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Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Among the many examples set by Jesus as he walked with his disciples is that of master teacher. Sometimes we forget that Jesus’ use of parable did not stand apart from the norm of his day, but was rather part of a tradition of the sages. The effectiveness of the parable is well demonstrated in the Old Testament example of the prophet Nathan who called David to repentance through a story of close parallel to David’s situation, yet distant enough that it did not inspire the resistance of direct confrontation. Today, educators are taught that making a connection between what is already known and new content is critical to moving a learner toward application. Creating analogous representations helps learners bridge from a familiar concept to something completely new and different or present a familiar handle to grasp something very slippery. Parables do exactly that.

The difference between Jesus’ use of parables and use of the parable in rabbinic tradition, according to Notley and Safrai in their collection of parables across centuries of Jewish literature, is that Jesus’ use of the parable in an oral context brought the tool out of the elite circles the rabbis wrote to address and seated parable squarely among the people.[1]

Parables stand in stark contrast to miracles, which were also given to the people as a demonstration of God at work. Parables rely on being grounded in daily experience, and are entirely connected to the hearers’ expectations to lead them from anticipated outcomes based on prior understandings to truths too deep to be fully possessed. The parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13 are grounded in vocational life, lifted to highlight both the now and yet to come characteristics of God’s work among us.

Matthew 13:24-30 draws us in with a classic case of industrial sabotage in an agricultural setting. We are not told what the enemy has against the landowner, but our own experience leads us to believe that market advantage is at the heart of the matter–or more broadly, power over an adversary. What better way to gain advantage than to undermine or take revenge against the competition, in this case by adding to the seed rather than stealing it away as the birds do in the prior parable? So stealthy has been the work of the enemy that those caring for the land are quick to doubt the quality of the landowner’s work when they discover that more plants are growing than they would have anticipated: “didn’t you sow good seed?” When they are assured that the seed was indeed good, their doubt is dispelled and the caretakers rise up to a quick fix: “Do you want us to pull the weeds out?”

If we are to make use of this parable, those of us who don’t grow grain need to understand that Jesus’ hearers were as familiar with impostor grain as we are with fool’s gold. Darnel (or tares) was a group of grasses that ranged from poison to simply inedible, but in appearance during growth, was very similar to the crop sown for food. The root system became entangled with the grain. Think tall crab grass with a wheat-like head. Pull the weeds and yank up the healthy plants with it. Where we use herbicide, the people of ancient Israel had to use their heads both to identify the enemy and to manage the damages.

In a battle of wits, the landowner develops a plan to subvert the sabotage. “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters: ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned…then gather the wheat into my barn’.”

Like all truly powerful parables, just enough is given to keep the hearer engaged, wondering, and driven to get to the bottom of it. I imagine Jesus was a good enough storyteller to leave the listeners feeling like we did about an end-of-season cliffhanger before binge-watching was possible. “And then what happened??” Was that all that was to be considered in this analogy to the Kingdom of God?

We don’t know how long the disciples dwelled in this wondering space, but we do know that they asked Jesus for the explanation–maybe out of a desire to check their own understanding, maybe to avoid the discomfort of living with uncertainty or cognitive dissonance (a state of disorientation that eventually leads to learning–and always created by a parable). Either way, they wanted to be told, more than they wanted to wrestle. So Jesus lined up the parallels for them: the Son of Man sowed the good seed in the field (the world); the good seed is the people of the Kingdom; the bad seed is the people of the evil one; the evil one himself is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age and the harvesters are angels (messengers of God).

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

Still, a lot to be pondered. For us as well as for the disciples, because we are at a different phase of the “not yet” than they were, and because our connections are somewhat different in a techno-centric culture compared to the agrarian society of Jesus’ hearers. We can invite our congregations into both corporate and personal considerations of this parable.

Who are we? We tend to identify with the good seed, planted by Jesus Christ, into ground intended to be hospitable to our growth. If that is the case, then our role is purely to grow, in spite of the weeds that threaten us. But are we sure that’s who we are?

Who are the field workers? They are not paralleled in the explanation of the parable Jesus gives. We know who they are not. They are not the landowner who planted and has the knowledge to make the best plan for damage control. They are not the harvesters–God’s messengers– who will make the determination of whether the grown plants are destined for the burnpile or the barn. They are not the bad seed or people of the evil one. Some commentators have understood the field workers to be church leaders, others to be the church itself. Either way, they are the ones who keep an eye out for what is sprouting up in the Kingdom, and to nurture the developing plants. They also are the ones in communication with the landowner. But it seems clear that they have neither the capacity nor the authority to set things right, much as they might desire to do so. Their role is to nurture both the good plants and the bad as the process continues–to do good to both those who were planted by friend and by foe. This is surely doing good to our enemies and those who despitefully use us, while knowing a harvest judgment is sure.

Who is the landowner? We know this to be the Son of Man, Jesus’ self-designation. Yet as surely as Jesus is Son of Man, Jesus is Son of God–no ordinary landholder. He is the same Christ who does miracles, who teaches, who transforms fishermen into fishers of men. While the rules of a parable focus on the natural, this is a human/divine character within the parable who can impact the natural course of events. As sure as there is justice within the Kingdom of God, there is also redemptive transformation. Is it possible that this passage offers hope that appearances are not always as they seem and that even what is planted to choke out and kill can be transformed? Is God at work in both the crop and the weed?

Corporately, we are to understand that in the world, we now participate in the Kingdom of God ushered in by the Son of Man. There is still a preexisting enemy and there are those who would drain the fullness of life from citizens of the Kingdom. There is personal and systemic evil that continue to exist, though Christ has come and begun the realization of all that is yet to be. To withhold judgment is not to approve of that evil; it is to recognize the authority of God over harvest time. It is also to acknowledge that more damage can be done in defending than may be done by the offense itself and we must engage ethical discernment as sacred business based on Scriptural principles and not personal preferences. We cannot bring about the Kingdom through human means, though human action is a distinctive of Kingdom living.

At a personal level, for us as Christians we claim the cleansing work already done by Christ in this life, and not yet realized in all its fullness. There are enemies of our redeemed souls developed through past experiences and experiences yet to come that have the potential to rob us of our health like weeds choking the life out of good grain. Still, as we submit these to the lordship of our “landowner” they become part of the ground prepared for us. We can only imagine what our ultimate experience of the Kingdom of God will be when all of those enemies of our soul are burned away and nothing is left but clarity (1 Cor. 13:12).

To preach effectively, we recognize the power of parable by allowing it to do its work of inspiring curiosity, making connections to local life, and by drawing on our personal applications. We don’t over-interpret or stretch the analogies too far. This tension keeps the parabolic metaphor alive and invites the people of God to continue to understand the Kingdom in fresh and meaningful ways throu