Open Matthew 13:24-43.
Jesus told some funny stories. The farmhands find weeds in the wheat field, so they ask if they should pull out the weeds. The farmer says, “I sowed good seed, so our enemy must have come and planted the weeds while we were all asleep.” Never in my life have I met a farmer who would jump to that conclusion!
Even funnier is the farmer’s response, “Nah! Leave all the plants growing in the field. We’ll sort them out at harvest time. If I let you lot pull out the weeds, you’ll pull out some of my wheat as well.”
There is no way Jesus could get a position at agricultural college if he gives that advice to his students. Why would he dream up such a story?
This parable was designed to undermine how some of Jesus’ hearers were thinking about the kingdom. God’s land had been under enemy control ever since they lost it to Assyria and Babylon 600 years earlier. Why hadn’t the heavenly farmer given them back their land?
Different Jewish groups gave different responses to that question, but it was the Pharisees who wanted to pull out the weeds. God had given the land to Abraham and his descendants, but the enemy (Satan) had conquered the land and filled it with weeds. In their view, the land would never be productive while overgrown with weeds. Clearly, they needed to root out the weeds, all the disobedient in the land. Their programme was social embarrassment — shaming the unrighteous into pulling up their socks or moving out.
Yes, it was the Pharisees who thought they were appointed by the Farmer in the sky to fix the farm by weeding out the disobedient.
So, Jesus is using absurd humour to undermine the Pharisees’ view of how the kingdom is to be restored. He agrees that God planted the earth with good seed. He agrees that there are weeds among the wheat. He doesn’t question their assumption that the weeds are Satan’s plants among God’s people. What he does challenge is their weed-pulling strategy.
The way Jesus tells the story, the heavenly Farmer refused to authorize his servants to fix the farm by pulling out the weeds. They’ve misunderstood God. God is more concerned about losing a genuine plant than he is about removing the weeds.
Without doubt, Jesus’ approach to growing God’s kingdom seems like a long and arduous way to ever achieve the harvest. Will the world ever come good if God’s doesn’t pull out the weeds along the way? Wouldn’t we be much better off by now if God had responded to Cain by eradicating the murderer instead of protecting him? It seems like God isn’t very good at eradicating those we consider to be weeds.
So will the weeds grow for ever? Will God never set things right? In God’s patience, harvest day will come, the culmination of the era. When it does, God won’t ask the plants themselves to decide who’s genuine and who’s a weed. He’ll give that task to his angels. God will sort it out, but we humans will not be deciding who gets sent to the furnace and who lives forever in the kingdom.
How is this parable relevant today? The church is still full of people with the Pharisee’s agenda. An extreme example would be Pat Robertson’s incitement on “Christian” television to kill the president of Venezuela in 2005.
But it’s not just the extremists. Many churches have an agenda that begins by judging who’s saved and who’s unsaved. Since they think the gospel is only for the unsaved, they have to start by judging who’s in and who’s out. We’ve already divided the world into wheat and weeds before we start.
The gospel of the kingdom does not invite us to make judgements based on who attends church. God’s kingdom is not the church; the whole world is his! He wants us to recognize how he values every plant on the property. Did we miss the bit where Jesus said, “The field is the world” (13:37)?
Yes, God’s world has both wheat and weeds. But he has refused our offer to sort them out for him. He wants us to trust him to get it right at the consummation of the age.
In the meantime, our job it to care for each plant on the farm the way the Farmer does. It’s the heart of the king we will celebrate forever.
What others are saying
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 156–157:
This second parable wrestles with the problem of why evil is so persistent in a world that is supposed to be the kingdom of God. … The world belongs properly to God as king, and the kingdom movement that Jesus is initiating is the restoration of that rule. …
In the excitement of the kingdom’s invasion, it would have been all too easy to be impatient. Why does not society change? This parable speaks of the silent revolution. It speaks of the different origins and different lifestyles of members of the community. … Though now scarcely distinguishable from one another, one day, at the final judgment, the sons of the kingdom will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 169:
Did Jesus, perhaps, have an eye here on the revolutionary groups of his day, only too ready to step into God’s field and pull up what looked like weeds? There were many groups, including some of the Pharisees, who were eager to fight against pagans on the one hand and against compromised Jews on the other. These ‘servants’ may have intended to do God’s will. They were longing for God to act, and were prepared to help him by acting themselves. But part of Jesus’ whole campaign is to say that that the true kingdom of God doesn’t come like that, because God himself isn’t like that.
At the heart of the parable of the weeds and the wheat is the note of patience — not just the patience of the servants who have to wait and watch, but the patience of God himself.
Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1992), 219:
At the agricultural level, the story is not very realistic, though such sabotage did occasionally occur.
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