Jesus calls us to keep our focus on planting good seed, not removing weeds from our midst.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the significance of Jesus’ teaching in parables and use of agricultural imagery to convey deeper spiritual truths.
Recognize the need for patience, trust in God’s ultimate judgment, and sorting of good and evil.
Be encouraged to resist the impulse to judge and purge and instead focus on faithfully spreading the good news and nurturing the growth of righteousness.
Catching up on the Story
Matthew chapter 13:1-23 contains the famous parable of the sower, where Jesus teaches the crowds using agricultural imagery.
Jesus goes out of the house and sits by the seaside. Many people gather around him, so he gets into a boat and begins teaching them in parables. He tells them a story about a sower who went out to sow seeds. As the sower scatters the seeds, some fall on the path and get eaten by birds. Some fall on rocky ground with little soil and quickly sprout but wither away due to a lack of roots. Other seeds fall among thorns, which grow alongside them and choke them. However, some seeds fall on good soil, producing a plentiful harvest.
After sharing the parable, Jesus explains its meaning to his disciples. The seeds represent the message of the kingdom of heaven, and the different types of soil represent people's hearts. The seed on the path represents those who hear the message but don't understand it, and the evil one snatches it away. The seed on the rocky ground symbolizes those who receive the message with joy but quickly abandon it when faced with persecution or trouble. The seed among thorns represents those who hear the message but are distracted by worldly concerns and desires, preventing it from taking root. Lastly, the seed on good soil represents those who receive the message, understand it, and bear fruit, yielding a hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold.
Jesus concludes by emphasizing the importance of listening and understanding. He encourages his followers to be like the good soil, receptive to the word, and able to produce a bountiful harvest of righteousness.
He Set Before Them…
The setting of the parable hasn’t changed. Jesus is still addressing his disciples and the larger crowds beside the sea. Matthew begins this text with the phrase, “He set [put] before them another parable.” While this phrase might not mean much to us, Bruner notes the phrase’s importance. “Jesus ‘sets before’ his people another parable just as Moses had ‘set before’ the ancient people of God the commands the Lord had given him (Exodus 19:7; Deut. 4:44). Matthew wishes to communicate the elevated nature of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is giving his disciples (and the crowds) a binding teaching, almost a constitution of sorts (Bruner, 26).
Keeping the agrarian nature of the previous parable, Jesus returns to the image of sowing seed. As a reminder, “the kingdom of heaven” is shorthand for describing how God would have the world be. In our time, “heaven” has become entirely otherworldly. If Jesus had sought to describe otherworldly vistas, he would not have used such an earthy (pun intended!) image. The parable before us describes how the world is now as God’s kingdom becomes manifest here on earth. Some of Jesus’ parables can be read as describing future realities. While this parable has an end-time ending, that ending serves to ensure us that any disruption caused by the “weeds” of this world will be mended in the end.
The Good Seed
Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a field in which good seeds had been sown. The vagueness of the “someone” of the parable should not distract us. Given the context, those to whom Jesus refers are those charged with spreading Jesus’ good news. These folks have been obedient, faithful, and by all accounts, successful in their mission. The good seed will sprout and grow, producing a good harvest.
Since this parable is descriptive, what happens next is something that anyone who has spent time in church leadership can attest to; bad seeds get planted. Jesus tells us that the bad seed was planted by an individual who engaged in their nefarious work under cover of darkness when the farmers were asleep. Jesus refers to this individual as “his enemy.” Our normal English translations miss the emphasis of the original language. This is no generic enemy; this is his enemy. The “his” is emphatic, meaning that the enemy, in a particular way, is the sower’s enemy (Bruner, 26). At this point, any enemy of the sower is the enemy of God and the church.
Two things should be noted. First, the enemy is only able to spread seed, not able to uproot what has already been planted. The work that God has begun through the faithful obedience of the sower is not easily undone. Second, the sower should not be judged because the enemy was able to plant the bad seed while the sower was asleep. In other parables, Jesus warns against being caught asleep when one should be awake. If the sower in this story are faithful followers and mere mortals, sleep is a necessity. While the church is called to be vigilant, Jesus knows he’s working with fallible folks who will not be able to defend against every manner of evil. If we could do so, we would not need to allow the Spirit to strengthen and empower us for God’s mission. Again, the parable is descriptive of the way things are. Farmers need sleep. Weeds sprout in the best-tended fields. The parable is not about how to avoid the weeds but what to do when the sower becomes aware of them.
The Bad Plants
Eventually, the plants begin to grow. Depending on the type of weeds sown, it may have taken considerable time for the sower to distinguish between the wheat and the weeds, but by then, it was too late. One day, the field hands notice the unfortunate infiltration of their master’s fields. The sowers know that their master had used only good seeds, so they are confused about the appearance of the weeds. Their worry and curiosity send them to their master to enquire about this unfortunate turn of events.
The master’s response is short and unworried. The master knows who is responsible for the weeds. He knows that it was not bad seed or even the negligence of his workers that is at fault. It is the work of his enemy, the enemy of all those who seek to spread God’s good news. The field hands are obviously more concerned for the crop than their master is. Eager to stave off disaster, the sowers seek permission to pull the weeds. Anyone who has gardened knows that weeding is necessary from time to time. In this situation, however, the master knows that weeding the field is not the right move. In fact, weeding will do more harm than good.
The master responds, “No; for in gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them.” Some weeds are not easily removed from the ground. Indeed, some are downright impossible to uproot. Collateral damage is bound to happen. The roots of wheat plants in and around Galilee were weaker than most weeds (Bruner, 30). Jesus knows something his workers do not; even though their roots might be weaker than the weeds, the wheat planted is robust stock and will survive the presence of the weeds until the harvest.
The master’s plan is simple. Let both the wheat and the weeds grow alongside each other, and leave the sorting until harvest. The weeds will be collected first when it no longer matters if the wheat is uprooted.
Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds is deceptively simple. Its simplicity, however, should not keep us from understanding its profoundness. There will always be bad seeds and full-grown weeds in the church. While we must be vigilant regarding the quality and faithfulness of those we put into leadership, we should not worry about the weeds. Inquisitorial crusades to root out all that does not conform to our understanding of the model Christian will only harm the church.
I’m not generally prone to assigning one-to-one correspondences between characters in Jesus’ parables and contemporary or historical figures, but for the sake of clarity, it might be helpful in this instance. Jesus is the master in the parable, the one overseeing the operation. The sowers, those faithful servants who participate with and work for and alongside the master, are the church. The church receives the good seed of the gospel message from the master and faithfully plants it everywhere it can. Despite the church’s vigilance and faithfulness, “his enemy” sows bad seeds. We’ll call “his enemy” the adversary, the one who works against God, the devil. I’m not fond of placing blame on the devil for all that ails the world. The devil, however, is a useful image to illuminate both the spiritual forces of evil and the human persons and systems and structures influenced by those forces. Evil has no hands and feet in the world save ours.
The church goes about its God-given mission, planting the good news, yet somehow evil creeps in. The weeds are recognized, and there is a cry of alarm and urgent seeking after a solution. The church runs to the master, seeking his advice on how to deal with the weeds. In its zeal for the kingdom of heaven, the church rushes after purity, seeking to purge its field of impurities. The master, however, wishes we would hold off on our cleansing mission, for it will do more damage than good. The effort to rid the field of weeds will result in massive damage to the church.
The master asks us to trust that, in the end, all will be well. Impurity and evil will be finally and fully sorted out from God’s faithful servants. In the meantime, we must trust that God knows the best way to proceed. We’re to trust God while still tending to the growing stalks of wheat around us.
Jesus’ parable describes every church in all places and at all times. Jesus’ parable describes our church. Among the good seed, among the wheat, weeds have taken root. While we might not like it, it’s ok. Keep calm and carry on. We’re called to plant the good news. We’re not called to weeding.
Unfortunately, many wish to take shovels and hoes in hand to remove the weeds. What begins as well-intentioned work quickly turns into an angry crusade. In America, many have left and are leaving the church because the church has neglected planting for weeding. May we keep our focus on the task at hand, knowing that, in the end, the maker of heaven and earth will sort the good from the bad.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What does the phrase "He set before them another parable" signify about the significance and authority of Jesus' teachings? How does it compare to how Moses presented the Lord’s commands to the ancient people of God? See Exodus 19:7 and Deuteronomy 4:44.
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, how does Jesus depict the kingdom of heaven? What does it mean for the kingdom of heaven to be manifested on earth? Discuss the significance of using agricultural imagery to describe the kingdom.
Who are the different characters in the parable, and what roles do they play? How does the parable address the presence of evil and bad influences within the church?
According to the parable, why does the master advise against pulling out the weeds? What potential harm could be caused by trying to eliminate the weeds prematurely? How does this principle apply to the church's approach to dealing with impurity and evil?
Reflecting on the master's plan to let the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest, what does this teach us about trusting God's ultimate judgment and sorting? How can the church maintain a balance between addressing impurities and patiently trusting in God's timing?
How does the parable challenge our tendency to judge and purge within the church? Discuss the dangers of pursuing a vision of purity that can lead to harm and division. How can the church focus on its mission of planting the good news while also addressing impurities in a healthy way?
7. In what ways can the parable of the wheat and the weeds be relevant to the current state of churches and religious communities? How can we apply the lessons from this parable to foster unity and growth while acknowledging the presence of both good and evil within the church?
Have you witnessed instances where well-intentioned efforts to address impurities within the church have turned into divisive or harmful crusades? How can we avoid falling into the trap of weeding rather than focusing on planting the good news?
Reflect on the statement, "We're called to plant the good news, not to weed." What practical implications does this have for the church's mission and our individual roles within it?
How can the understanding of God's sorting and judgment in the parable provide comfort and hope amidst the presence of evil and impurity within the church? How can we maintain trust and perseverance in the face of challenges and difficulties?
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).