Episode 2 - The Parable of the Weeds
There’s a scene in the movie 500 Days of Summer where the protagonist is walking into a party where he’s going to see this girl he’s interested in (their tricky relationship is the crux of the whole film; she is the titular Summer). The director, Marc Webb, a music video director up to this point, does something really unusual with this scene. He employs a trick of sorts that feels like it would fit well in something as stylized as a music video; it’s not the kind of thing you’d normally see in a feature film.
To demonstrate the gap between Tom, our lead character’s, expectations and the reality of the situation, it splits the screen and shows them both to us side by side in splitscreen. It’s the ultimate example of showing rather than telling. We’re confronted with the crushing nature of Tom’s experience. It’s no surprise that he storms out the party, we’re able to, in a way, see what’s going on in his head the whole time. Sure, it’s his fault for creating these expectations that turned out to be baseless, but it doesn’t make the let down any worse for him. I’d imagine a lot of people can relate to an experience like this in the early day of a relationship or better yet, a hoped-for relationship that never materialized. My hand is certainly up, in that regard, when I first saw the film back in 2009, the scene felt hauntingly autobiographical.
I bring up that scene because I wonder what it would look like in the minds of the Scribes and Pharisees walking through the streets around the dawn of the first century. To see the expectations they had of the Messiah held up against the reality that could be seen in the ministry of Jesus. This is a part of the New Testament that we don’t focus on often enough. See, the teachers and scholars back then had this picture in their minds about what the Messiah’s arrival would look like. Understanding that picture makes so much more sense out of the reactions to Jesus during his ministry. How do these Pharisees miss it??? Well, they’re having an experience quite like Tom and Summer.
On one side of the screen, you’d see this military conqueror. A powerful warrior standing up to the great armies of their oppressors, be it Rome or Greece or Babylon or Assyria, whoever owned the boot on the neck of the Israelites. You’d see him toppling their government, slaughtering the wicked, setting up God’s reign and rule again in Jerusalem, his holy city. The nations of the world would pour into there, not to besiege it this time, but to submit to it and humble themselves under the reign of the Messiah and the fear of the Lord.
On the other side of the screen, you’d find a carpenter from a small town that, if known at all, was known only for being unremarkable. You’d find no weapons in his hand, no army at his back, but a class of misfits that no other rabbi wanted by his side. Instead of calls for revolution and coup d’état, his message was humble and simple, “Turn yourself around, clean up your life, and prepare for God’s reign and rule.” Instead of spending his time with generals and soldiers, he hung out with the poor and the broken. He was utterly uninterested in grabbing any sort of political or earthly power.
Jesus looked nothing like the Messiah anyone was expecting. John the Baptist himself, the greatest man that ever lived according to Jesus, even has his followers ask him, “Are you sure you’re the guy?” Given the expectation they’d built up in their mind, it’s easy to see how they might’ve missed it.
There are two expectations in particular that Jesus would subvert. Ones we still have a hard time getting past even today. It’s these expectations and the reality that unravels them that Jesus teaches about in the parables.
Coded Messages, Part 2
The Parable of the Weeds
Two weeks ago, we released episode 1 of Coded Messages, our first series here at Biblesplain, looking at the parables in Matthew chapter 13. I won’t rehash everything, if you missed that episode, you can go back and give it a listen if you want to know everything we talked about. Briefly, though, let’s review.
Jesus leaves a house where he’s just been teaching and healing, he’s had a tremendous clash with the Pharisees where they accuse him of being in league with the devil and Jesus judges them there on the spot. It’s a sin they can’t walk back from, knowingly blaspheming the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. Part of that judgment is that Jesus switches up his teaching method now and begins using parables predominantly.
Parables are, as John MacArthur wrote, “ingeniously simple word picture[s] illuminating […] profound spiritual lesson[s].” They do two things at the same time. For those who choose to not engage with them, they conceal the truth the speaker is communicating behind a metaphor. For those who want to understand and seek the answers, it helps make the truth come alive through the use of familiar facets of everyday life.
Last time, we looked at the first parable Jesus presents on this beach, the Parable of the Sower. It’s the story of a farmer who throws his seed around the field and it lands on four kinds of soil, all of which produce different results. There’s the hard path which never even gives the seed a chance, there’s shallow soil that doesn’t allow the seed to put down roots, there’s thorny soil where the plant is choked out by competing vegetation, and there’s good soil, which allows the plant to grow and produce fruit.
The disciples, and we the readers by extension, are privy to an explanation from Jesus as to exactly what this means. The seed is the word of the kingdom of God and like Soylent Green, the soil IS PEOPLE. People will either be so hardened that they never give the message a chance, so superficial that they never let the message penetrate their hearts, so distracted that they let the message be choked out by competing interests, or so responsive that they hear it, put it to practice, and produce fruit.
The thrust of the parable is, “What kind of soil are you?”
See, that’s exactly what parables do. They give you one direction that the parable is traveling, like an arrow, but like the fletching (the feathers) on an arrow, there are all sorts of points of contact between the parable and the real world. Like a plane, you get on board the parable and it takes you in a direction to a destination, but along the way there are a number of windows to look out and see different vistas.
The parable still mainly asks, “What kind of soil will you be?”, but along the way there are other observations we can make. Isn’t it interesting that it’s the soil that determines the response to the seed, the sower isn’t to blame if it doesn’t grow. What a relief for those who sow. Isn’t it interesting that good soil produces a varying amount of fruit. The good fruit could be thirty, sixty, or one-hundred-fold; it’s all commended the same. These ideas are consistent with the parable’s main target and can reasonably be extrapolated by us. This is a guide on how to interpret the parables when we encounter them.
Which, we will be doing for the rest of our time in chapter thirteen. Well, at least until we hit verse 53, anyway. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, let’s dive in to our passage for today.
Parables for the Crowd
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 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?’ 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?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 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.” ’ ”
– Matthew 13:24–30 (ESV)
Today, we’ve got not one, not two, but three parables in store for us, including another prophecy, as well. Let’s attack these three sections one at a time. We’ll start with some background on each.
Parable of the Weeds
The Parable of the Weeds looks a lot like the Parable of the Sower, we’ve got another sower and another field. This time, instead of the variable being the soil that receives the seed, there’s some tricky business going on. An enemy is comes in and sabotages the crop by sowing weeds.
The servants of the master come to him one day, once the plants have begun to bloom, and inform him that some of the crop is not the wheat they sowed. They don’t understand where these weeds have come from and they don’t know what to do about it. The master makes the unexpected decision to let the weeds grow alongside the wheat, so as to not disturb the wheat in the process of extracting the weeds. Come harvest time, they’ll gather them all and separate them, sending the weeds to the furnace and the wheat to the barn.
The weeds in view here are probably darnel. It’s a plant that looks a lot like wheat when young, then when full-grown reveals itself to be fruitless. If you’re going to sabotage someone’s wheat field, this is the crop to do it with. They won’t know until it’s too late.
See, by the time you realize that some of your plants are not what they’re supposed to be, the darnel’s roots have already become entwined with the wheat’s. In fact, darnel’s roots are much stronger than wheat’s. This is why the master of the field in the story is so reluctant to pull them out. If you pull out the darnel, it’s bringing the wheat with it. This is obviously not what you want, so it’s best to just let it be until it’s time to harvest.
There is actually record of something like this happening. Roman law has specific passages about the crime of sowing darnel in a wheat field as an act of revenge. It stands to reason that if there’s a law about it, it’s because someone did it. I saw a sign online that said, “WARNING: Please do not sit on crocodile,” which can mean only one thing, some dude out there tried to sit on that crocodile.
This is the first parable that we get in this section. It’s unique to Matthew and it’s different from last episode’s in another way, it’s introduced specifically as referring to “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”
In fact, all three parables we see here begin something like that. Let’s take a look at the others.
The Mustard Seed and the Leaven
The next two are both short. More similes than stories.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
– Matthew 13:31–33 (ESV)
We’ve got two stories about tiny things that have big results. First, the mustard seed. It’s one of the smallest seeds we know of. While it’s true that there are some spores and seeds that we have discovered, it really doesn’t matter. The mustard seed is incredibly small and compared to the common seeds of the day, was among, if not, the smallest. To get hung up on the horticultural particularities here is to miss the point.
When it grows, it can occasionally hit ten or twelve feet tall. At that point, thought technically not a tree, it might as well be one. Not to mix the parables here, but at one point we had something outside our house that we thought was a tree until closer inspection proved it to just be a weed that got REAL big. The distinction can be sort of arbitrary in practice.
The point is rather simple, teeny tiny mustard seeds grow into twelve-foot tall plants. The humble beginning is not to be scoffed at.
There’s some alarm bells that would be going off to the learned ear hearing Jesus give his description of the mustard seed’s ultimate size. The birds of the air coming and making their nests in its branches is reminiscent of a handful of Old Testament passages. In Ezekiel 17, it’s Israel that is the tree whose branches support the birds of the air. In Ezekiel 31, it’s Assyria. There’s another similar passage in Daniel chapter 4. The birds are the nations coming to those trees. Remember what I said back in the beginning about Israel expecting that Jerusalem would be the city that God ruled from and everyone had to come to. Jesus is using language to poke at that expectation. To say, “sure, that’s going to happen, but the biggest trees start as small seeds.”
The second parable is even shorter. This time Jesus turns to my favorite place for illustrations, the kitchen.
Leaven works like yeast, but it’s not exactly yeast. Well, that’s not all it is, I suppose would be the proper way to put it. When they would make bread, you’d have the dough and you’d mix in the yeast, just like we would do now, and you bake it and it rises. But what they would do is pull a little bit of that dough off and save it. This was the leaven. The next time you make bread, instead of mixing yeast in again, you mix in that leaven, the dough with the yeast already in it. This would cause the entire hunk of dough to get a little yeast and when you bake it, it all rises.
She takes the leaven and puts it into three measures of flour. Now, scholars have deconstructed what exactly the measurement here, a saton, is. A saton was about thirteen liters. Three of those, you’re talking about thirty-nine liters of flour. So imagine twenty large bottles of soda. That’s a lot of flour! In fact, they estimate that a quantity of flour like that would be enough to feed well over 100 people. This woman’s not making Thursday dinner, she’s running some kind of catering operation here!
So, again, you’ve got this small piece of leaven that gets worked into dough to feed a whole neighborhood. This tiny thing spreads to impact all of the dough.
And yes, usually leaven is a bad thing in Scripture. There’s nothing here, though, to make us think that Jesus is using leaven in a negative way. He doesn’t make any judgments about the woman doing this, he’s just pointing out the process and tying it to the way the kingdom works.
Again, it starts small, but now it doesn’t just grow large, it infiltrates and spreads. That little leaven you started with suddenly has worked its way into all this dough.
There are a couple minor things here that I find interesting. For one, Jesus uses the example of a woman baking. The female representation here in his teaching is not some gigantic statement, but it is sort of novel and worth noticing. Jesus continually shows throughout his ministry that he values women equally to men.
The other thing is that he doesn’t say that the woman “mixed” the leaven in with the dough, but that she “hid” it. The original language backs this translation up, as the word Matthew uses here will probably be understandable to most without translation: enkryptō. When you “encrypt” a file on your computer or a letter that you’re writing, for example, you’re hiding its contents. You’re putting it into a form that renders it unreadable. The woman baking in this parable tucks away, hides in this dough a little bit of leaven. Then it goes to work.
This parable in particular reminds me a lot of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, that his followers are the “Salt of the Earth.” Salt, like leaven, penetrates food and permeates it.
These two parables are combined because they both illustrate essentially the same point: the kingdom of heaven may start small, but it will grow to make a giant impact.
Prophecy and Parables
The next little bit is an aside of sorts inserted by Matthew.
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
– Matthew 13:34–35 (ESV)
Jesus has been talking to this crowd gathered around him on the shore and he’s been talking only in parables. This is a switch in his method. The Sermon on the Mount contains a few illustrations and things that look like parables, but they are mixed in with teaching that breaks down the Law and is more command-based. For this teaching now, it’s just parables.
Matthew sees here a link to a passage from the Psalms. Psalm 78, to be precise. There, Asaph gives a history lesson, of sorts. He traces back the history of God with Israel. He shows where he’s been at work and how he’s guided them. Compares Israel to sheep and shows how God shepherded them and chose David to shepherd with him.
Asaph begins by saying pretty much what Matthew quotes here. He gives his own translation it seems, pretty close to what we have in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Matthew has this habit of seeing these types developed in the Old Testament and showing how Jesus reflects or adds new meaning into them. Notably, he does this in the Nativity story with the “Out of Egypt I called my son” prophecy. That’s not, strictly speaking, a prophecy about Jesus. But Matthew sees this Old Testament reference to Israel being called out of Egypt, sees Jesus as the New Israel sojourning in Egypt and coming back from that and he can’t help but see a pattern here.
There’s a similar thing happening here. You have Jesus revealing wisdom through parables about things that no one has known but God alone and Matthew sees Asaph’s passage and connects the dots. Here, Jesus is doing the same thing.
There was a prophecy passage last episode that we looked at, where Isaiah’s call to ministry looks a lot like the teaching ministry Jesus would have. The point there was that parables have a concealing nature to them for people who have hardened their hearts against them. Like we mentioned towards the top of the show, parables both conceal and reveal at the same time. The prophecy passage this time highlights that second part. The revealing.
Jesus is revealing things about the kingdom of God that no besides him ever knew.
The Meaning of the Parables
After these three parables, Jesus concludes his talk and goes back into the house. The crowd goes away and it’s now just him and the disciples. Just like last time, the disciples are going to ask him for some more information and Jesus will interpret a parable for them.
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
– Matthew 13:36–43 (ESV)
Parable of the Weeds Explained
Just like last time, we have the disciples doing what the crowd didn’t. They go to Jesus and ask for more. They want to know what the parable means. This is what separates them. They go to Jesus to learn.
I don’t want to over allegorize this or anything, but I look at it this way: are we willing to follow Jesus into the house and continue to learn from him? Do we have that sort of tenacity to be discipled by Jesus? That’s what distinguishes them from the crowd.
Now, one of the things that’s striking about what Jesus tells them is that we’re given a window into the end times. Jesus talks about heaven and hell quite often in the Gospels and here we get a pretty vivid picture of what that might look like. Sure, it’s not exactly rich with particulars, but there are a couple things worth noticing.
For one, there is a judgment. There is going to be a time when everyone has to give an account for their lives. You will one day stand before God and have to face him. There is no escaping this. That is an incredibly sobering idea.
Jesus also reveals a little bit about life after the judgment, where he says that not only are those who break God’s law destroyed, all causes of sin go with them. I’m sure many people have wondered what might keep us from screwing everything up all over again after God’s kingdom comes in full and here Jesus gives that answer.
We’ve framed this episode by talking about expectations and the way Jesus refused to live up to those of the Pharisees and scribes in his day. The two parables we get in this section, the weeds and the mustard seed/leaven combo, answer different expectations or challenges to Jesus as the Messiah. I think you can sum up the one in the Parable of the Weeds like this:
If the Messiah is here, why hasn’t he wiped out the wicked?
There are three statements made by the characters in the parable that give us an answer to a question like that. It paints a picture of a particular theological category, theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to defend God’s justice when evil’s presence brings it into question. In short, it’s the problem of evil. We don’t get a fully fleshed out systematic theology here, of course, but we are painted a helpful, hopeful picture in the parable.
The first statement in the parable is from the workers who ask, “How then does it have weeds?” How does this field that you sowed with good seed have all of these weeds in it? Where is this evil coming from? How is it that there is so much of it?
Sometimes, the parable shows us, it’s hard to tell the wheat from the weeds. The weeds can look a lot like the wheat for a while until it reveals itself through its fruit. There are people who will seem like wheat and get by pretending to be wheat, maybe themselves think they are wheat, who turn out to be weeds.
It is no surprise that there will be people in the Church who hurt us. It’s regrettable, it’s always unfortunate when it happens, but it will happen. The parable shows us that the world and even the Church will always be a mixed field. There will always be some weeds mixed in with the wheat and the only way to tell the difference is to look at the fruit. Unfortunately, weeds hurt people and that is their fruit that gives them away. Of course, it’s too late when you’re the first to experience that and have been given no warning. It’s no small thing when someone in the Church wounds us, but this parable shows us that it is always a distinct possibility.
The second statement comes from the master and it directly answers the question in the first: “An enemy has done this.” Jesus makes quite clear that Satan exists. It’s not in vogue among many Christian circles these days to talk about that fact, but nevertheless it remains true.
I get it. The idea of the devil has become something of a farce in our modern culture. It can feel a little bit silly to talk about him. Perhaps because for so long we’ve depicted him with the horns and the pitchfork and such. He became a cartoon character to be laughed at and as that happened, the seriousness of his place in any sort of doctrine of evil became diminished.
For us, though, the whole point of this podcast is to go by what the Bible actually says and any reading of the Gospels at any level makes clear rather quickly that Jesus believed strongly that he existed and was to be taken seriously. Not as a threat to him, Jesus lays the smack down on the devil at every turn in the Gospels, but as a spoiler and deceiver he is not to be ignored.
The weeds are his work. Which, first, clears God of wrong doing when it comes to evil. There’s no deep philosophical or theological discussion about it to sink our teeth into here, but, suffice to say, Jesus lays the blame for the weeds on him. Secondly, we see that Satan is no creator, merely a ruiner. He sabotages the field that God has cultivated, he does not create anything himself. He’s a spoiler, not a creator.
The third statement comes from the master again and it’s his solution for what to do about the weeds. The workers get an answer, even if it might feel disappointing. “Let both grow together until the harvest.”
God is not afraid to act about the evil around us, what he is, is patient. There is a giant difference here and it’s reason for us to rejoice. Both because we know that God will make things right and because his patience is a benefit to us. If God were to wipe out people for breaking his law, there’d be no one left. We’re all guilty. Instead, he gives us opportunity to repent and turn to him. This is what Peter writes in his second letter:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
– 2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)
God gives us the opportunity to repent and is wishing that all of us will. He wants everyone to turn to him and so he gives them opportunity to. What a wonderful truth that is!
Here’s the thing about that verse that really struck me, though, as I was researching for this episode. God is patient, wanting everyone to repent. That means that God is both omniscient, he knows everything, and he’s an optimist. That blows me away.
Cause see, I can be a pretty cynical guy sometimes. You know how some people say, “I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist.” Yeah, I’m one of those people. That treat the world like expecting the worst is the only rational course of action. My present health struggles only serve to exacerbate this. It’s bad.
So, to see that God knows that fewer people will choose him than not and he still is being patient, giving them time, wanting them to repent is striking. It blows me away. It makes me want to be different. This is his kindness that is meant to lead us to repentance.
We may not get the completely fleshed-out theology we want here, there are still many questions we could and will ask, but we have reason for hope. God has not forgotten the wrongs done and one day he will right them. We must only be patient.
Addressing the Weeds
One facet of this parable that gets interpreted different ways is our role in relation to the weeds. What should we do about them now? The workers are told not to uproot them, what does this mean for us? How does it jive with what the rest of the New Testament says about casting the wicked out of your church and exposing false teachers?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about this pretty clearly and in enough detail that it almost feels like he’s trying to sketch out an answer to this very question.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
– 1 Corinthians 5:1–2 (ESV)
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
– 1 Corinthians 5:9–13 (ESV)
This is someone who is clearly unrepentant and makes no plans to change. Paul says, “kick him out.” Church discipline is a necessary thing. Now, of course, we shouldn’t kick people out of our churches the first time they sin. If that were the case, there would be no churches, literally no one would be left.
However, when someone sins and is not repentant, we have to go to them and address that sin. If they are won over and repent, then great. That is cause for celebration. If they refuse to repent, then mournfully, they have to be dealt with. We can’t allow weeds to walk around thinking they’re wheat.
But the field in the parable is not the Church, it’s the world. There is no driving the wicked out of the world. Paul doesn’t even say to disassociate from them. He goes, “Look, to do that you’d have to leave the planet!” The world is always going to be a mixed field and we can only concern ourselves with proclaiming the kingdom, not with purging the weeds. It’s not our job and it’s not time.
Charles Spurgeon wrote this in his commentary on Matthew:
Nowhere on earth can we maintain a settlement of saints alone. In many cases, the cruel treatment of the very best of men has been produced by the notion that they were erroneous teachers, and therefore ought not to be tolerated. To contend earnestly against error by spiritual means is right and needful, but to use carnal weapons, and other remedies of force, is absolute folly and wickedness. This world is now a field of mingled growths, and so it must be till the end come.
– C. H. Spurgeon, The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Commentary on the Book of Matthew
There’s a long history of witch hunts, inquisitions, and crusades that bring shame to the Church. They’re all examples of using the Devil’s tools for tending the Lord’s garden. We must never make this mistake. Yes, confront believers about their sin, yes fight for truth and speak up against false doctrine. Never, never, never make the mistake of trying to win a spiritual battle through physical means.
I also think we do well to avoid the enemy’s rhetorical weapons as well. Discourse nowadays has ground to a halt, where any disagreement is no longer a competition of ideas, but a competition of virtue. If you disagree with my take on the way we should help people out of poverty, you’re not just wrong, you’re a bad person. You’re human garbage. You’re a Nazi. Unfortunately, this is only a minimal exaggeration.
Even more unfortunately, this tact has made its way into the Church, as well. One person’s good faith reading of Scripture will be another person’s reason for labeling them an “-ist” of whatever pet notion they’ve trod on. Wesley Hill, an author and professor at a seminary in Pennsylvania, posted something on Twitter the other day that I found especially illuminating in this regard:
Honest question for Conservative and Progressive Christian Twitter: are those of us who are so grievously, catastrophically Wrong on the Internet sisters & brothers to be reasoned with or enemies to be exposed and paraded? It’s hard to tell sometimes.
– @WesleyHill on Twitter
We’re way too quick to bring the guns out, especially online, when it comes to people who disagree with us. Especially in the Church, where unity and family are the recurring emphasis in the New Testament. Even outside of it, those who truly are our enemies are to be loved and made peace with.
There’s a scene in the movie Thank You for Smoking, a favorite of mine, where the lead character, Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist, is explaining to his son how he debates people. It’s a great example of the twisted way that discourse tends to work out online.
Joey: So, what happens when you're wrong?
Nick: Well, Joey, I'm never wrong.
Joey: But you can't always be right.
Nick: Well, if it's your job to be right, then you're never wrong.
Joey: But what if you are wrong?
Nick: Okay, let's say that you're defending chocolate and I'm defending vanilla. Now, if I were to say to you, "Vanilla's the best flavor ice cream", you'd say …?
Joey: No, chocolate is.
Nick: Exactly. But you can't win that argument. So, I'll ask you: So you think chocolate is the end-all and be-all of ice cream, do you?
Joey: It's the best ice cream; I wouldn't order any other.
Nick: Oh. So it's all chocolate for you, is it?
Joey: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
Nick: Well, I need more than chocolate. And for that matter, I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom and choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.
Joey: But that's not what we're talking about.
Nick: Ah, but that's what I'm talking about.
Joey: But … you didn't prove that vanilla's the best.
Nick: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm right.
Joey: But you still didn't convince me.
Nick: Because I'm not after you. I'm after them.
I think about that scene all the time. Instead of actually having conversations with people, it’s so easy to try to score points with the audience and try to make them look foolish. And what better audience than everyone with a smartphone? This is not what it looks like to be the humble, meek, peacemaking, self-sacrificing disciples Jesus asks us to be. We can’t go to war with the enemy’s weapons.
When it comes to the weeds, we’re asked to have patience. Yes, argue for truth, yes expose the deeds of evil people, yes pursue justice, but know that we’ll never have it in full until the Judge returns.
Parables of the Seed and Leaven Explained
If the expectation that the Parable of the Weeds addressed was, “If the Messiah is here, why hasn’t he wiped out the wicked?”, the expectation tackled by the Seed and Leaven is this:
If the Messiah is here, why isn’t everyone paying attention?
Surely, they expected that the Messiah’s arrival was something no one could possibly miss. Just like now, we think it’s impossible to miss the return of Jesus, given what he said before he left, so they thought about his appearance initially. If the Messiah shows up, he’s not going to have some small, ragtag group of followers, he’s building an army!
Instead, the Parables of the Seed and Leaven show us that the small, tiny thing is the one that truly matters. From tiny acorns grow great trees. This is a defense from anyone who would’ve said, “Surely the Messiah would be more dramatic than this…” and it’s also an encouragement for his followers. Yes, we’re small, yes we’re not the establishment, but when it’s all said and done, the kingdom becomes the tree all the birds nest in.
Over and over again throughout history, ideology after ideology rises up and gains momentum and looks to spell certain doom for the Gospel. And over and over again, they fade away and the Church carries on. Frederick Bruner writes this in his commentary on this passage:
Sects and ideologies almost always seem stronger than the church. Sects and ideologies fly; the church limps. Sects and ideologies die; the church limps on. Stick with the church.
– Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28, Revised and Expanded Edition.
Enemies appear constantly and look to threaten the Church, they besiege it from all sides, yet none of them prevail. The Church carries on. As Theodore Beza famously once said, “The Church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.”
It’s this place of smallness and weakness where the Church actually seems to thrive. The whole Gospel testifies that there is power in weakness and that is exactly where the Church is at her best.
Living in Light of the End
Reading these parables puts us at a focal length I think we’d be wise to employ more often. The Church really must live in light of the end. We’re told these things about the end times not to satisfy curiosity or provide platforms to launch vast speculation, but to help us know how to live now. When we think long-term (and by long-term, I, of course, mean eternity, not merely a decade or two), it helps us focus on what’s truly important. It gives us hope and direction.
There is a Judgment
The Parable of the Weeds reminds us that there is a judgment. It is inescapable and it will happen to everyone. There is no getting around this. That kind of knowledge has to inform how we live.
We have to be sons and daughters of the kingdom. Did you catch that in the explanation of the parable? The good seed is sons of the kingdom, the bad seed is sons of the evil one. It’s all about sons and daughters and who you belong to. Are you a son or daughter of God or a son or daughter of the devil? There is no third kind of seed.
See, what places us in the kingdom isn’t our work or our effort. It’s our Father.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
– John 1:12 (ESV)
By believing in the name of Jesus, by putting our faith and trust in him and his death and resurrection, we’re part of the family. When you’re a child of God, you get all of the benefits that come with that. Imagine if you were the child of a monarch; the world is your oyster. You have access to everything. You’re blessed and privileged beyond what most people can even dream of. Now imagine that on an infinite scale! As a child of God, that is your destiny.
I’ve heard people mockingly refer to it as Cosmic Nepotism. But here’s the thing, the reason that nepotism bothers us so much is that one, the people rarely seem to understand they did nothing to deserve the favor they have received and two, it’s a closed off group of haves that shut out all of the have-nots.
The Gospel is so much different than that. It’s a collection of people whose entrance into the group is predicated on their understanding and confession that they do not deserve anything they’re being given. And the circle is not closed, it is wide open. God not only offers salvation to everyone, in his kindness and graciousness, he shows patience and gives opportunity after opportunity to join the family.
That there is a judgment also means that we can trust God with the wicked. It may seem deeply unsatisfying at times, but if Jesus is satisfied with a final judgment, why should we not be? True justice will come only from him. It’s not a cop-out to point to a final judgment, it’s, in fact, the only real answer.
This is why Jesus tells his disciples to never avenge, to lay down their rights, to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek. One of the hardest passages in the whole New Testament is where Paul discusses lawsuits between believers in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 and he says, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” That, as hard as it is, is what it looks like to walk as Jesus walked.
We can live like that because we can trust that there is a final judgment where all things are made right. God isn’t going to miss it, he doesn’t need us to do his job for him. He will avenge, he will repay. We can trust him.
We Know the Kingdom Will Flourish
We know that there is a judgment and we also know that the Kingdom will flourish. Even if things are going poorly for the Church, we know that we prevail. We can endure to the end because we know the end is never in doubt. Jesus gives us spoilers for real life here. We win!
If we can hang on, if we can let the hope of his return be our guiding light and our motivation, we’ll receive our reward. One day the Kingdom will reign and we will be a part of it. If we only put our faith and our trust in King Jesus.
Stay tuned after the following for a sneak peek of next week’s episode.
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Next week on Biblesplain, Matthew chapter 13, verses 44-52. What is the kingdom of heaven worth? What is it worth to you? The way you answer that question, to paraphrase A.W. Tozer, might just be the most important thing about you.
God bless, back in two weeks.