Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 23, 2023
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 Commentary
There are three parables that Jesus tells to the crowds and then explains to his disciples and all of them are in this chapter of Matthew. We considered the first one last week as we read about Jesus the sower of the seed of “the word of the Kingdom.” The last one is much shorter and will be part of next week’s lectionary selection.
This week we continue with the soil and seeded plant imagery, but instead of a close focus in on the soil and the implantation of the Kingdom in each of us, our imaginations are drawn to the largest framing possible: the whole world—even to the future and the end of time as we know it.
As discussed in the Textual Point below, a helpful way to make sense of the parable is to get to the implied question that undergirds it. To do so, we have to let the parable stand on its own for a moment and mine the depths of its imagery for what makes sense, what seems odd or surprising, what shocks us, upsets us, comforts us, etc. (This is what I meant last week when I talked about the imagery of parables bending our imaginations and challenging our ideas.)
For those who understand how farming or gardening works, the most surprising aspect of this story is likely the fact that the weeds were not pulled sooner. The surprise to the fieldworkers in the story is that there are so many weeds and the farmer says to let them be until harvest time. The weeds, then, are a place for us to pay attention.
Jesus tells us in the story itself that the weeds were an act of sabotage: an enemy came into the field while everyone else was sleeping and sowed them among the wheat seed. Later, to the disciples, Jesus explains it even more clearly: the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the Kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.” (verses 38-39a)
This people-first language is bound to make some of us very uncomfortable and confused. My Calvinist background raises the point that none of us are “good people” apart from the working presence of the Triune God in us… but the parable isn’t talking about good people versus evil people, it is talking about “children of the Kingdom” versus “children of the evil one” and “children” is another way that Jesus and the Scriptures speaks of fruit/identification/what results from a life lived in the character of… So those who have grown from the seed of God’s kingdom will have the character of the Kingdom and live Kingdom values, and those who have been shaped by the sabotaged-seed of the evil one will portray through action that same impetus to sabotage God’s goodness. And all of these kinds of people are standing, living, working, side-by-side in the world; God allowing it to be so.
The devil doesn’t want God to allow it to be so, the intent of the sabotage plan was to get God to try to take vindictive action immediately and damage the Kingdom growth in the process. Instead, God, as the master farmer, trusts his long plan of redemption and will suffer the present sabotage efforts because his plan includes dealing with the bad seed, with finality, on judgement day.
Notice these things about our wheat farmer and how he preserves the crop of his good seed. Notice how involved the farmer is in the whole process. The farmer did the sowing. The farmer knows that the enemy has been at work. The farmer chooses to not pull the weeds because he refuses to risk putting the wheat plants in danger: the roots of the two kinds of plants are entangled right now and pulling one will possibly pull the other along with it. The farmer says that at the harvest time, the reapers will be able to separate the wheat from the tares, bringing the wheat into the barn and destroying the tares—a reminder that the farmer has a plan and a method for dealing with the enemy’s sabotage attempt.
The implied question seems to be about the juxtaposition of the presence of both the good Kingdom and evil. The intermingling makes us question whether God’s Kingdom has actually come, or even worse, whether it will be successful in rooting out that which does not belong. Where are the signs of the conquering power of the Kingdom of heaven against the forces of evil that are running amuck on this earth???
The answer is rooted in trusting the farmer who is the Triune Sovereign God. The sowing of the good seed continues alongside the subterfuge of the devil. But the harvest that ends this age is still to come, when all of the efforts of the evil one will be gathered up and destroyed as Jesus sends the angels to gather the causes of sin and those who purposefully do evil to face the cleansing judgement of Christ. Though evil will resist even this, weeping and gnashing, the Kingdom of the Father will be established and righteousness will shine like the sun.
It’s really important to remember that parables are a unique genre: the images and their allegorical meaning in one parable cannot be transposed onto another. But the specific truths they are trying to communicate (each parable is trying to make a specific point) can be held together and form an interpretive lens which is reinforced by other Scripture passages/genres.
Biblical commentators on the parables approach them by trying determine the underlying question that the storyteller is answering, i.e., the authorial intent (with the added layer of the second layer of intent from the gospel writers themselves). This reminds us that a parable is not meant to answer each and every question we want to ask of it, but to communicate something really important to us that would help us understand and approach all of the questions we bring.
So with our parable about the wheat and the tares being allowed to grow together, the question behind the story seems to be, as commentator Klyne Snodgrass poses it, “Can the work of Jesus and his small group really be the Kingdom when so much is still wrong? How can this be the Kingdom if evil is still present?”
The first time I ever worked in a garden was as a high schooler doing volunteer work at a farm that served neighbourhoods that suffered from fresh food insecurity. We were given the task of weeding and as part of our tutorial, we were given very explicit instructions to not only pull the weeds, but to kill bugs because they were eating the crop. My “pro-life” picture of farmers went out the window quite quickly as I learned hands-on that nurturing crops meant destroying threats.
The reality of how farming works—both then and now—is a cue to us to pay attention to the surprise in this parable. The surprise, that the farmer doesn’t remove the threat to the wheat until the harvest, challenges us to trust the farmer who is seemingly going about his trade in the wrong way. This parable isn’t a lesson on how we approach evil in the world, it’s about being able to comprehend the bigger picture of the reality that the Kingdom is already here but evil is still present—and will be present until the final judgement. So go ahead and squash those bugs; this parable is here to remind you of different truth about evil being crushed.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!