July 23, 2017
By Lucy Reid
Last week I was speaking about the parable of the sower, and I said that when Matthew gives us a step by step explanation of its meaning after Jesus tells it, you can be sure that the meaning is being supplied by Matthew, and wasn’t part of Jesus’ teaching. That’s because parables were used by Jesus to illustrate a point, not as riddles. If you had to explain what it meant, it had failed in its purpose. Much like telling a joke and then having to explain why it’s funny.
But because Jesus’ parables were told and retold for decades before they were written down in the gospels, by then the original context and audience had changed so the original meaning sometimes got lost. That’s why Matthew steps in here to give an explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, just as he did with the parable of the sower.
Matthew is writing for the early Christian church at a time of growth but also persecution. Christians are suffering: there is clearly evil at work in the world, and Matthew makes the parable into a story about the good guys getting rewarded in the end, while the bad guys are rounded up and thrown into hell. And Christians ever since have got a lot of mileage out of this scenario: sorting the world out into who’s going to heaven and who’s heading for damnation, and then judging everyone on that dualistic basis.
But is that what Jesus’ story originally meant?
If we read it carefully, we’ll see that there’s a much more subtle meaning, and it’s not so much about judging who’s good and who’s evil, but about withholding that judgment because of its dangers.
Jesus starts the story with a simple scenario: someone sows good seed in a field, but someone else comes by night and sows weeds in amongst it. Time passes, and both plants start to grow up together and it becomes apparent that weeds have got in.
(It reminds me of the case a few years ago when an Ontario farmer was growing organic crops, but genetically modified Monsanto seeds from a neighbour’s field got in and grew, Monsanto sued him for growing their seeds without permission.)
So in Jesus’ parable here’s the problem: the good and the bad are mixed up and growing together.
Along come the agricultural labourers, who want a quick solution: “Shall we rip the weeds out?” It seems logical: get rid of the bad stuff; weed it out; yank it up by the roots; put an end to it right now. But the farmer says no, they should leave them alone, “because in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
He wants them to be allowed to continue growing together, to avoid the potential damage done by pulling the weeds out.
Theologian Robert Farrar Capon, who has written some masterful books on the parables of Jesus, says this about the labourers’ desire to pull up the weeds: “No matter that they may have plausible proposals for dealing with the menace [of the weeds] as they see it; their very proposals, the farmer tells them, are more of a menace than anything else.” [Parables of the Kingdom, p86]
Being judgmental, and especially judging prematurely, can do immeasurable harm. So this is a teaching of Jesus about living with good and evil as close neighbours, and needing to discern very carefully the results of our actions. Sometimes when we think we’re doing something good we’re actually causing terrible harm.
The residential schools are a prime example: they were designed to “kill the Indian in the child” and solve the “Indian problem.” But they caused immeasurable damage to generations of children and families, emotionally, spiritually, physically, economically – in virtually every way.
The “war on drugs” is another example: a system of criminalizing and penalizing drug use that targeted certain racial minorities, and caused the making and selling of drugs by cartels and gangs to flourish exponentially.
When we plunge in to deal with what we consider to be evil, we have to be very very careful that we’re not just making the problem worse.
But there’s another aspect to this: our judgments are notoriously short-sighted. And Jesus taught that God’s judgment can surprise us:
– “Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matt. 7:21] The good guys are not necessarily the religious ones. As we know all too well in this day and age.
– In another place Jesus says that the so called bad guys like tax collectors and prostitutes will be going into the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders. [Matt. 21:31]
It’s been said that when you point an accusing finger at someone, three other of your fingers are pointing back at you. And that’s the third point of this parable: that in each one of us is both good and evil. None of us is purely on the good guy team, and none of us is hopelessly on the bad guy team. We’re all made of both wheat and weeds, and it’s grace that deals with the weeds in us.
Hell isn’t a place the incorrigible sinners go to after they die: it’s the pain and suffering we create for ourselves and each other now, in this life. And what needs to be burned away in us is the stuff in our lives that separates us from God and causes us to hurt each other. We ourselves need to be purged: we don’t need to be judging each other and condemning others to hell.
So this parable of the wheat and the weeds is a wise and subtle story about how to live with good and evil as close neighbours – including in ourselves. It’s about having discernment, and not acting too quickly to deal with what we see as bad. And it’s about letting God teach us the slow, patient way of waiting, trusting, learning compassion, and being purged of what distorts our own soul’s growth.