The Wheat and the Tares: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He 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 (NRSV)

This is another parable where the explanation is separated from the parable, in this case by more, smaller parables, so I put both texts here side by side to deal with them in one go.

Like the first parable of the sower, we have a sower sowing seeds that spring up into the kingdom.  In this parable, the seeds are not the announcement of the kingdom, but the faithful remnant themselves, thus bringing back around the traditional “seed” imagery of Second Temple Judaism.  The sower is the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure from Daniel 7.  In this vision, the Ancient of Days is enthroned on the earth.  He destroys His enemies with fire and gives an everlasting kingdom to the Son of Man.  In the vision, the Son of Man is explained to be the holy ones of Israel – the faithful remnant.  Jesus will take this image for himself – he is the seed, the faithful remnant, and the recipient of the kingdom – the first born of many brethren.

This characterizes Jesus’ activity.  He is out and about reclaiming and re-creating faithful Israel.  A fiery judgment is coming from God, and after this happens, the kingdom will be established and the righteous will dwell in it forever with Jesus as king.  By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus is importing a whole host of meaning and expectations from the Old Testament to explain who he is and what he is doing and why.

But while the sower is sowing faithful children of God, the enemy is sowing weeds.  One might wonder, as do the workers in the parable, why they do not just go through and destroy the weeds.

So, one aspect of this parable is that it answers an eschatological question that faithful Israel surely has.  They are under the rule of evil people, many of which are Israelites, themselves.  There are a lot of weeds in the garden of God.  Why hasn’t God done anything about this?

The answer is given to us in the parable.  If the weeds are gathered prematurely, it will destroy the wheat as well.  It is better to wait until both are ready for harvest, then the weeds can be gathered and destroyed and the wheat can be gathered into the master’s barn.  The long time when the weeds and the wheat grow together is actually for the sake of the wheat – to wait until the time is right when the wheat can be safely gathered and unharmed by the destruction of the weeds.

A similar sentiment is given to believers in 2 Peter:

But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.  But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient [on your account], not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:7-9 (NRSV)

God is holding off on the day of judgement so that He does not destroy believers-in-progress.

Paul expresses a similar sentiment in his letter to the Romans:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:22-24 (NRSV)

In this argument, God is delaying the day of judgement so that he might gather both Jews and Gentiles to Himself and not just believing Jews.

So, we see in the New Testament a certain theodicy: why does God not simply judge the wicked and get the whole thing over with so the faithful can enjoy a better world?  The answer appears to be: because doing so prematurely endangers the very people who would otherwise be brought into that new world.

When is this appropriate time, then?  We are not told the specific day or hour (or year), but Jesus explains it is the “end of the age.”

We need to be careful about equating that phrase with “end of the world” or “end of time” or “end of history.”  An age is simply a span of time defined by some notable characteristic.  Even in modern English idiom, we talk about the Stone Age or the Age of Enlightment or (erroneously) the Dark Ages or the Atomic Age.  An “age” is not the entirety of history; an age is a span of time where a present, definitive set of circumstances is in place.  It can be a very long or even a very short period of time (in Jonah’s prayer, he says he was in the belly of the fish for an age), but it is not all time forever.

So, when we hear Jesus talking about this age, or the end of the age, or the age to come, our default should be that Jesus is talking about the present state of affairs, the end of that state of affairs, or the coming time when a new state of affairs will be the case.  This is perhaps why Jesus identifies the field as the kosmos – the present world system.

Jesus is telling us that, even though we don’t know when exactly this will occur, the present age and its powers and values and dominions are facing an imminent end set by God’s timing.  When the clock runs out, everything that was evil and oppressive in God’s kingdom will be exiled from that kingdom and destroyed, and the faithful children of the kingdom will find themselves in a new, prosperous existence.

At this point in the narrative, Jesus is concerned about Israel.  He came to save his people.  He sends his disciples to the lost sheep of Israel and explicitly commands them to avoid the Gentiles.  While Jesus may foresee a broadening of this mission in the future, that is not his focus when he tells this parable.  The boundaries for it are the destiny of Israel in the world, just as the vision is in Daniel 7.  For a more detailed exegetical look at this, I direct you to Andrew Perriman’s excellent article “The Parable of the Weeds and the Question of Hell.”

Paul and the other apostles, seeing the conversion of the Gentiles that Jesus anticipated, foresee that this principle may happen to Israel first, but it will roll out to the rest of the Empire as well.  John in his Apocalypse sees this happening to Israel first, then happening to the Empire, and then – at the very end – happening to all creation.  But at this point in the story, we are looking at Israel, the people in Israel, faithful and unfaithful, and what is to become of them.

And in Jesus’ mind, Israel right now is a mixture of good seed (faithful children of God) and weeds that seek to choke them out (unfaithful children of the devil).  They have to grow together for a time so that the good seed can reach its fullness, but when that time comes, they will be separated, the weeds will be destroyed, and the world will look very different.

And this is what happened.  In AD 70 and the few years prior, Rome fell upon Judea with a vengeance.  The Temple was destroyed.  The holy city that God promised would bear His name with a Davidic king on the throne forever was looted and shattered.  According to Josephus, all the Christ-followers packed their bags and fled the city before this destruction occurred.  It may be difficult for us to conceive of this event as the end of an age and the beginning of a new one, but that is because we do not live in the ancient world, we are not first century Jews, and Jerusalem and the Temple and everything around all that just isn’t very important to us.

If you live in America, a very loose analogy would be 9/11.  While the World Trade Center did not have the significance to Americans that the Temple did to first century Jews (although probably not too much less, considering our cult of money) and New York as a whole stayed intact and does not have the significance to Americans that Jerusalem would to a first century Jew, that event left an impact on the national psyche that was very significant.  In a flash, airport security completely transformed and our national enemy shifted from Communism to Radicalized Islam.  Politics, economy, defense, and even our national fears and prejudices were dramatically shifted after that event.

If you multiply that by several degrees, then you might begin to perceive the impact AD 70 had for Jesus’ audience.  Imagine ISIS thoroughly sacking Washington D.C. and destroying all the monuments and buildings and edifices of government, then they sweep through America and establish a fundamentalist totalitarian government based on their version of Islam.  If you are American, would such an event be worthy of apocalyptic language?  Would that constitute the end of an age and the beginning of a new one?

It is true that things were not all sweetness and light for the children of the kingdom after AD 70.  Certainly much persecution was lifted after that event, but then the people of God’s chief persecutor became the Empire, and this dynamic proceeded to play out on that stage, albeit in a different way than anybody at the time of Matthew 13 might have expected.

All these things are ancient history to us.  The urgency of Jesus to his original audience in this parable and its immediate application to their situation does not embrace us in the same way it embraced them.

At the same time, we, too, look at the crises experienced by the people of God in the world, and we, too, wonder why God isn’t doing something about it.  We wonder if there’s any particular reason we should keep testifying to this God and serving Him when He seems so silent and the world continues to do what the world does as if He isn’t there at all.

What Jesus said to those Israelites two thousand years ago gives us an important insight into the mind of God – He will allow a bad situation to exist for a time for our sakes.  We may not be able to see on our side of the fence how this is working to our benefit or anyone else’s, but Jesus tells us that it is.

And even if such benefits seem elusive to us, there’s one thing that history has definitely established – that God will not allow such things to go on indefinitely.  He will act, and when He does, the world will not be the same.

Consider This

  1. What ongoing “wheat and weeds”-like situations do you see the church experiencing, today?  What about other events in past history?  How did they turn out?  Can we learn anything about the way God works in these situations?
  2. One of the reasons given for God’s delay is to wait for the fullness of repentance and a return to Him.  What implications might that have for our own piety?  How about the church’s proclamation?

2 thoughts on “The Wheat and the Tares: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

  1. Pingback: Fish of Every Kind: Matthew 13:47-50 | Letters to the Next Creation

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