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Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Today’s reading follows the same pattern as last week’s: Jesus tells a
parable to a crowd and then later interprets it for his disciples. But just like last
week, the interpretation seems to change the focus of the original parable, which
suggests that the interpretation didn’t come from Jesus himself, but was added
later by Matthew and his church. We sense that the interpretation was added
because the Gospel writer wasn’t all that comfortable with the original parable.
I can understand why Matthew might have had a problem with the Parable
of the Weeds and the Wheat. As a matter of fact, every time this parable comes
around in the lectionary, I find it kind of disturbing. Is it saying we should just
ignore all the evils, and evildoers, in the world? Turn a blind eye to human
traffickers, drug dealers, people who prey on the poor? People who knowingly
ravage the environment with impunity? People who foment hate, bigotry, and
violence, who cheat, steal, and destroy lives? How can we accept such a “live and
let live” attitude in the face of genuine evil?
And it is genuine evil the parable portrays. It is hard to imagine someone so
malicious, sneaking out at night to plant weeds in a neighbor’s crop. Perhaps
something like this used to happen in vendettas between landowners. The weed
in question is a plant called darnel, which looks a lot like wheat. It has long,
smooth fibers just like wheat, and when it gets mixed up with the wheat it’s
almost impossible to tell them apart. Not only that, its seeds are poisonous, so if it
gets accidentally harvested and made into flour, it can cause blindness and even
death. But if you try to uproot this plant, as the farmhands in the parable wanted
to do, you uproot the wheat along with it. The enemy who sneaked into the field
was intentionally sowing disorder, confusion, and danger.
I can imagine how infuriating the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat
must have been to the people who first heard it. Remember, Jerusalem and all of
Palestine were under Roman occupation. From the perspective of Jesus’s
listeners, who had the heel of the Roman boot in their faces, the Romans were
the weeds, a people known for their idolatrous worship, oppressive laws, and
brutal punishments. To hear that there would not be a sorting-out until the
“harvest at the end of time” would not have been very comforting.
It helps to put the parable in its context in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the
Gospels, Matthew is the one most concerned with sin and division in the church.
Matthew’s Jesus is the one who calls out hypocrisy in church members: “Not
everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (7:21).
He calls out lawlessness, which is a killer of love itself (24:12). He prophesies
betrayals and enmities under the threat of persecution (10:21-22, 24-28). He calls
out false prophets who knowingly lead church members astray (24:21-26). He
speaks of the deadliest sin of all as a refusal to forgive a fellow church member
In recounting the parable, Matthew may have been thinking about how
weeds and wheat were growing together in his church, the unfaithful mixing in
with the faithful, to the detriment of the whole church. It’s possible that the early
Jewish Christians considered the Gentile newcomers to be weeds, with their
ignorance of the law and their uncivilized ways. But if we look beyond the parable
itself to its interpretation, it seems clear that Matthew is not just concerned with
internal divisions in the church -- the interpretation broadens the scope, so we
have a picture of the church against the world, or maybe (more accurately from
Matthew’s perspective) the world against the church, using the church to work
evil from within. And the picture of divine forbearance we get in the parable itself
-- “Let them grow together” – changes in the interpretation to a focus on divine
retribution: All “causes of sin” will be eradicated and the “evildoers” will be
thrown into a “furnace of fire,” while the righteous will “shine like the sun in the
kingdom of their Father.” This will be the great Sorting-Out at the consummation
of all things. This vision must have been a great comfort to the beleaguered
church, as it is for many people today. To look at the elimination of all “causes of
sin” is to find reason for hope.
Consider this, though: In real life, as in the field, it can be hard to tell the
weeds from the wheat. It’s not always clear who are the “good” people and who
are the “evil” people. Yet it is comforting to apply these labels. Part of the appeal
of the old TV Westerns was that you knew in the first ten minutes who were the
good guys and who were the bad guys. Some later movies in the “Western” genre
are a lot more ambiguous – the heroes have a dark side and the villains
sometimes invite sympathy. Together they set in motion events that spin out of
their control, so that the “good guys” are pushed over the edge of their goodness
and the “bad guys” show a tender side.
Good and evil grow together in the world and sometimes it’s hard to tell
what’s what. Who we consider to be weeds and who we consider to be wheat
may be a lot more subjective than we are willing to admit.
Not only that, but our human attempts to eradicate evil often have
unintended consequences. For example, our country’s long-running war on terror
surely had some positive results, but new and more implacable terrorist groups
emerged even as the original group was suppressed. The war on drugs is another
example: a well-intentioned effort to protect people from the ravages of drug
addiction resulted in the formation of vicious and violent drug cartels, thousands
of murders, and terrorized populations in the parts of the world where these
cartels operate – all of which has led to the crisis on our southern border. Or think
of the things that can go wrong in anti-poverty efforts: As Matthew Desmond
described in his recent book on poverty in America, programs designed to benefit
the poor have inadvertently provided loopholes for unscrupulous profit by
landlords, medical providers, and others.
That is the inherent problem in our attempts to uproot evil: It is bigger than
we are, and when we set out to do battle with it, we can get confused.
To be clear, this is not an argument for doing nothing. Forbearance has its
limits. To take an example from the church, the clergy sexual abuse scandal was
clearly a case of deadly weeds among the wheat, but the church’s cover-up was
even more devastating. The only acceptable response was zero tolerance, a great
rooting-out of the evil within.
The proper response to the problem of evil is not to dismiss it or pretend it
doesn’t exist. That’s not what the parable is saying. Jesus is only saying that when
we take it upon ourselves to deal with it, we must do so with the utmost caution,
mindful of the ways our good intentions can be subverted or compromised. We
also have to be mindful of our own propensity for self-righteousness and self-
deception. Human beings can make cases for just wars, capital punishment,
covert operations and other efforts to eradicate evil from the world, but we
shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t succeed in making the world a better place. At
the same time, being realistic about the limits of what we can do should not
prevent us from acting against cruelty, exploitation, and lies until the day when
God’s goodness finally prevails.
The world is confusing. The weeds are in the field, entangled with the
wheat. There is evil in the world. But there is also beauty, love, and joy. There is
kindness and compassion, and love of the truth. God has not abandoned the
world. We can live with courage and hope, knowing that this world is still the
place of God’s salvation.
Lisa D. Kenkeremath
Manassas Presbyterian Church
July 23, 2023