What Jesus Really Said
Parable of the Weeds
24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”1
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been examining some of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God. Our Lord has used the imagery of seeds and planting and growth and harvest because seeds are small; they seem insignificant, hardly noticeable. Yet a seed contains within itself all the power necessary to grow.
In the parable of the Seed (Mark 4:21-29), Jesus told us of a farmer who planted the seeds had no understanding of how seeds grew and had no part in the seeds’ working. The Kingdom Seed does what it does; it does it in a way the farmer knows nothing about. It sprouts all on its own. It grows all on its own. It bears fruit all on its own. Jesus says, “28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”2 The earth – all of it: good, bad, or indifferent – produces.3
The sowing of Kingdom Seed is a work of Messiah, unleashing mysterious forces that operate apart from human power and achieve God’s sovereign purposes. Christ’s Kingdom grows because it has been sown by the great Triune God. It grows all on its own power and all in its own good time. Satan cannot destroy it. American political or moral policies cannot destroy it. Radical Islam cannot erase it. It requires none of our moral or political defending because we didn’t plant the Seed and we have no power to bring the Seed to harvest.
Now, if you’re a control freak, like me, you find that fact very upsetting in a world of right-handed power. You want to control the way God’s Kingdom works; you want to defend this glorious Kingdom into which you have come by trust into Christ the King from all the forces of darkness lined up against it. You long for a little right-handed sensibility.
You and I are not alone; the very last thing the apostle Peter wanted was for Jesus to die on a cross in Jerusalem. He rebuked Jesus for such a left-handed idea. Jesus responds to Peter’s right-handed theology of “Glory Now” by calling Peter “Satan” (Matt. 16:21-23):
23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 4
We are all hard-wired for right-handed glory (the things of man) – mostly our own glory. We want to be a part of something splendid, something grand and powerful right here and right now. Jesus’ Kingdom parables teach that we ARE part of a grand and glorious and powerful Kingdom. It’s grand and glorious and powerful right now, right here!
But WE don’t understand the power; it doesn’t stroke our egos and it doesn’t deliver “victory now.” So what Jesus intends as comforting, we want to explain away or outright ignore. In fact, the only disciple to finally see something of Jesus’ left-handed plan – the one who saw the absence of self-glory, the weakness, the poverty, the persecution – totally bailed and sold out the Christ for 30 pieces of silver and a suicide party.
Part of the incredible power of God’s Kingdom is that you and I are kept from doing the very same thing as Judas – bailing on this left-handed Kingdom with its upside-down theology of the cross! As frustrated as we get watching a strong and crafty enemy assail God’s Kingdom, the Spirit keeps hold of us in mysteriously-powerful-but-upside-down ways like ministry of the Word and eating crackers and sipping wine together.
A String of Parables
The parable of the Weeds offers us insight into how God’s Kingdom works in a world poisoned with every imaginable kind of evil. Jesus again tells us a story of comparison showing an upside-down farmer with an upside-down plan of action. “24 He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field….’”5
Matthew strings together the Sower parable (we examined two weeks ago) with the Weeds parable (24-30), the Mustard Seed and Yeast parables (31-33), and then the explanation of the Weeds parable (36-43). He begins the Weeds parable with the word “another” and the next two parables with the word “again.”
In between the Yeast parable and the explanation of the weeds he writes this, “34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.” (vv. 34).6 And the parables Matthew strings together here suggest that Jesus is more than the Seed sown, more than the sower, and more than king. He is so inseparable from the Kingdom he is announcing that he IS the kingdom, the sower, the Seed all in one. His work appears as tiny as a mustard seed and as insignificant as one single grain of yeast but he will accomplish everything he set out to do.
But there appears to be a deeper layer to the good seed the farmer sows in this parable. The word “seed” is found, depending upon the particular English translation, between 30 to 52 times. Most references to seed (expect for Matt. 13:24, 27; 13:32; Mk. 4:31), refer to “the progeny that comes from the seed … ‘seed of Abraham’ is the common citation, it refers obviously not to Abraham’s sperm cells but to his descendants – that is, what grows from the seed rather than to the seed itself.”7
So, Jesus has sown himself, his Kingdom, and his (and Abraham’s) offspring into the world. The farmer fills the whole of his field with this seed, suggesting Jesus’ theme of a universal, borderless, kingdom.
He continues, “25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.”8 Again, the farmer and farm hands are sleeping (as in the parable of the Sower). Their duties are done; they’re not being lazy, but simply going on about their lives as the seed does what the seed does: sprouts and grows of its own power. The mystery is that the Seed/Kingdom fends for itself. And it does what it does without any serious threat from the enemy or the weeds.
The kind of bad seed sown by the enemy is likely darnel, also referred to as “false wheat.” It produces a poisonous seed and looks something like a wheat plant until it begins to fruit. “Tares,” as some translations call this seed, do not bear the slightest resemblance to wheat, and don’t fit with the essential meaning of this parable.9 But as both the wheat and darnel begin to set fruit, the workers notice the difference.
If you like gardening, then you can understand how Jesus’ listeners living in an agrarian culture would raise an eyebrow at this story. The practice of not pulling out weeds is completely contrary to successful farming. At the least, you would cut down the darnel stalks (gather, v. 28, doesn’t have to mean “pull up”) before the seed matured and reseeded itself into your field.
In response to the field workers asking for permission to go cut down the darnel, the farmer “said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them’” (v. 29).10 The parable says God’s preferred response to evil, for the time being, is to do nothing.
The farmer has a grander strategy in mind that doesn’t involve fighting a minor battle against fleeting inconveniences. Rather, he has a final, once-for-all strategy against his enemy. It doesn’t matter what reasonable-sounding proposals the workers have for dealing with evil right away. The farmer tells them their plans are more dangerous than helpful. His plan of waiting until the final harvest will deal fully and finally with the problem the enemy and his bad seed.11
Jesus explains this in vv. 36-42, 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age.… 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.12
Yet the main focus of Jesus’ parable of Weeds is not on the final judgment; it’s on the present forbearance to evil surrounding the Kingdom, even invading the Kingdom with the enemy’s counterfeits.13 It’s about forbearance of the weeds among the wheat. It’s about the present relationship of Jesus’ Kingdom seed and the seed of the devil.
Jesus is NOT telling us everything about this world is bad and should be avoided. The right-handed kingdom isn’t bad in and of itself. Christians live in both the kingdom of the left hand (Christ’s kingdom) and the kingdom of the right hand (the world). This parable more generally concerns the problem of evil, God’s response to it, and our response to it.
Resistance is Futile; But You Won’t Be Assimilated
The Kingdom of God’s response to evil in the present age is that it is to be suffered, not resisted in some direct, right-handed fashion. Whatever plan the workers devise to rid the world of evil is doomed to do exactly what the farmer says it will do – uproot the good seed with the bad. “Since the only troops available to fight the battle are either too confused or too busy to recognize the real difference between good and evil, all they will accomplish by their frantic pulling out of the weeds is the tearing up of the wheat right along with them.”14
Jesus is also saying that the enemy has no real power against God’s Kingdom. He has no power against God’s goodness. There is nothing the enemy can do. The Kingdom of God is in the world; the good seed has been sown. “Evil, like darnel, is a counterfeit of reality, not reality itself. It is a parasite on being, not being itself.”15
The enemy, as the parable develops, only uses a small amount of negative power to bring havoc in the world. He sows the bad seed and then waits for the well-meaning workers to take their own actions. The enemy “depends on the forces, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work. …Unable to take positive action anyway – having no real power to muck up the operation – he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him.”16
Goodness committed to right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness and decency, do the enemy’s work for him as it rips up wheat and weeds alike.17 The farmer’s good workers are well-intentioned. They are SO well-intentioned it’s utterly unnatural for them to rest in the farmer’s plan when there are perfectly reasonable right-handed remedies available.
If we understand what Jesus is teaching about this immovable, all-powerful, unassailable Kingdom then we come to a logical, reasonable question: Is Jesus telling us to be passive against evil? Are we not to resist evil? Is Jesus telling us to chill out and look the other way?
No. Jesus does NOT say resistance to evil is morally wrong. He is teaching that resistance to evil is salvifically ineffective. The Kingdom grows; the weeds don’t harm it. We are free to make the case for reasonable right-handed solutions to evil in the right-handed kingdom of the world: just wars, the death penalty, political and economic remedies to social ills real and perceived. BUT, don’t assume those proposed solutions will necessarily (or ultimately) make the world a better place. Only the One who sows the good seed can and will do that in his own good time.
Don’t confuse speaking out against evil with defending God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom grows just fine among the weeds; the weeds cannot stop it. Of course, the weeds also grow perfectly fine among the wheat until the harvest day. And Jesus’ point is, “That’s way it’s going to be until the end of the age” (v. 40).
If we are understanding Jesus’ Kingdom parables rightly, then our understanding puts the hurt on another churchy phrase: “His/her actions have harmed the cause of Christ.” No one – not the enemy or his bad seed, not professing Christians caught up grave public sin, not even the worst false teacher – can “harm the cause of Christ.”
Christ’s “cause” and his Kingdom are one and the same and Christ is totally sovereign over both the wheat AND the weeds. The Bible’s answer to the problem of evil is the farmer’s answer: “An enemy has done this.”
And the only real questions left are: (1) “Whose side are you on?”; and, (2) “Whose methods do you choose to use to deal with the problem?”18 If you are trusting into the perfect law-keeping life and sacrificial blood-shedding death of the risen Jesus, then you have been sown into God’s all-powerful, unassailable, eternal Kingdom.
What made an impression on the disciples as they heard this parable was not the wheat, not the enemy, but the weeds. They did not say, “Explain unto us the parable of the two sowings,” or “the parable of the enemy”; but, “Explain unto us the parable of the [weeds] of the field.”19 “And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field” (v. 36b).20 This idea of indirect action against an obvious problem was as puzzling to them as it is to us.
The left-handedness of the farmer’s answer is even more puzzling when we look at his answer to his workers’ question of what to do: “30 Let [ἀφίημι] both grow together until the harvest….”21 The word translated “let” has several meanings in the Greek: “to send off,” “to let go,” or “to let be,” and “to release from an obligation” (as in to forgive). 22
The two main NT uses of the word are “to allow” and “to forgive.” If you were to look in a concordance, you would find the King James version translates this word as “forgive” 47 times in 156 occurrences; it translates this word as “leave” 52 times. You will find this word translated as “forgive” in the Lord’s Prayer: “…forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12).23
So, a 1st century reader of Matthew’s Greek text would immediately recognize “the Holy Spirit’s exalted pun.”24 Do you see the left-handedness here? The farmer leaves the weeds; the farmer forgives the weeds. So how do citizens of God’s kingdom deal with evil? We forgive it. We don’t “get our moral superiority on;” we forgive; we “suffer” the weeds to grow right alongside us.
Jesus demonstrates that left-handedness for us on the cross, using this same Greek word, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).25 Why do we forgive evil? Try as you might, you cannot turn a poisonous darnel seed into a wholesome wheat seed. You simply do not have that power, much as we all want it and think we should have it.
As Robert Farrar Capon writes, “Forgiveness neither increases nor decreases the level of God’s permissiveness; instead, it just fishes us out of the otherwise inescapable quicksand we so stupidly got ourselves into and says, ‘There! Isn’t that better?’”26
One final reason to exercise the left-handed power of forgiveness rather than our right-handed power of disgust and disdain: you were all once weeds. You don’t have the power to turn poisonous seeds into wholesome seeds. But God the Holy Spirit, acting on behalf of King Jesus, absolutely does; He does it every day all over the world.
If you are here this morning and wondering to which kingdom you belong – are you good seed destined for the eternal storehouse or are you bad seed destined for the fire? —we have wonderful news for you! Because we too were once poisonous seed. Weeds CAN change into wheat, not by their own effort but by the power of God. This is part of the mystery of God’s Kingdom – the awesome power to transform enemies into family.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rom. 5:6-11). 27
1 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:24–30.
2 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk 4:28.
3 Capon, 80.
4 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 16:23.
5 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:24.
6 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:34.
7 Capon, 84.
8 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:25.
9 G. Campbell Morgan, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), 74–75.
10 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:29.
11 Capon, 86.
12 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:36–42.
13 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 239.
14 Capon, 86-87.
18 Id. at 90.
19 Morgan, 73.
20 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:36.
21 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 13:30.
22 Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 509.
23 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 6:12.
24 Capon, 91.
25 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 23:34.
26 Capon, op. cit.
27 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 5:6–11.