Second Sermon in a Three-Part Series: Parables – Stories that Read Us
July 23, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here.
[Jesus] put before them another parable:
“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.
So when the plants came up and bore grain,
then the weeds appeared as well.
And the slaves of the householder came and said to him,
‘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.'”
Then he left the crowds and went into the house.
And his disciples approached him, saying,
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”
He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;
the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom;
the weeds are the children of the evil one,
and the enemy who sowed them is the devil;
the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.
Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire,
so will it be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,
and they will throw them into the furnace of fire,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
Let anyone with ears listen! – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself, or you know someone who has. I hear it all the time, as people come here looking for help when they’ve reached the end of their rope. Imagine a young mother losing her job when she misses too much work because her kids were too sick to take to day care.
Without income, she can’t pay her bills, and is threatened with having her utilities shut off, or being evicted from her home. On top of that, the car breaks down, and she has no money for repairs. Without a car, she can’t look for a new job. One thing piles on top of another until she is overwhelmed with hardship. She feels victimized, as if the world is out to get her. “How can God let this happen?” she asks me. “What have I done to deserve this?”
Such a moment isn’t always the perfect moment to point out that actually, none of us are good, all of us deserve far worse than we get out of life. We are all broken sinners. And it isn’t usually a good time to go into a long explanation of theodicy, that fancy theological word for the question, “Why does God allow evil in the world?” People like this young mother don’t come to me looking for a judgmental sermon. They come looking for a glimmer of hope.
The people who gathered on that beach to hear Jesus tell them stories weren’t much different. They had experienced oppression from Rome. Even among their own people, they had watched the rich get richer while the poor got poorer. Life wasn’t fair. How could God allow his people to continue to suffer, while evil seemed to flourish around them? When would Messiah deliver them from this miserable existence, and bring judgment to Israel’s oppressors?
And here was Jesus, looking and sounding very much like he might just be the One, telling them stories about farming! Who cares about weed control, when your world is falling down around your ears? “Let anyone with ears listen,” Jesus says, and we are reminded that these parables are more than entertaining stories.
They are stories that read us. How we hear them depends on the condition of our hearts and minds. Wherever we may be in our journey of faith, these stories speak directly to us in our current circumstance.
There are many ways to interpret the parable of the weeds. At its most basic level, this story might be about how difficult it is to tell weeds from wheat. Bearded darnel is “an annoying weed that looks very much like wheat, especially before maturity, and can carry a poisonous fungus. If it is harvested and ground together with wheat, the resulting flour is spoiled.” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent, 198.)
As the grain matures, it’s easy to tell the slender heads of the weeds from the fuller heads of wheat, but by then, it’s too late to uproot one without damaging the other. If we are part of the crowd, we simply hear that pulling weeds can cause more harm than good, destroying the very crops we want to harvest. But this story is probably more than just a farming tip for weed control.
It’s the disciples who get the fuller explanation, once Jesus has entered the house. But they have to ask! Jesus spells out the metaphors that matter, identifying the main characters in this story. We might get side-tracked by the things Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t identify the servants of the landowner, for example, or explain why the enemy goes away after sowing weeds among the wheat.
But it brings up the question, Who tends the field, after all? The servants of the owner continue to care for it, or they wouldn’t have noticed the weeds popping up. But the enemy who sowed the weeds just leaves. (v 25). We probably shouldn’t make too much of this, but I think it might be good to remember that the field is God’s, and God will continue to nurture and care for his kingdom, while the devil does nothing to support or care for the seeds he sows. Our criminal justice system is full of people who have been entrapped, and then abandoned by the Evil One.
There are also varying interpretations of the field itself – while Jesus says it is “the world” some consider the later explanation, where the angels collect the causes of evil and all evildoers “out of the kingdom” as an indication that this is really about evil growing alongside faithful members of the church. But Jesus does not equate God’s kingdom with the church (Snodgrass, 214).
Nor should we get so self-centered that we consider this story to be about the evil that lurks in each of us, as individuals. Paul covers that in Romans 7, as we heard a couple of weeks ago: “I do the evil things I don’t want to do, and I don’t do the good things that I want to do. I’m wretched!” (paraphrase Romans 7:19)
This brings us back to those troubling weeds. Why shouldn’t we pull them, if we see evil choking out the good around it? Why does Jesus say, “leave them be until the harvest”? Depending on how this parable reads us, we might find some plausible explanations for leaving weeds alone.
Sometimes, weeds are too big to be pulled – their roots have intertwined with the roots of the good plants, and pulling up one will also uproot the other.
Sometimes, what you thought was a weed, is actually a good plant, and what you thought was a good plant is actually a weed. They aren’t always easy to distinguish from one another.
We aren’t good at judging between wheat and weeds – that’s God’s job anyway. And that brings us back to that first question: why doesn’t God do something now about the evil we see everywhere? Where is judgment when you need it?
Jesus explains it to us. In fact, this is one of only three parables for which Jesus gives a detailed explanation in Matthew’s gospel. We heard the first one last week, about the good seed spread lavishly on four types of soil. Next week, we will hear the parable of the net, along with some shorter parables about the kingdom of God. This parable of the weeds has something in common with each of the other two – we hear the connection with the first story in the seeds that are sown. And like the one we will hear next week, this parable also teaches us about judgment. Jesus is clear about this. Judgment will come, and evil will be destroyed – but not yet.
Theologians like to come up with fancy long names for ideas and doctrines, but this one has a pretty simple name, one that is easy to understand without having to go to seminary. It’s called the “already-not yet” reality of Christ’s kingdom. The kingdom has already broken into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, and is already at work among us through the Holy Spirit. But the kingdom has not yet reached its completion. The kingdom is becoming – like a field, like seed..
Klyne Snodgrass writes,“…this parable deals with the mystery of the kingdom, the act that the kingdom is present, but in an unexpected way…. in this parable the question is “how can this be the kingdom if evil is still present? “ Contained in this question are several others: [Why do people reject Jesus? Why is there sill oppression? Why is the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous not happening? Why is judgment not occurring?] (Snodgrass, 206)
“While the parable may have implications for patience or serve as a warning, its primary teaching is that the kingdom is present despite the presence of evil, and that evil will be dealt with at the judgment.178 … The kingdom has arrived and is like a field with both wheat and weeds which will one day be separated.” (Snodgrass, 212)
“The parable … helps address our consternation that evil is still at work, that life is not fair, even though Christ and his kingdom have come. God is not the only one at work, and not all actions in this world can be attributed to God. God often gets blamed for every event that occurs, but he is not the cause of every event. …
The parable is also a reminder that Christians should be neither surprised at nor unaware of the fact that evil is still active at the same time that God’s reign is. The kingdom comes with limitless grace in the midst of an evil world.
The issue is … one of identity. … If we take our identity from the kingdom of limitless grace, how will that identity be lived out? God is still sowing a people, and we are called to respond. The challenge “let the one who has ears hear” in v. 43 is a call for discernment, decision, and right living.” (Snodgrass, 214-215)
How does this parable read you? Are you growing in Christ, so that nothing can uproot you? Or do you find yourself judging others? Are you having trouble telling the weeds from the grain?
When is it not time to pull weeds? Ever. It’s not our job. Judgment is God’s job. God will take care of removing evil in God’s own good time.
We live in the meantime, in the already-not yet. The kingdom is becoming like. … and we are part of that kingdom. The kingdom comes with limitless grace in the midst of an evil world.
What is our job? To grow into good grain, firmly planted, flourishing in the kingdom, bearing abundantly –sometimes 100, sometime, 60, sometimes 30 fold, shining like the sun in the kingdom of our heavenly Father.