The mix of good and evil in the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13)

The lectionary gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity in Year A once more splits up a text in order to unite a parable and its interpretation by Jesus, though with less damage than was done previously. The parable itself is given in Matthew 13.24–30; we then skip over the brief parables of the mustard seed and yeast, and a Matthean explanation of Jesus’ use of parables as ‘fulfilment’; and we return to Jesus’ explanation of the parable in Matt 13.36–43.

In many ways this passage is more straightforward to read than some of Jesus’ other parables—but the real interest begins when we look at the different ways this has been interpreted and applied, often quite against the grain of the text (pun intended!)


The first thing we need to note is the context in Matthew’s gospel. This is yet another of the ‘parables of the kingdom of heaven’ that Matthew has collected together—as we can see clearly from the one reference to location in  verse 36. The last location mentioned has been the boat the Jesus sat in in order to teach the crowds in Matt 13.2; when Jesus explains this parable privately to the disciples from Matt 13.10, it is highly unlikely that they are in the boat with him! Now we discover how this happened: following Jesus’ public teaching to the crowds, he and the disciples have returned indoors. The mention here, and the lack of mention previously, confirms that Matthew is collecting material together on the basis of its theme.

It is also interesting that this parable is unique to Matthew, with no clear parallel occurring elsewhere in the other gospels. It reads as the most ‘allegorical’ of Jesus’ parables, and in that sense is something of an ‘outlier’. Yet there is no reason to dismiss it on these grounds as a construction of Matthew rather than Jesus. It is not very much more ‘allegorical’ than the Parable of the Sower and Soils, and in fact is less like an allegory for at least two reasons. First, not all the details make allegorical sense; what does it mean for the Son of Man to ‘sow’ the ‘seeds’ that are the righteous ‘sons [children] of the kingdom’? Secondly, the interpretation of the story actually correlates well with the content of the story, whereas in allegorical interpretation the meaning (e.g. salvation) is often at some distance from the story itself (e.g. a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho).


So to the parable itself. In the introduction to this section, Matthew describes Jesus as ‘telling’ many parables, using the regular term laleo which he also repeats in the omitted parable of the yeast in Matt 13.33. But in introducing both this parable and the omitted parable of the mustard seed, Matthew tells us that Jesus ‘sets before them’ (paratithemi) another parable. The word is primarily used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) for a meal that is set before a person (and it has this sense in Mark 6.41 and Luke 10.8); Jesus is giving his listeners food for thought here, and though the meal has been well prepared, it still needs cutting up and digesting. This is no spoon feeding!

The other sense of this word is to ‘entrust’ someone with something; thus people are entrusted with much in Luke 12.48, Jesus entrusts himself to God in Luke 23.46, and the believers entrust themselves to the Lord in Acts 14.23. It will become clear that Jesus is entrusting this teaching to his disciples, and expects them to use this deposit well.

The ‘weeds’ that are sown along with the wheat are described as being zizanion, which is (following Jeremias’ studies of the parables) identified as ‘darnel‘, a poisonous grain which looked very similar to wheat as it grew, and could only be separated out with great care from the wheat grain once the crop had been harvested. Its mixture with wheat was so damaging and dangerous that there was specific Roman legislation setting out the punishments for those who sow this seed amongst someone’s wheat as a way of getting revenge. Although it is not made explicit in either the parable or its interpretation, which focus on the close proximity between wheat and weed, their similar appearance is a natural part of the story for Jesus’ listeners and Matthew’s readers.

I find it interesting that so much of the content of the parable is carried by the dialogue between the master of the household (the owner of the field) and his servants or slaves. (Jesus is, of course, not making any ethical evaluation of slavery here, but simply telling this story as part of everyday life in his world.) It gives the story much more rhetorical force; we can hear the surprise of the servants, their shock even, at this calamity—and we can also hear the weight of the master’s response, ‘An enemy did this!’ Despite the master’s apparent sovereignty over his household, it appears that an enemy, with real power and whose actions have real consequences, is also at work—as a usurper—in the master’s field.

(It is worth noting in passing that, within the parable, the servants who ask the questions will likely be the same as those who come to harvest the field—it is in the interpretation that these become different groups.)


The narrative focus of the parable itself appears to be the paradox of the wheat and the weeds co-existing, not merely side by side but in close proximity to one another—close enough that uprooting one might uproot another. Thus pastoral application has sometimes focussed on this; a modern sermon outlined here makes two of its three points relate to this (‘Stay engaged’ and ‘Practice tolerance’, both drawing on the phrase ‘Let both of them grow together’ in verse 30). There is no doubt that we should do both of these things, but it becomes less clear that this is the central focus in Jesus’ interpretation.

The question of tolerance and toleration loom large in the history of interpretation of the parable. St John Chrysostom argues that Jesus is here teaching that we should not kill heretics—though how you might suppose from the teaching of Jesus that killing anyone is a good idea, I cannot fathom.

But what means, Lest ye root up the wheat with them? Either He means this, If you are to take up arms, and to kill the heretics, many of the saints also must needs be overthrown with them; or that of the very tares it is likely that many may change and become wheat. If therefore ye root them up beforehand, you injure that which is to become wheat, slaying some, in whom there is yet room for change and improvement. (Homily 46)

It is interesting that, in reflecting on this, Chrysostom also includes consideration that the wicked might repent—a notion that is excluded by the substance of both this parable and the parable of the soils/sower, but which is central to Jesus’ other teaching. Martin Luther makes a similar point:

Again this Gospel teaches how we should conduct ourselves toward these heretics and false teachers. We are not to uproot nor destroy them. Here he says publicly let both grow together. We have to do here with God’s Word alone; for in this matter he who errs today may find the truth tomorrow. Who knows when the Word of God may touch his heart? But if he be burned at the stake, or otherwise destroyed, it is thereby assured that he can never find the truth; and thus the Word of God is snatched from him, and he must be lost, who otherwise might have been saved. Hence the Lord says here, that the wheat also will be uprooted if we weed out the tares. That is something awful in the eyes of God and never to be justified.

But what is strange in the history of interpretation is the tradition, beginning with Augustine, of thinking Jesus is teaching that good and evil should co-exist within the ‘church’, amongst his own followers.

O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. … I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. (Sermon 23)

There is some appeal in this—after all, it is Matthew above all amongst the gospels who highlights the possibility of the ekklesia being less than perfect. We find it in the false prophets who are wolves dressed as sheep (Matt 7.15–20); we find it in the rebuke of those who call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’ but he does not know them (Matt 7.2–21); we find it in the guests who come to the wedding but are subsequently ejected (Matt 22.11–13). But we do not find it here! Jesus is very clear that the field is ‘the world’ (Matt 13.38) not the ekklesia. This is a parable about being a disciple in an evil world, not about being faithful in an evil ‘church’.

(See also, as another variation on this, the interpretation of Origen, that the weeds represent the persistence of evil desires within ourselves.)


With Jesus’ interpretation of the parable, in the second part of the lectionary reading, the emphasis shifts decisively to the image and reality of judgement. The description of the Son of Man both as the king of the kingdom, and the one who in The End executes the righteous judgement of God, is both distinctive to Matthew, and is unfolded in more detail in the ‘eschatological parables’ of Matt 24 and 25. (It is almost as though we have here a prelude to that teaching.)

As with the later teaching, there is a clear depiction of separation followed by judgement. The world has now become ‘the kingdom’ of the Son of Man (v 41), just as it is declared, looking ahead to The End, in Rev 11.15. The image of fire and a blazing furnace is a common Old Testament image of the destruction of judgement. Despite the use of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, a phrase Jesus uses six times here in Matthew and once in Luke, this is not a picture of ‘conscious eternal torment’, not least because ‘gnashing of teeth’ signifies anger and resentment, not pain—and the finality of ‘burning’ admits for no sense of continuing existence. God is not a cosmic sadist, but he is the Lord of life and the righteous judge.

(As an aside, I rather like the story of the Irish ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher who majored on this phrase. An elderly person in the congregation complained: ‘What about those of us who don’t have teeth?’; to which the reply came: ‘TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!’)

So the real emphases of the parable seem to be this: although God is sovereign in Jesus, there is a real Enemy who both opposes God and has a real effect in the world. Good and evil, in actions and people, co-exist in this world. We are not called to compromise in righteous living, but to recognise that we need to live with patience and a certain kind of tolerance in recognising that evil is real, and will not be fully dealt with until the end. But we can be sure that that End will indeed come, and that when it does the King will be fully sovereign on that day, and that all that is evil will face judgement. Without this hope, how can we rage against the evil we see around us without falling into despair?

In an age that appears to live with the twin paradox of angry intolerance and a repugnance at the reality of judgement, this parable offers a stark alternative. As followers of the Son of Man who will one day truly be king, we are confident that judgement will come. Yet in the meantime, we live with tolerance and forgiveness, not least because we know that we can trust judgement to God; God’s judgement is certain, but he is not in a hurry. It offers a very different way to live, and a different kind of hope.


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7 thoughts on “The mix of good and evil in the Parable of the Weeds (Matt 13)”

  1. Thanks. Lots to think about. In my daily bible notes today the write points out that Jesus is the seed (singular) of Abraham. (Galatians 3:16) If we are in Christ we are seed too. (Galatians 3:29)

    Reply
  2. Ian

    I’ve got to press you as I have pressed Penelope, David and James on another thread. Hope you don’t mind. Do you regularly proclaim, alongside the wonderful invitations and promises, the terrible warnings in the language that the Bible (and the Book of Common Prayer – the Commination) uses: ‘dreadful judgment’, ‘cast into the fire’, ‘fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’, ‘fire and brimstone’, ‘burn the chaff with unquenchable fire’, ‘wrath of God in the day of vengeance’, ‘they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me’, ‘Go ye cursed, into the everlasting fire…’, ‘utter darkness where is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ – without adding your interpretation ruling out eternal retribution?

    Your “God is not a cosmic sadist, but he is the Lord of life and the righteous judge” falls below your usual high standard. Are you really confident that eternal retribution cannot be God’s righteous judgment?

    Phil Almond

    Reply
    • Bear with my train of thought…
      Because God is Life nothing dead or unconscious can exist in his presence. Therefore all the dead will be alive in his presence. I can imagine, that even the unsaved, being part of the created universe will have nowhere to hide but will be driven ever outwards on the expanding bubble we call the universe. Forever blown away at the speed of light, forever getting thinner and stretched out across the expanse. Always on the edge of time but never part of it.
      But to God the universe is in his hand and appears to get no bigger. There is a finality in some set of infinity we cannot comprehend. We just don’t know what happens to us when everything that is made out of that which is not seen is revealed. But I still think God will burn up all the dross and that will be that. We are saved. Therefore there is something to be saved from. Let us press on and not spend too much time on these things. I think Ian has found the right balance. The dead will be burned up with no way of return.

      Reply
      • Steve
        My point is that all Christians who preach or teach or feel called to witness to others should speak about the wonderful invitations and promises of salvation and also about the terrible warnings to flee from the wrath to come, using the language for those warnings that the Bible itself uses, not least from Christ’s own lips. Christ said these things. If we don’t speak about them we are neglecting some of Christ’s words.

        Phil Almond

        Reply
    • Another interpretation, concerning personal psychology. Many of us struggle with conflicted thoughts, impulses and memories that will not go away. We pray for freedom from them. Why are they even there?
      This parable acknowledges the reality of being human in all its complexity, that it is God who ultimately judges, not us. Some of those frustrating characteristics may turn out to be beneficial, in time.

      Reply
  3. The allegorical but incomplete equivalence is a real challenge. Thank you Ian for highlighting that it is incomplete – the idea that the sower (Son of Man) sows the righteous seeds – that is unless we hold to a strong view on predestination; and this parable, even more than the parable of the “sower” pushes towards a predestination-interpretation.

    Seeds are helpless to move from where they have fallen, and in this parable you are either born a wheat seed or a weed-seed. Both parables imply no choice for the seed to move or change its essence. Do we want to interpret things that way? Most of us would not.

    So if we move away from that approach then the focus of both parables becomes more of an illustrated example first of how we might view the world as it is – Sower – some people grow in faith and others don’t; wheat and weeds, the world is mixed and difficult to judge for sure. Then the worked answers Jesus gives to his disciples to those who are “inside”, are more focused on giving us – those with ears to hear – a chance to check how we are living.
    Will we be scorched with shallow roots (as were the disciples fell away a few chapters later) or choked (as the rich young ruler was, by his love of wealth) or will we work to put down roots?

    Will we continue to work at being fruitful (and resist being too judgemental), leaving it to God to judge? I don’t think this means we should not make judgements but we should be careful in so doing, not rush to it.

    Maybe this is too easy a reading and too shallow a reading, but it does, I think, do credit to the gaps between the telling and the explaining, and the changed audience for the explanations.

    For me the world is mixed – I like the Latin permixta – and for me the church on earth is permixta (again that does not mean we do nothing about it but it is the reality), and for me humans are permixta, and Christians remain permixta in their actions and in their choices.

    The parable of the sower at the very least invites a view that faithful growth is not something inevitable from the start but something that can die in some because of trouble or persecution scorching it, or something that can grow but without fruit in others because of worldly care and love of wealth. Th wheat and the weeds invites us to be sure we are fruit-bearing in reality. it is Matthew who stresses being doers of the Word and not hearers only; who completes the sermon on the mount with the wise man who “hears and acts”, compared to the one who hears and does not act.
    Let those with ears hear and take thought for their own spiritual growth and what challenges it.

    We are back again with the philosophical issue of predestination, human choice and the sovereign will of God, though the more philosophically minded do not always include the “enemy” in the mix who is fairly active in these parables. Judgement is of God and that we must teach, but the authority to judge is above my pay-grade. I humbly hope I will be found to have borne fruit, and in that hope I can rejoice.

    Reply
  4. Thank you, Peter for your open wrestling for highlighting a topic of significant depth, which many? do not or have not fought with but have conceded with an unarticulated conclusion.
    As you know it is a topic which is part of the whole Pelagian, semi-Pelagian and Augustine debate and its theological outworkings today,with the doctrines of God, Trinity, Christology and revelation, let alone humanity, evil, satan. Do they change with every wind of change in personal and social ethics?
    Does the reality of Ephesians chapters1 & 2 bring joy, and exultant praise?
    Or what about? quizzical confusion?
    And yes, there is far more to the topic than those two chapters.

    Reply

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