Second Sermon in a Three-Part Series: Parables – Stories that Read Us
July 19, 2020 – Pentecost +7A
Watch a video of this sermon from July 23, 2017 here.
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 often from people who are looking for help when they’ve reached the end of their rope.
In today’s parable, Jesus is still talking about planting, but he switches his metaphors a bit from the parable we heard last week. Something bad happens to a good farmer. Let’s see how this parable reads us.
[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
A few years ago, I met a young mother who had lost her job. She’d missed too much work when her kids were too sick to take to day care. Without income, she couldn’t pay her bills, and was worried that her utilities would be shut off, or she would be evicted from her home.
On top of that, her car had broken down, and she had no money for repairs. Without a car, she couldn’t look for a new job. One thing had piled on top of another until she was overwhelmed with hardship. She felt like the world was out to get her. “How can God let this happen?” she asked me. “What have I done to deserve this?”
Such a moment isn’t always the perfect time 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?
Yet here was Jesus, looking and sounding very much like he might just be the One for whom they’d been waiting, 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.”
As the grain matures, it’s easy to tell the slender heads of bearded darnel 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.
The disciples ask for an explanation, once they are alone with Jesus, and he 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. They must have been taking care of the field, or they wouldn’t have noticed the weeds popping up. But the enemy who sowed the weeds just leaves (v 25), and Jesus doesn’t explain this either.
We probably shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with what Jesus doesn’t say, 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.
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 the church with God’s kingdom.
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!” (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 pretty good reasons to leave 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?
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. Judgment will come, and evil will be destroyed – but not yet.
This is 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 seed planted in a field.
We might wonder, “How can this be the kingdom of God, if evil is still present?” And that might raise even more questions: Why do we still see racial inequality? Why is there still poverty? Why does disease still claim so many lives? Where is God in the suffering? Why isn’t judgment happening? Why do people reject Jesus?
As Christians, we should not be surprised that evil is still active, even while God’s reign is already present. “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?”
How does this parable read you? Are you centered in Christ, so that nothing can uproot you? Is your identity grounded in God’s limitless grace, and are you willing to extend that grace to others? Can anyone tell whether you are wheat or weeds, by the way you live your life? Do you let God be the judge of who belongs in God’s kingdom?
Like those workers in the field, we may think it’s our job to pull the weeds, to judge who is worthy to flourish in God’s kingdom and who should be rooted out. But that is not our job. Judgment is God’s job. God will take care of removing evil in God’s own good time.
These days it feels more and more like “God’s own good time” is getting nearer and nearer, that evil has just about run its course in this weary world, and Judgment Day must surely be coming soon.
If so, shouldn’t we have a greater sense of urgency to be ready for that day? Do you want to be the good grain, shining in the sun, or do you want to be something that sort of resembles good grain, but is actually toxic?
You see, Jesus hasn’t switched metaphors arbitrarily. Last week, he described the abundant generosity of a God who sows seeds lavishly everywhere, even on soil where it might not flourish. In today’s parable, the soil is the world, and the children of God are the good seed being scattered with abandon, to exponentially increase the kingdom while there is still time.
How does this parable read you? Are you weeds, taking up precious space and robbing nutrients from the soil, or are you the good grain, multiplying God’s abundant mercy in the world?
Again, it’s a question of generosity – giving abundantly to heal the world and increase God’s reign, or scarcity – insisting on our own importance, getting our own way, taking whatever we can get by whatever means. The good grain gives, the weeds take. Which are you?
How does this parable read you? Do you have ears to listen? are you the ‘bad things happening to good people of the world, or are you helping to right the wrongs and heal the brokenness? And here’s a hint: if you aren’t actively engaged in working for God’s kingdom, you are working against it.
But here’s the good news about parables: you can only push a metaphor so far before it stops making sense. We can’t change ourselves from weeds to wheat anymore than we can change ourselves from rocky, thorny ground into good soil. But Jesus can.
Jesus invites you to turn away from your scarcity into Christ’s abundance, away from your focus on getting what you want toward receiving the infinite grace and forgiveness God offers you in Christ Jesus.
We live in the meantime, in the already-not yet. The kingdom is becoming … and we can be part of that kingdom. The kingdom comes with limitless grace in the midst of an evil world. As we receive that grace, we can offer Christ to others with the same kind of abundant generosity God has offered to us.
So take a moment to examine your own heart right now. Who have you already decided is a ‘weed’ to be excluded from fellowship in Christ’s church? Who have you nurtured so that their roots in faith are strong? Who has nurtured your own faith, and helped you to grow in Christ? How can your life – this week – show others that God’s kingdom is alive in you? Let’s pray.
 Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 198.
 Snodgrass, 214.
 Snodgrass, 214-215.