The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds -- Matthew 13:24-43

Beth Staten

Here’s a little pop quiz to get us started: I’m going to give you a list of people and you can guess what they have in common. Ready? Babe Ruth, Larry Bird, President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Mozart, Bill Gates, Helen Keller, Joan of Arc, Mark Twain. They were all left-handed!Where are my lefties in the room this morning? Come on, southpaws. Left hands up and proud. I’m so glad you came to church today, because this is your day. Usually phrases having to do with leftiness are not compliments. You have two left feet means you’re clumsy. To give a left-handed compliment means you said something that sounded nice but really wasn’t and I bet you have others. 

This morning we are going to talk about two kinds of power: right-handed power and left-handed power. This is a concept that was originally developed by Martin Luther (who as far as I could tell was not a lefty) You see the world runs on  right-handed power. Right handed power is direct power. It’s obvious, it can be violent. It’s using force to get what you want. It’s “because I said so” power. It’s using a hammer to pound in a nail power. It’s top-dog power.

But there’s another kind of power. It’s left-handed power. Left-handed power takes the indirect approach. It’s under-dog power. It’s non-violent power. It’s civil disobedience. It’s power that succeeds by failing. It’s small power. It’s mysterious power. 

Left-handed power is so alien to us, that many people have a really hard time believing it could really work. How could indirect power possibly get you further than direct power? How could love possibly be a more effective motivator than fear? How could sacrifice possibly get you further than force? Why would you tell the truth if lying will get you what you want? Why would you deliberately spend time with nobodies when the power brokers are inviting you to the table? It doesn’t make sense.

BUT— be ready to sit up tall and proud, southpaws, because here’s the left-handed analogy you’ve all been waiting for—the Kingdom of God works through left-handed power! Jesus uses the parables show that the advance of God’s Kingdom in the world turns our ideas of power upside down by inviting us to to trust instead of judging.

So, before we get into the text, let’s get our bearings.

We are in the book of Matthew. This is a version of the story of Jesus written for a community of folk who were Jewish followers of Jesus. Matthew goes out of his way to emphasize how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He has to do this because Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that the Jewish people had been expecting. They were living under occupation in the Roman Empire and waiting for a Messiah who would out-Caesar Caesar and set up an Empire where the Jewish people were on the top of the heap instead of the bottom. They expected God’s empire to be accomplished through right-handed power, just like the Roman Empire had been, because that’s how you get things done. But over and over through the book of Matthew, the author reminds his audience that’s not what Jesus was up to. 

The invitation of Jesus is “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” It is an invitation to change your mind, turn 180 degrees from what seems obvious and trust that God’s Empire is up to something unstoppable right in the middle of the Roman Empire. The Kingdom of God’s indirect approach to advancement, or “left-handed power,” is actually way more powerful, and that’s what Jesus is demonstrating in the parables. Our invitation this morning is to trust Jesus and see what a left-handed Empire can do for the world. So now, let’s get to the text.

Matthew 13, verse 24. Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 

The first thing we learn about God’s Empire is the farmer sowed only good seed. The field belongs to the farmer and his only intention and action is to fill it with good things. He makes full use of his whole field, and doesn’t put anything in it that shouldn’t be there. And then everyone goes to sleep. Sometimes going to sleep has a negative connotation in Jesus’ stories, but that’s only when people fell asleep when they weren’t supposed to. In this case, the good work has been done and it’s time for a rest.

But this farmer has an enemy, someone who hates him enough to break the law by sowing a nasty weed in his field while everyone is sleeping. This weed specifically looks like wheat until it starts to mature. It’s so tricky to tell the difference that one of it’s common names is cheat. 

Notice this: The farmer owns the whole field, and the good seed is already sown. The enemy can’t do anything about that. In fact the best that this enemy can do is a fake version of what the Farmer did. The enemy can also sow in a field, but the field doesn’t belong to him, and he can only sow things that look good but are actually poisonous. All the enemy can do is cheat. That’s the only power the enemy has.

Verse 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’  

See, even in God’s Empire, what this enemy does is still super inconvenient for the workers. In fact, when the trick comes to light, the workers freak out. “WEEDS!!!” They come straight to the Farmer and ask the question that we are all still asking. “Didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where did the weeds come from?” Why is there evil in the world?!

The Scriptures are a mirror for us, revealing what we need to see about ourselves. So Beloved in Christ, this morning I invite you to consider: What if how we read this question accurately reflects our current level of trust in God? Not our current level of mental agreement to doctrines, not our current level of understanding of Trinitarian theology, but our current level of personal trust in the One Who Knit Us Together in our mother’s wombs. Here are two perspectives that inform how we hear this question. 

1: We see the weeds and we question the Farmer. “Did you actually sow good seed in your field? Where did these weeds come from? Did you put them there to make more work for us? What kind of farm are you running here?! Are you even really a farmer?” 

Or 2: We see the Farmer and we question the weeds. “Didn’t you plant good seed in your field? I know you’re a good farmer. I know you only plant good seed in your field. So where the heck did the weeds come from?”

Now, almost everyone I know (usually including me) is obsessed with this question of why there are weeds in the field. Perhaps we are even possessed by it. We have to know WHY! We have learned that many things in our world have a clear and logical cause, and that has helped us trust the world around us. So when bad things happen we ask the question.

And what answer does the farmer give? “An enemy did this.” That’s it. All the Bible gives us is some version of that answer. I think it’s a real answer. There is a force that works against goodness, and we do not understand it. Not everything has a clear and logical cause and as modern people with a Western mindset, we are just not prepared for that. I think that this is because our ability to understand feels a little bit like an ability to control. In our guts, we really think that if we could understand WHY things go wrong, it would hurt less. But that’s never the case, because anyone who has ever talked with a child knows that asking Why is a neverending cycle. Every time we answer one why question, there’s another one right behind it. It can be easy to see that when it’s someone else’s pain, but when it’s our pain, we forget that asking why doesn’t actually get us anywhere. The workers accept the Farmer’s answer. They don’t ask why again, but now they ask what.

Verse 28: The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather the weeds?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

These workers need to take action! That will make them feel better! They very sensibly ask, “What should we do?” And the farmer replies, <both hands up> “Nothing!” <motion> And he drops the mic. THIS is The key to the whole parable. This is the Left-handed genius. 

The word in Greek that the farmer uses can be translated a lot of ways, sometimes “permit” or “allow” as it is here. Luke uses it a lot in his gospel to mean “release” harkening back to the idea of the year of Jubilee. But the most common translation of it in the New Testament is … “forgive.” See?! It’s so left-handed the Bible translators can’t even handle it? The workers want to rush straight to the right-handed power of judgment. They can see what’s wrong and they’re ready to take it out, literally. But the Farmer says, “Actually I don’t need you to do that. We’re going to handle this situation by letting nature to take its course, permitting the weeds and wheat to grow together, forgiving the weeds. 

And why? Because you don’t actually know what your judgment will do. You don’t see the full picture. You’re not the Farmer, you’re the workers and your zeal to rid the field of weeds could do more harm than good. The only action needed here is the non-retaliative action of forgiveness.”

The invitation is for the workers to give up their notion of power and trust the farmer. Because, friends, The Farmer is NOT AT ALL worried about the weeds. The enemy does his worst, and the Farmer says, “Whatever. Let it go.” The Farmer is interested in the wheat, and the wheat is growing just fine. When time is right, at the harvest, the Farmer will direct the workers on how to separate the weeds from the wheat. The weeds become fuel for the harvest bonfire and the wheat is gathered into the barns in all its glorious wheatiness, none the worse for having grown alongside weeds which came to nothing. 

But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus has more parables to tell, so he does. And I think we do a huge disservice to the inspired Scriptures when we try to make moral lessons, much less good theology, from sections we just picked out. So before we get to the interpretation, I want to quickly say that the next two parables, the mustard seed and the yeast, also describe the Kingdom in images of natural processes, not ones that we can control. Once God’s Empire has even the smallest foothold in the world, there’s no stopping it. And then Matthew makes the point that Jesus speaks in parables to fulfill Old Testament prophecy.

And FINALLY the disciples get him alone. Which is good because they really don’t get this Kingdom stuff. They are on the inside track and Jesus is giving them as much as he can, but this idea of left-handed power is so foreign to them that they are are about to miss the point again. 

Verse 36 Then Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”

So let’s see, we’ve had three beautiful stories how the mystery of God’s left-handed, small beginnings approach yields incredible results and all we have to do is trust that it happens, but our boys the disciples zero in on what? “WEEDS!” I submit to you this morning that they are really struggling to take hold of this idea of trusting God’s indirect form of power and so they ask about the only thing that sounds like just maybe it could be something they understand—the right-handed direct power of judgment: “What happened to the weeds?!”

Admittedly, Jesus’ interpretation sounds harsh. And interpreting his interpretation is really hard. But I believe that what I’m about to suggest makes sense given Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus and the themes we’ve been developing together: <pause> I think he’s messing with the disciples. I really do. I think this because both his style and his content are out of sync with the rest of this section on parables. But let’s look at what he does here:

Verse 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man (that’s Jesus himself); 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 

I think his response begins with a sigh and eye-roll, and a “You want things to be direct? Ok here you go. Farmer - me. Field - world. Wheat - good people (not necessarily you guys). Weeds - bad people (maybe you guys). Enemy - red dude with horns a tail and a pitchfork. Harvest - culmination of all of history. And reapers <close eye, look up, thinking> angels! (Not you guys, but you wish!)”

This blunt list of comparisons is totally different from HOW he did the interpretation of the sower. In that parable, Jesus offered the interpretation (versus here the disciples ask for it) and there he used a very story-telling explaining kind of style. This list also is not at all what we came up with when we read it together earlier. Not that we know better than Jesus what his parable means, but this style just doesn’t fit. And neither does what he’s about to say next. Jesus continues.

Verse 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears, listen!

What?! Ok, if you count the lines in Bible, 1/5 of the original story of the weeds and the wheat, dealt with anything that might sound like final judgment. But judgment takes up 1/2 of Jesus’ “interpretation.” See I think what happens here is that Jesus didn’t mean that parable to be about judgment. If it were all about judgment and he wanted to be sure that the disciples knew that, why would he not just offer that interpretation without making them ask about it? That’s what he did with the parable of the sower. 

He actually does tell a story of judgment in the last parable in this section, three more on from here. Like you do, when you’re a good story teller: he talks about the end at the end. 

But his disciples don’t have the patience to hear him out. They want to talk about judgment now. Unlike the workers in the parable, they don’t yet trust their farmer enough to see what happens if they forgive the weeds and leave the sorting for sorting time. They want to know about sorting time NOW. Before the harvest is ready! They’re saying, “Yeah, yeah, Jesus, this Kingdom sounds nice, but we just need you to tell us that when we get to the end, the bad people will get what’s coming to them, and the good people (us, obviously) will get to be the Pearly Gate Welcoming Committee.”

So you know what? He does. I think Jesus gives them the story of judgment that they want to hear. And you know what’s really sad? The disciples are the only ones who are hurt by this. In hearing the story of ultimate judgment that they want to hear, the disciples themselves are judged. In this moment, when they decide to trust their idea of power instead of trusting Jesus, they miss out. They miss out on the opportunity to make a click forward in their lives. To experience the immense freedom that comes from not judging! Judging is exhausting, friends! At first, trusting Jesus feels much harder than judging, but as we practice it we realize that in trusting we find rest. We humbly realize that we are not responsible for sorting out everything in the world, and we finally find some peace, which is what Jesus wanted for us all along. 

We experience the Kingdom when we accept Jesus’ invitation to trust him and leave the judging to God, in the fulness of God’s time. Amen.

Recent Message

Rev. Beth Gedert

This morning we begin a series on the parables of Jesus. Not all of them, because there are a lot. But a few of them. A few parables of grace and a few parables of judgment. Grace first, so we are grounded in the right thing. This is how we are going to spend Lent and wrap up our study of Matthew. Parables are fascinating. Jesus told lots of them; all the gospels record at least some of them. The Greek word for parable simply means comparing one thing with another. But parables are NOT simple. We often assume they are simple because they are stories and they are short. But in truth they are often complicated and confusing once you scratch the surface. They say things we agree with and things we disagree with often in the same parable, which is probably how some of you will feel this morning. So why do we tell them. Well an Episcopal priest named Robert Capon* has written three totally awesome books on parables and he compares them to the art we display in our houses.