Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
MATTHEW 12-13. THE CONTEXT:
Chapter 12 seethes with conflict. Pharisees criticize Jesus for allowing his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath (12:1-8). When Jesus heals a man with withered hand, they “conspired against him, how to destroy him” (12:14). When he heals a demoniac, they accuse him of working by the power of Beelzebul (12:22-32). Jesus calls them a “offspring of vipers” (12:34) and “an evil and adulterous generation” (12:39). Chapter 12 forms the foundation for chapter 13, which offers hope in the midst of this evil.
Chapter 13 begins with the Parable of the Sower (13:1-9, 18-23), which acknowledges that some seed will be lost, but promises a stupendous harvest from the seed that falls on good soil. The focus is not on the little that is lost, but on the promise of the harvest.
The Parable of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43) uses the same agricultural motif, but deals with the problem of the bad among the good in the world (v. 38). “What the parable itself clearly tells us…is that the kingdom must contend with evil all around it, and that God permits evil and good to co-exist until the end” (Gardner, 214). The parable both guides and encourages disciples. We need not weed out the bad (the message of the parable). God will deal with the bad in the harvest (the message of the interpretation).
Two short parables are sandwiched between the Parable of the Weeds and its interpretation. Both the Parable of the Mustard Seed (13:31-32) and the Parable of the Yeast (13:33) promise great effects from small causes. We must not be discouraged by small beginnings—must not lose heart when our efforts seem hopeless.
Three short parables follow the interpretation of Parable of the Weeds. The third of these is the Parable of the Net (13:47-50), which has much the same meaning as the Parable of the Weeds. The Treasure in the Field (13:44) and the Pearl of Great Value (13:45) portray the exceedingly great value of the kingdom of heaven.
All seven parables encourage disciples. They deal with the reality of opposition and evil, promising that these will not define the ultimate outcome. In the end, God and those faithful to God will win and win big.
Chapter 13 ends with Jesus continuing to face opposition. When he goes to Nazareth, his hometown people reject him (13:54-57).
MATTHEW 13:24-30. THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD AND THE BAD SEED
24He set another parable before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25but while people slept, his enemy came and sowed darnel weeds (Greek: zizania—bearded darnel) also among the wheat, and went away. 26But when the blade sprang up and brought forth fruit, then the darnel weeds appeared also.
27The servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where did this darnel come from?’
28“He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them up?’
29“But he said, ‘No, lest perhaps while you gather up the darnel weeds, you root up the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest, and in the harvest time I will tell the reapers, “First, gather up the darnel weeds, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (v. 24). The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are roughly synonymous phrases, and refer to the realm over which God reigns. Matthew, out of sensitivity to his predominantly Jewish audience, favors kingdom of heaven (Jewish people are reluctant to say God’s name lest they find themselves guilty of profaning it). He uses kingdom of heaven 31 times and kingdom of God only five times.
“but while people slept, his enemy came and sowed darnel weeds” (zizania—bearded darnel)(v. 25). Jesus mentions a weed (zizania—bearded darnel) that in its early stages closely resembles wheat, making it almost impossible to identify. As the plants mature, the roots of the weeds and wheat intertwine, making them almost impossible to separate—any attempt to pull the weeds will also pull the wheat. Separation, however, is necessary, because darnel is both bitter and mildly toxic. If not removed prior to milling, darnel will ruin the flour. The usual solution is to separate the grains after threshing by spreading them on a flat surface and having people remove the darnel, a different color at that stage, by hand.
Sowing darnel seed among the wheat was a common act of sabotage. The Romans had a law against it (France, 525).
Among canonical works, only Matthew records this parable (although a similar parable is found, without the interpretation, in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas). Matthew has a serious concern for ethical behavior, because the church of Matthew’s day faced serious ethical lapses. Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ ministry with the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ keynote address, setting forth the central themes of his ministry. Much of that sermon is devoted to ethical concerns. For instance:
• Salt that has lost its taste is no longer good for anything except to be trodden underfoot (5:13).
• Jesus has not come to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them (5:17).
• Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (5:20).
• Whoever is angry with a brother or sister is liable to judgment, and whoever says, “You fool” is liable to the hell of fire (5:22).
• Whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (5:28).
• Etc., etc., etc.!
At the sermon’s climax, Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”(7:21)—a disturbing word for a salvation-by-grace church.
Matthew clearly believes that Jesus has set forth high ethical standards, and is troubled by Christians who fail to live up to them. He “is greatly disturbed by the mixed state of the church, which contains many who enthusiastically call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’ but refuse to follow his ethical teaching (7:21-27; see also 13:47-50 and 22:11-14)” (Hare, 155). He would feel more comfortable in a purer church.
Nevertheless, to his credit, Matthew also includes a different perspective. He knows that scribes and Pharisees, who personified high ethical standards among the Jews, caused most of Jesus’ problems. It was not worst of the lowlifes who criticize Jesus and conspire to kill him, but the best of these holy men (9:3, 34; 12:2, 10, 14, 24; 26:4). Therefore Matthew mutes his concern for purity, and includes Jesus’ words, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged” (7:1)—words that have much in common with the Parable of the Weeds.
“But when the blade sprang up and brought forth fruit, then the darnel weeds appeared also” (v. 26). This parable deals with a very practical problem. In the church, we find bad mixed with good. Every congregation has members whose sexual conduct is embarrassing—or whose business ethics are questionable—or who treat people unkindly—or who advocate questionable doctrine.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest perhaps while you gather up the darnel weeds, you root up the wheat with them” (vv. 28b-29). But, in this parable, Jesus calls us to patience and faith—patience with those who fail to meet the standard (this is the concern of the parable itself—vv. 24-30) and faith that God will deal with them at the right time (this is the concern of the interpretation—vv. 36-43). Jesus calls us to withhold action lest we create more problems than we solve—lest we destroy the good with the bad—lest we“root up the wheat with (the weeds).”
“Let both grow together until the harvest” (v. 30a). Unlike God, we cannot know people’s hearts—or where their lives might take them—or their potential for redemption. God has not equipped us with the insight necessary to weed the garden. As wonderful as it would be to have a “pure” world, a world without sinners, Jesus tells us that only in the harvest will purity be possible. Attempts to achieve it now will prove disastrous—will destroy the good with the bad. Reapers will accomplish the separation at harvest-time—in God’s scheme of things, soon enough.
This is a word that we clergy need to hear as we struggle to do God’s will in a world that refuses to listen—that resists every effort to bring it closer to God’s kingdom.
It is a word that we need to hear as we struggle to do God’s will in a church where so many people just don’t “get it.” Christians often insist on majoring in minors—too easily tolerate the intolerable—refuse to give anything close to a tithe—frustrate our efforts at every turn. It is a word that we need to hear when we are tempted to tighten membership criteria—to clean up the rolls—to discipline errant members.
It is also a word that people in the pews need to hear as they encounter other Christians with a too-sharp tongue—or a too-controlling manner—or a too-shallow theology. In the end, the church will be wonderful—fully redeemed—entirely saintly—but not just yet!
If we want a saintly church, perhaps the best place to start is by praying that God will grant us saintly patience with those whose discipleship is presently faulty. Perhaps it will help to remember that our discipleship is faulty too.
But we should not interpret this parable as prohibiting church discipline. In Matthew 18, Jesus gives a highly specific protocol for dealing with sin within the church (18:15-17).
It is interesting to recall that the disciples to whom Jesus addresses the interpretation of this parable include Judas, who will betray Jesus (26:47 ff.)—Peter, who will deny him (26:69 ff.)—Thomas, who will doubt him (John 20:24 ff.)—and James and John, whose concern has more to do with personal ambition than the kingdom of God (20:20-23; cf. Mark 10:37). In the end, only Judas will be lost—and I am convinced that, had he asked the resurrected Christ to forgive him, even he could have been redeemed.
The principle of patience that Jesus espouses here can be helpful in every relationship. A husband will do well to be patient with his imperfect wife and a wife with her imperfect husband. Parents will do well to be patient with imperfect children and children with imperfect parents. Supervisors will do well to be patient with imperfect employees and employees with imperfect bosses. This is not to suggest, however, that parents and supervisors should not mentor and discipline those under their care.
We are not called to tolerate the intolerable. There are times when it is necessary to terminate a relationship decisively—particularly an abusive or violent relationship—but we must face the human condition realistically. We are sinners living among sinners. If we demand too much, condemn too quickly, or break off relationships too easily, we doom ourselves to a lifetime of revolving-door relationships or perpetual loneliness. We who hope to receive grace must also be willing to extend it.
The church also does well to apply the principle of forbearance to those outside the church. The church’s greatest sins—the Inquisition, witch hunts, and pogroms against Jews, have been committed in the interest of purifying the world. When we use violence to spread the Gospel, we do violence to the Gospel.
That said, we must also note that Matthew also includes a methodology for reproving sinners (18:15-20). Jesus charges the church, when faced with evil, to confront it. Confrontation begins at the level of the individual. If that does not resolve the problem, the process widens until the whole church is involved. If the sinner then persists, “let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (18:17-18). It has been said that the mark of an educated person is the ability to entertain two opposing ideas simultaneously. That is what Jesus asks us to do when he gives us both this Parable of the Weeds and these instructions for confronting evil.
“and in the harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘First, gather up the darnel weeds, and bind them in bundles to burn them; but gather the wheat into my barn'” (v. 30b). Jesus calls us to trust that he will separate the good from the bad on Judgment Day. Jesus will treat this principle in greater detail in chapter 25, where he changes the metaphor to sheep and goats (25:31-46).
MATTHEW 13:36-43. THE INTERPRETATION OF THE PARABLE
36Then Jesus sent the multitudes away, and went into the house. His disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the darnel weeds of the field.”
37He answered them, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, 38the field is the world; and the good seed, these are the children of the Kingdom; and the darnel weeds are the children of the evil one. 39The enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40As therefore the darnel weeds are gathered up and burned with fire; so will it be at the end of this age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather out of his Kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and those who do iniquity, 42and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“Then Jesus sent the multitudes away, and went into the house” (v. 36a). Jesus goes into the house, out of the reach of the crowds.
“Explain to us the parable of the darnel weeds of the field” (v. 36b). In the privacy of the house the disciples request that Jesus explain the parable, just as he had done with the Parable of the Sower. The private setting and interpretation are Matthew’s way of highlighting the “insider” status of the church—and of the reader of this Gospel.
“He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man” (v. 37). Jesus’ interpretation is allegorical (an interpretation in which things have a hidden or symbolic meaning). He says that:
• He who sows the good seed = the Son of Man (v. 37).
• The field = the world (v. 38).
• The good seed = the children of the Kingdom (v. 38).
• The weeds = the children of the evil one (v. 38).
• The enemy = the devil (v. 39).
• The harvest = the end of the age (v. 39).
• The reapers = the angels (v. 39).
The title, Son of Man, comes from Daniel 7:13, where God “delegated his power of absolution to a “Son of Man’ who carries out his gracious will in the earthly sphere; therefore, ‘upon the earth the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins” (Marcus, 223). Jesus often used this title for himself (8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32, 40, etc.). It has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, Messiah. People expect the Messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.
“the field is the world” (v. 38a). Jesus thus identifies the field, not as Israel or the church, but as the world.
Christians, living in an often hostile world—seeing undeserving people prosper—might wonder if God has abdicated. Where is God’s justice? But this parable counsels us to wait patiently—to endure—because the way it is now is not the way it will be.
“and the good seed, these are the children of the Kingdom; and the darnel weeds are the children of the evil one” (v. 38b). The Son of Man sowed the good seed (v. 37), and those seeds are the children of his kingdom. The weeds were sown by the enemy—the devil (v. 39)—and they are his children.
“He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; …The enemy who sowed them (the weeds) is the devil” (vv. 37, 39a). There are two sowers—the Son of Man and the devil. Jesus thus accounts for the presence of evil in our midst. We are uncomfortable today with the idea of the devil and, for the most part, we ignore it in our preaching. However, our unwillingness to speak plainly about the devil and to confront evil in our midst affords the devil opportunities galore to infiltrate our homes, our schools, our churches, and our families. Our popular culture celebrates the Satanic–while Christians look the other way.
“As therefore the darnel weeds are gathered up and burned with fire; so will it be at the end of this age” (v. 40). Where I live, high winds at certain times of the year scatter tree limbs and other debris. We are allowed to establish a burn pile to burn this debris. Sometimes the debris is sufficiently plentiful that I end up feeding the fire for hours on end. It gets red hot, and then white hot. I keep children away from the fire, because if they were to fall into it—especially if they were to fall across the white-hot coals—they would be terribly burned. It is this kind of fire that Jesus is describing here. The people of that day, mostly agricultural workers, would have seen fires like this—would have fed the flames as they burned weeds and other undesirable plant matter.
Jesus tells the disciples that there will be fires like this at the end of the age—prepared (presumably by God or God’s agents) for the destruction of evildoers (vv. 41-42).
“The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather out of his Kingdom all things that cause stumbling, and those who do iniquity” (v. 41). Jesus doesn’t picture angels removing Godly people from this world, but instead pictures angels removing evildoers from his kingdom.
“and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (v. 42). Jesus does not provide this graphic description so that we might gloat, but that evil people might be warned. Those in danger of fire are “all things that cause stumbling (panta ta skandala—all who create stumbling blocks) and those who do iniquity” (tous poiountas ten anomian—those who practice lawlessness) (v. 41).
• The skandala are those who cause others to sin—tempters—faith-destroyers—those who become an impediment in the faith-journey of another person—stumbling-blocks (cf. 16:23; Romans 14:13; 16:17; 1 John 2:10). Jesus says that it would be better for us to be drowned in the deepest sea than to suffer the fate of a person who causes others to stumble (18:6).
• Evildoers are those who practice anomia—literally a (without) nomos (law)—the lawless—those in rebellion against God’s law—those who practice immoral living—those who care not what Jesus wants them to do (cf. 7:23; 23:28; 24:12). Given Jesus’ interpretation of the greatest commandment—that it is to love God and neighbor—the anomia must include those who do not love God and neighbor. Such people, Jesus warns us, are in danger of hellfire.
“and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (v. 42; cf. Daniel 3:6 for the “furnace of fire” imagery). We are uncomfortable in the presence of this fire-and-brimstone language. We want grace, not law—love, not demands—affirmation, not condemnation. We want to hear, “Jesus loves you, and I love you,” but Jesus warns instead that “there will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (v. 42—cf. 8:12; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).
Since the late sixties, we have lived in an antinomian (anti-rules, anti-legalism) world. While this has freed us from rules that sometimes made no sense, it has also shattered families—has given us a million at-risk kids—has coarsened our lives. The “ups” don’t begin to match the “downs.” Jesus warns us that the worst—God’s judgment—is yet to come. We need to recognize that we will serve either sin or Christ—impurity or righteousness (Romans 6:16 ff.). We are not able to serve no master, but are free only to choose which master we will serve.
But the good news is that “Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father” (v. 43a). This beautiful image comes from Daniel 12:3, which says, “Those who are wise shall shine as the brightness of the expanse; and those who turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever.” Jesus uses poetic language to promise the faithful that they can look forward to a wonderful destiny. They will no longer be marginal people, living in a kosmos-world where evil predominates. Instead, they will shine like the sun—being visible to all—giving light to all—occupying a place of prominence in God’s kingdom.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (v. 43b). Jesus issues a call to hear and to heed the lessons of this parable. It is both a way of providing emphasis and a veiled warning that those who fail to heed the parable do so at their own peril.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan