether different quarter, and they can do nothing about it.
That’s exactly what’s occurring in the parable here. Along with the wheat seed from the sower comes the weed seed from the enemy. What should be done? Perhaps those revolutionaries amongst the listeners, perhaps even us, might say, “Quick, pull out the weeds now, and let the good plants grow.” We understand the urgency of the servants wanting to protect the crops and yet we get a surprising response from the farmer, “Let both grow until harvest. Leave the decision. Let’s wait.” The truth is we’ve all got weeds. What if our good wheat is grown in tandem with bad weeds? That’s the way of the world and we don’t seem to be able to shield ourselves from it in the way that many have been shielding from coronaviruses by staying at home and not letting any bad germs get past the door. Maybe we have let the weeds grow in tandem with the wheat to prevent the wheat from getting trampled on or mistakenly picked for weeds. If this happens, the harvest later on will be incomplete. Smaller yields, some of it might even end up in the fiery furnace. Thielicke says evil is within us because our great adversary is in the world. “But,” he reminds us, “our fight is not against ‘flesh and blood’ but against the secret ruler of the world.” In other words, our good stuff is mixed up with the bad. Sometimes it’s not always easy to know the difference between the weeds and the wheat. Perhaps the servant in the parable can see the difference as well as the farmer, or perhaps the servant can’t distinguish between the two as well as they’d hoped.
We have a God who is willing to wait for us. We have a patient farmer God, whose salvation plan was never operation throw out. What about those on the margins? The temple hangers-on in Jesus’ time. Those who come to church for what they can get out of it, the not-good-enoughs, the hypocrites, and all the other wobblers in Christendom: are they to be thrown out in order to keep the small amount of saints? If we thought of it like this, does it mean that we would rob those people of the chance to at least hear God’s Word and maybe take it to heart? “How much more merciful,” says Thielicke, “and understanding is God compared with us, how patient he is and how long are the great seasons of grace He grants to His seeds!” The Kingdom of Heaven is like this in spite of the way we see the world in all its fallen-ness and wrongdoing and imperfections. A patient farmer whose sadness is as real as ours in the midst of all the goodness that is around too. This patient farmer does not pull up the wheat because it’s not yet ready for harvest. Yet he sees the struggling plants as the weeds threaten them. He goes through the hardship of choosing not yet to cut down the weeds because, who knows, the wheat might become the stronger, the weed might yet be changed. The weeds might not actually be weeds at all and turn out to yield a good crop at harvest time. Who dares to separate the wheat and the tares? Who dares to separate and root out? Thielicke says, “Must we not rather love, in order that in this very venture of love we may learn to realize that when wheat is sown even in the most weed-ridden lives and that God is waiting and yearning for it to grow?” Maybe this Parable of the Kingdom reminds us that in God’s Kingdom, it’s a crazy mixed-up place where mercy triumphs over judgment, but to let God allow us the long patience that awaits the day, and all its surprises.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like…. Well, it’s like a lot of things, but it’s not what we thought it might have been at first hearing. This account might have encouraged Jesus’s original hearers. Maybe they weren’t for the fiery furnace after all. Maybe just because they were God’s chosen people they still had to mix with the world. Maybe God was more just and gives everyone second chances at growth more than we ever gave Him credit for.
In closing, Jesus talks about the weeds being thrown into a fiery furnace, perhaps harking back to the story in Daniel were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace for not bowing down to the statue of the king. I think he would have known this massive story about how God rescued them. I think people listening would have known that. I wonder why he mentioned the fiery furnace in this context. Is it about God rescuing his people again? Is that what this parable is telling the people once more, that God is still in the business of rescuing, even if we can’t see it amongst the weeds of the world? Jesus ends his explanation of the parable with a familiar, “Anyone who has ears, let them hear.” This is a call to a response, to act, not just to wait until the day of judgment. This Kingdom isn’t far off, it’s now, and we have a part to play within it.
I shall leave us with a question to ponder as we go into our final song. How can we be part of God’s rescue plan where we are here and now? A thought, perhaps sobering for us as we listen to our final song this morning. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.”
Thielecke, Helmut. Trans. John W. Doberstein. The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus. (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2015).
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