24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. 25 While people were sleeping, an enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 When the stalks sprouted and bore grain, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The servants of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you plant good seed in your field? Then how is it that it has weeds?’
28 “‘An enemy has done this,’ he answered.
“The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’
29 “But the landowner said, ‘No, because if you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow side by side until the harvest. And at harvesttime I’ll say to the harvesters, “First gather the weeds and tie them together in bundles to be burned. But bring the wheat into my barn.”’…
36 Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
37 Jesus replied, “The one who plants the good seed is the Human One.[a]38 The field is the world. And the good seeds are the followers of the kingdom. But the weeds are the followers of the evil one. 39 The enemy who planted them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the present age. The harvesters are the angels. 40 Just as people gather weeds and burn them in the fire, so it will be at the end of the present age. 41 The Human One[b] will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that cause people to fall away and all people who sin.42 He will throw them into a burning furnace. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Those who have ears should hear.”
It’s a curious quirk of humanity that when you tell someone something, they will often hear not what you said, but what they think you said. Worse yet, they may have only heard what they wanted to hear, and tuned out the rest.
I’ll give you an example.
Luis was a young teen in need of some money so he could go out with his friends, but he was also a teen who wanted to put only minimal effort into what he did. His dad came home and told him that he needed some lawn work done before the weekend. Luis kind of nodded along, not really paying attention, until his dad tacked on that he’d be willing to pay him if he did a good job. His ears perked up after that, and jumped on task. However, as his dad explained the job, Luis’s mind drifted, thinking about what he would spend the money on, and not what he needed to do to get said money.
Flash forward to the weekend. Luis had mowed, weeded, and edged the lawn, what he remembered his dad asked him to do. His dad came home, examined his work, and then paid him–but only half of what he promised him. Luis was enraged. He spent half the day working on the yard! When he protested, his father calmly reminded him that yes, while he did a great job on the things he did, he didn’t trim the hedges, clean the gutters, or sweep off the patio. Dad asked for 6 things, he did three. Therefore half the pay. Crestfallen, Luis accepted this explanation. He only heard half of the directions. Rather, he heard it, but wasn’t listening.
Regarding this proclivity for selective hearing, the same can be said for many of the parables of Jesus.
In many ways, we have what a preaching professor of mine called “Attention Deficit Discipleship.” We, like Luis, can often get distracted by what we want to hear, to the exclusion of what might be necessary to hear. It doesn’t help when, over the course of centuries, certain narratives and certain morals are consistently reinforced, narratives that may exclude something very crucial to understanding what scripture may be trying to get across, even the words of Jesus Christ himself.
This parable of the “wheat and the weeds” is fairly similar in reference material to the parable of the seeds–all of Jesus’s parables drew on common experience, and back then, common experience usually involved agriculture–but with a different emphasis. Instead on just one type of seed being planted in various soils, this one instead focuses not on whether or not the seeds will grow, but what they will grow to become.
However, with that said, it’s interesting how our minds will often gravitate to one part of the parable and ignore other parts, because it is simply something that many of us are fascinated by. In fact, ignoring the flashy bits, and instead focusing on what Christ may want us to focus on may be the hardest thing to do.
The Elephant in the Room
So let’s get this out of the way: This parable is not actually about hell and the nature of evil.
As much as we are hypnotized by evil and the afterlife, that’s not really what I think Jesus is trying to say with this parable. Why do I say this? Well, for one, this parable doesn’t really do a very good job of explaining evil at all.
First of all, a parable is a story meant to explain a spiritual truth via the means of a metaphor, or an analogy. With any analogy, there will always be a point where the metaphor will break down. There is nothing you can do to get around this, even if you’re the Son of God. That’s just not how analogies work. So while they can be and are useful to some degree, it will never be a 1 to 1 perfect fit. Analogies are meant to explain one, maybe two, main ideas–not everything it uses in the process.
Where this one breaks down is the explanation of the evil in this world. Jesus says that the weeds are “followers of the evil one.” Well, if that’s the case, wouldn’t these followers of the evil one have been evil since before they were born? And if that’s the case, would it then be logical to say that God created these people to be evil? And if that’s the case, why did God say in the beginning that humanity was created and called “very good?” Also, if we believe that God loves humanity and wants us to be in a relationship with us, does that extend to these bad seeds? Do these people have any hope at all, or are they condemned before their birth? And if they are, how could we then call God all good and loving if he created people just to be destroyed and condemned?
This is a line of questioning that can lead to some less-than-satisfying answers. There is of course those in the Reformed tradition that sees no problem with this, and believe that if God is truly sovereign, then there is no incompatibility with the idea that God is good and created people specifically to be condemned. This theology very much leans on the notion that the ways of God are not our ways, and we ought not question God’s logic. To me though, this action does not sound like a God that I would want to worship. Hell ought not be a place for people specifically created to do evil in the world, but people who choose to do evil in the world unrepentantly. I don’t like the idea that though I might have faith in God, and good works to compliment it, if God pre-determined that I was to be sent to the flames despite everything I’ve believed, said and done, well, that just doesn’t sound like a very good God. It sounds like a petty tyrant, not a loving and just father.
To be honest, it doesn’t much sound like the farmer in the parable, either.
This is a farmer who doesn’t want his servants going out and immediately weeding the crops because he’s afraid of damaging the good wheat. That is definitely merciful, and more than just. I know that if I was tending a garden, I would want to yank those weeds out as soon as I saw them. But that’s not how this farmer works. In fact, this farmer seems very patient, and kind.
So that kind of logic is inconsistent within the same parable. Which is why focusing on the evil and hell part, though flashy, entertaining, and attention-grabbing, is not really the focus of the parable. It is simply a period on a sentence. Jesus rarely said the most crucial parts of his teachings at the end, anyways. His teachings almost always have a structure of escalation, where the climax is in the middle, and not the end.
There are many sermons one can make about the nature of evil and the existence of hell. This parable, however, does not lend itself to that naturally.
Hard to Swallow
So, you may be asking, if this is NOT a parable about hell and evil, then what is it about? Well, it’s almost the opposite: It’s actually about ambiguity.
Yes, one of the most seemingly cut-and-dried parables, one which most people assume just explains the division of good and bad people being sorted out for their respective afterlives, is actually about us not really being able to tell the difference in this life.
Why do I believe this? Because look at how Jesus divides up the metaphor. The Farmer is the Son of Man, the farmhands are the angels, the farm is the world, the wheat are the righteous, and the weeds are followers of the evil one. Note, then, who is the one deciding which pile goes where? It’s the Son of Man. And who are the reapers? The angels. Who is being reaped? Us. It’s us. We are the ones who are being acted upon in this situation. We are not acting. We are not deciding who is good and who is evil. We are the ones being judged.
This gets to the heart of the issue. We are so focused on the hell and evil because we imagine ourselves in the place of the angels, sent to do the reaping, or even the Son of Man, sent to be the judge. But ours is not to judge, but to be judged. Our imaginations are captivated by the mental calculus of who’s where when we die, and deciding who are the followers of Satan and who the righteous are that we lose the plot of the parable: We will be EVENTUALLY be reaped, but until then, we can’t tell who is good and who is evil. So for now, things are ambiguous. And we have to live with the ambiguity.
We don’t like ambiguity though. Nobody likes ambiguity.
Ambiguity is something that for about 150 years, evangelical Christianity has been trying to erase from scripture, even though it’s thoroughly baked into the batter. When our modern scientific minds decided that the bible is entirely black and white, A is A, we lost a big part of what makes scripture so beautiful and special. When you read a poem, do you read it for the scientific analysis it provides? When you sing a song, do you sing it because of how accurate it is in explaining the cosmos? True, there are laws in scripture, and histories, but more important than anything actually written down in the bible is the story it was meant to tell. A love story. A story that transcends black and white, a story that is more accurate to real life than any other story. Life is not black and white, and filled with ambiguity. Scripture is here to help prepare us to deal with ambiguity.
Preparing for the Harvest
To bring this all together, we must come to terms with what we are. We are what will in the end be harvested. As such, we are tasked with one task: To grow. To focus on our own growth. To think first and foremost about the status of our own soul, and not that of another.
Jesus reiterated this many times, but coined the famous maxim that we are to take the log out of our own eye before we remove the speck out of our neighbors. How other people live their lives? That’s not your problem. Your problem is your life. How is your status with God? How is your relationship? Have you been taking care of your relationship with God? Have you been reading scripture? Have you been praying? Have you taken the time to be in communion with God? Have you been growing in love with God and your neighbor? I think who we perceive ourselves to be is tremendously important, because it helps govern how we live. God in the beginning called us beloved children. When we see ourselves as such, we begin to live as such.
I’ll close with this thought I learned from Rev. David Henson.
“In the Master’s garden, The Master errs on the side of growth rather than punishment. The Master is more concerned with everything growing than just the right things growing. But our tendency is to read a great deal of punishment in all this; the eventual burning of the weeds becomes for us a metaphor for the fires of hell and judgment. The introduction of flames in the last few sentences colors the entire parable.
But, to me, it’s not a promise of judgment. It’s a promise of harvest. Harvest is about feeding people. It’s about sustenance. It is about bounty and abundance. Our [minds]… however, have turned the theological idea of a harvest into something to be feared, a terrible separating of those who belong and those who don’t.
But that’s not what a harvest is about. Harvests bring together communities. Harvests are hard-work, to be sure, but they are to be celebrated, not feared. In the end, by the time the harvest arrives, no one is concerned with the weeds any more. They are concerned and thrilled at the bounty and abundance springing from the land. They are concerned about putting up food for the lean months. They are excited about a season’s work bringing forth fruit.
Weeds are a concern only for those who can’t see the joy of the harvest.”
So may you go out and see the harvest for what it is: a celebration. May you grow in love with God, and ever give thanks to God. Glory to God. Amen.