The Parable of the Weeds

In Matthew chapter 13 Jesus tells a parable about a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the wheat later appeared… so did the weeds, causing consternation among the man’s servants. “Didn’t you sow good seed in the field?” they asked. “Where did the weeds come from?” “An enemy did this” the man replied. “Should we pull out the weeds?” they ask. “No” replies the man. “While you’re busy pulling up the weeds you could end up pulling out or damaging the good wheat along with them. Wait until the harvest and then I’ll have my workers collect the weeds first and burn them. Then it will be easier to harvest the wheat and store it in my barn.”

Later, Jesus’ disciples specifically ask him to explain the meaning of the parable – and he does, in verses 37-39.

“The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.”

Even with this explanation from Jesus, it can be tricky to tease out the main theme that Jesus wishes to share with his disciples…. and us. At the very least, the following seem clear:

  • Evil is real. Jesus’ statement that “an enemy did this” makes clear that the weeds were not simply from natural causes or poor luck. Whether we interpret the evil as sin from within each of us (i.e., Paul’s struggle at the end of Romans chapter 7), systemic evil that takes root in our societies and institutions (e.g., racism and discrimination), or Satan and the evil in the spirit world that he controls – evil is real and cannot be treated lightly or ignored.
  • For now, evil and good (weeds and good wheat) will exist together. Attempts to “root out” evil should be handled with great care because,
    • in early stages, it’s not always easy to tell which plant is good and which is bad
    • in early stages, pulling out weeds may produce damage to the good plants
    • it would be best to wait until harvest, when things will be clearer… and the professional harvesters will be able to take care of the problem easily.

So let’s assume from Jesus’ explanation that the field is the world and that we are called to be good seed in that field. Our main task would be to simply grow mature and strong, trusting the owner of the field (God) to protect us from the weeds and other problems until the time of harvest.

Or, perhaps, we could change the metaphor a bit and think of ourselves as the servants. Although as Christians we would love to “pull up all those nasty weeds” and purify the field, we are being reminded that the field is God’s – not ours – and that we have limited ability to even discern the good from the bad, much less to actually eradicate the bad without doing great damage. Yes, weeding and harvesting are the work of God.

A brief look back at history would confirm the number of times that Christianity – as an institution or as individuals – have zealously attempted to “root out evil” and “purify” the field – only to do great damage to the cause of the gospel and create more trouble than when they started. Are we perhaps in such a situation today…. where the word “Christian” or “Evangelical” in the public media elicits not an impression of love and kindness – but one of anger, impatience, intolerance and just general grumpiness with the culture around them? Yes, it’s not always fun to be grouped in with “this set of people”… but have Christians in a very real sense earned this reputation?

So, given that evil is real…. and that we must proceed with caution when it comes to judging and weeding …. how should we then live? How can we fight boldly and bravely for justice while refusing to play God?

No simple answers are available – even from this parable – but perhaps keeping our eyes on the example of our Master will help us. Humility, Servanthood, and the constant act of Blessing others will be the necessary posture to maintain. This will allow our message of seeking justice – and standing up against evil when necessary – to be heard by the world around us.

(this is a summary of the message shared on July 19th during our ZOOM worship session.)