He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 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?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 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.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30 – NRSV)
This parable is unique to Matthew.
Once again, Matthew addresses a troubling experience of his audience: They have accepted Jesus so why do the majority of the Jews not accept him? What are they to make of this division? Daniel Harrington writes: “The parable of the wheat and weeds (13:24–30) follows upon the parable of the sower. The setting is agricultural, and the subject is the mixed reception accorded Jesus’ word of the kingdom. The problem faced in the parable is the fact that some Jews accept and others reject the gospel. The issue before the Christians is, How do we react to this reality? The parable, which surely has allegorical features (though not as many as Matt 13:36–43 supplies), counsels patience and tolerance in the present. The assumption behind this counsel is the confidence that at the final judgment there will be a separation between the just and the unjust along with appropriate rewards and punishments.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 208.)
The kingdom of heaven: The expression typical of Matthew, that it is just another way of speaking of “the kingdom”, the centerpiece of Jesus’ preaching: “According to all three Synoptics, the kingdom of God was the central theme of the preaching and teaching of Jesus. The phrase occurs fourteen times in Mark, thirty-two times in Luke, but only four times in Matthew (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43). In its place, Matthew substitutes ‘the kingdom of heaven’ (lit ‘the kingdom of the heavens’, Gk. hē basileía tōn ouranōn). Although dispensational theology has customarily made a theological distinction between these two terms, the simple fact is that they are quite interchangeable (cf. Mt. 19:23 with v 24; Mk. 10:23). In Jewish rabbinic literature, the common phrase is ‘the kingdom of the heavens’ (Dalman, pp. 91ff). In Jewish idiom, ‘heaven’ or some similar term was often used in place of the holy name (see Lk. 15:18; Mk. 14:61).” (G E Ladd, “Kingdom Of God” in G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 3) Wm. B. Eerdman, 1979-1988, 24.)
someone who sowed good seed: The audience is called to listen to the whole process – the sowing and growing. And so we must ask: What is happening here?
while everybody was asleep: This suggests two contrasting interpretations. Firstly, nobody notices the bad thing that is happening in their own backyard. Secondly, the growth continues peaceably until the end. The first interpretation suggests something about being in the kingdom at his moment, while the second suggests something about the end time. This deepens the question, “What is happening here?” You cannot answer this question – you cannot judge – with any confidence until all is revealed at the close of the ages and the fullness of the kingdom.
Let both of them grow together: The idealist will rush to get rid of the weeds and the work of the “enemy” for it is spoiling the crop! In doing this, the idealist will probably also uproot the wheat as well. The realist waits until the end, when the weeds and the wheat can both be removed. The weeds can then be separated out and thrown away. The wheat can be harvested. The “enemy” is thus defeated at the end.
Ronald Knox tells us he spent thirty years writing his book, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (Oxford, 1950). The book attracts me less now than it did forty five years ago when I received it as an ordination gift. Styles and concerns come and go. But I still remember his telling reference to a Robert Browning poem on the first page. Knox writes of the repeated instances throughout history where enthusiasts, in pursuit of something better too often produced something worse: “The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard” (“Abt Vogler”). Knox then goes on to give a particular example with a second century heresy called Montanism which “tried to stampede the Church into greater severity, when she had not forgotten how to be severe. …. it helped her to make up her mind, thus early in her experience, about the recurrent problem of human weakness and her own commission to forgive” (page 49).
In 1689 the English philosopher, John Locke, caused quite a stir when he wrote his “Letter on Toleration”. This letter is worth reading today. Locke, in effect, calls the Christian Churches to be Christian: “Whosoever will list himself under the banner of Christ, must, in the first place and above all things, make war upon his own lusts and vices. It is in vain for any man to usurp the name of Christian, without holiness of life, purity of manners, benignity and meekness of spirit. ‘Let everyone that nameth the name of Christ, depart from iniquity’ (2Timothy 2:19)”.
One of the sad facts of history has been the enthusiasm for intolerance among human beings for each other. This enthusiasm for intolerance has marked Christians every bit as much as others. It is typically an attempt – repeated over and over again – to get rid of what we think are “weeds” so that the true “wheat” can thrive. Too often this “weeding” is carried through with violence and even murder. The fact that, in getting rid of what we think are “weeds”, we also uproot the “wheat”. That is, in the case of Christianity, we cease to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Enthusiasm for truth can blind us to truth.
The respect for both the “weeds” and the “wheat” must begin within myself. The “weeds” within me that I do not acknowledge, that cause me some pain, I will attempt to uproot “out there”. I will, in other words inflict the pain on you.
The appropriate response is not to be willfully tolerant. It is rather to pay close and honest attention to the “weeds” in your own garden. Do not try to uproot those “weeds” for fear that you will also uproot the “wheat”. Face both honestly. Put yourself in the hands of God. That will be the beginning of a gracious and realistic toleration of both yourself and others.