The Parable of the Weeds


Matthew 13:24-43

Text Comment

v.25     The weeds in view are probably darnel or rye grass, a poisonous plant related to wheat and virtually indistinguishable from it until the ears form.  Roman law actually imposed punishment on anyone who sowed darnel among wheat as an act of revenge.  So, once again, as with the parable of the sower, the situation depicted in this parable is true to life, something people who lived close to land would easily appreciate. [France, 225]

v.32     The point of the parable is a simple one: how great will be the eventual extent of the kingdom which had such small and unimpressive beginnings.

v.33     It was not strictly yeast that she used, but a piece of fermented dough from the previous baking.  The text literally says that she mixed that little piece of leavened dough into three measures of flour.  That is a lot of flour.  The point, as any of the Lord’s contemporaries would have immediately understood, is that a little bit of yeast can leaven a very large amount of dough.  Again the point is the contrast between the little beginning and the very large eventual result.

v.35     Remember, it is a characteristic interest of Matthew to demonstrate that Jesus and his ministry were predicted by the ancient prophets.  It is one important way of certifying Jesus as the true Messiah.  He and he alone matched the profile of messianic prophecy.  In this case, not only did Jesus speak in parables, as the prophets said the Messiah would, but he revealed in and by those parables the secrets of the kingdom of God that could otherwise never be known.

v.38     We will take note of “the field is the world” shortly, but it is worth pointing out that the Lord says “world.”  He already has the nations in his view.  He is not thinking simply of his ancient people, but of the Gentiles also and the mission of his disciples to take the gospel to the world.  Remember, it is this Gospel of Matthew that concludes with the great commission. Note also once again the Lord’s radical antithesis:  there are but two types of people in the world, the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the devil.  One is either in one camp or the other.  One cannot be in both camps at the same time and there is no other camp to which human beings may belong.

v.39     Three more times in this Gospel the Lord will refer to angels as the Lord’s agents at the consummation and those who will separate the righteous from the wicked.  [16:27; 24:31; 25:31)

We pointed out last time that the lesson of the parable of the sower is that the kingdom of God was going to come in a way that no one anticipated.  No one then would have thought that, when the Messiah appeared, his kingdom would progress like a farmer who went out to sow his seed.  They were expecting cataclysm, not the prosaic, everyday work of a farmer! They were expecting the kingdom to come in a sudden catastrophe that left the enemies of God utterly vanquished and the sons of God triumphant in the world.  Not so, said Jesus.  That day will come, but at my second coming, not now, not yet.   The people of that time, even the pious people, did not expect the Messiah to come twice, only once.  But, says the Lord, there is a lot of work yet to be done in this world.  The seed will be sown, we must wait for the harvest.

Now clearly the parables we have read this morning have the same broad theme.  The two short parables in vv. 31-33, which are given no formal interpretation by the Lord, remind us that the kingdom is going to grow gradually and that at first it is going to seem so small as to be inconsequential.  A little seed, a little bit of leaven.  But, not to worry, the Lord says, in time the kingdom of God will be very great.  In time.  Be patient.  The Lord has the long reach of years in view before the cataclysm, before the catastrophe, before the consummation, when Jesus comes again.  Think of what it must have seemed like to those early Christians.  The worshippers of false gods numbered in the millions.  They held all the positions of real power in the world.  Even among the Jews, the people of God, only a small number acknowledged Jesus as the Son of Man.  Not to worry, Jesus said; these small beginnings are enough to produce a great kingdom, greater by far than the kingdoms of this world.  But you must be patient.  This will take time.

And so with the parable of the weeds.  No one was expecting the long, slow process of planting, growing, and reaping.  And no one was expecting that the kingdom of God would have to grow with all manner of impediments placed in its way.  No one was expecting that when the kingdom of God came it wouldn’t always be possible to tell who belonged to it and who did not.  That it was going to have to be cared for so delicately, lest the sons of the kingdom be torn up by accident.

Now we need to stop and think about the interpretation of this parable, because there is and has long been a controversy about it in biblical and theological studies.  In fact, one great scholar has called the statement in v. 38, “The field is the world,” the second most controversial text in the Bible.  [Trench, Parables, ad loc]  If you are wondering, the most controversial text, he says, is “This is my body,” in the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  But the second most controversial statement is here, in v. 38:  “The field is the world.”  This text too has often divided Christians from one another, has resulted in the creation of what we now call denominations or different Christian churches.

The controversy over this text began already in early Christianity.  There were several schisms that occurred in the third and fourth centuries as a result of a group of Christians coming to regard the church as a whole as impure in doctrine and in life.  A schism or split resulted as the purists left the main body of the church and constituted themselves as what they thought of as a pure church, a true church, unlike the apostate church they had left.  The defenders of the unity of the church admitted that often all was not as it ought to be in the church, but they pointed to this parable.  They said, “Look, the Lord Jesus himself said that there would be a mixture of true and false sons in his kingdom.”  And the Lord explicitly said, “Don’t try to tear out the weeds or you will pull up some wheat as well.”  The idea that we can create or preserve a pure church in the world is not only unbiblical, but positively dangerous.  You are likely to do more harm to Christians than good by trying to have only wheat and no weeds in the Lord’s field.

But to that argument the separatists replied, “You have misinterpreted the Lord’s parable.  You are taking him to talk about a mixed church, but he explicitly says that ‘The field is the world.’”  You think he means that the field is the church, but he doesn’t say that.  He says that the field is the world.”  He is talking about the mixture of believers and unbelievers in the world not in the church.  To which Augustine replied in his great work The City of God, “The Lord says, ‘The field is the world,’ but, in the context of the parable, that is shorthand for ‘The field is the church in the world.’”

Effectively, the same argument has been raging ever since.  Separatists and church purists in the 17th century – Baptists and Independents especially – took the same ground – at least in this respect – as Novatians and Donatists did in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.  They too aimed at a church of what they called “visible saints,” that is, a pure church, so far as possible only wheat, no weeds.  They meant that only people who “were perceived, according to Christian charity, to be among the elect,” could be members.  [Coffey, Politics, Theology, and the British Revolutions, 205]  Against that view, Presbyterians such as Samuel Rutherford complained that this was tantamount to an assumption that one could read men’s hearts.  Even the apostles couldn’t do that, they pointed out.  The Lord’s disciples didn’t see the traitor in Judas until afterward; Paul didn’t anticipate Demas’ defection beforehand.  What is more, they argued, look at v. 41.  It is not as if the church is going to be composed of only people who seem to be Christians because they live such godly lives.  There will be people who “cause sin and do evil” according to the Lord.  Nevertheless, even such people as these, cannot be removed from the church without endangering the wheat.  Now, clearly, church discipline is taught in the New Testament.  There are times when people can be and must be cast out of the church.  But there will be times when it cannot be done; many times apparently.

No, Rutherford said, what is required for the church to be true is the faithful preaching of the Word, the sacraments properly administered, discipline practiced according to God’s word – which, of course, at its most severe deals with only those false sons who publicly show their colors ahead of time – and with the people externally professing the Christian faith.  [206]  That is the most we can expect and all that is required.  If we go looking for the weeds we’ll pull up wheat.

Once again, the parable of the weeds was the primary battlefield.  Are we here being taught that the church will be a mixture of the saved and the unsaved or that, the field being the world, are we being taught only that the church exists in the midst of the unbelieving world and does not bring the opposition to Christ in the world immediately to an end?  Is the point of the parable that upon the coming of Christ there would not be an immediate, final, and fateful division between believers and unbelievers in this world – as people expected there would be – or is the point that this mixture of belief and unbelief will continue to exist even in the church?

The argument of most modern commentaries and New Testament theologies favors the later view.  And most of their argument rests on this one statement in the parable: “the field is the world.”  The Lord does not say that the field is the church but that the field is the world.  What is more, we are told that the idea of the kingdom of God in the gospels is a dynamic one.  It refers to the Lord’s reign or rule not to his realm and not to his subjects.  Many scholars ring the changes on this nowadays.  [Cf. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 111-112]

However, I’m not persuaded.  The fact is the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven as Matthew characteristically refers to it, is a very large idea in the Bible as a whole and in the gospels especially. The term and the concept are used in many different ways.  And here in the parable, I can’t help but think that Augustine got it right when he said that “The field is the world” is shorthand for “The field is the church in the world.”  Let me give you some reasons.

First, the parable does not seem to be about the mixture of believers and unbelievers in the world.  When we read in v. 41 that at the harvest the angels will weed out of Christ’s kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil, the clear, the obvious, I would say the unmistakable impression is that the problem being solved at that point is precisely that wheat and weeds have been sown together and have grown together in the kingdom.  Not in the world, but in the kingdom of God.  The problem is precisely that there are unbelievers where there should only be believers.  And that point seems to be made at the parable’s beginning.  The enemy sowing his poisonous seed in the master’s field hardly seems to be a reference merely to the presence of unbelievers in the world.  Why would the servants be concerned about tearing out the weeds otherwise?

Second, this is, in fact, what we have already learned in the parable of the sower and what we will learn in the parable of the net in vv. 47-50.   In the first place we have people who respond to the word when it is preached but whose commitment is insincere and in the second we have the gospel preaching of the church drawing into her net both good fish and bad.  We find in both instances, in other words, people in the church who do not really belong to her.  And there is nothing we can do about this.  It happens in the nature of the case.  It is the result of the way the kingdom of God proceeds in this world.  Rather than obliterating all ambiguity and all confusion and all doubt about who is with God and who is not, the coming of Christ surprisingly perpetuates the old problem of a community of faith that includes many unbelievers.  Why, is there a serious, biblically minded believer who would not admit that today, at this historical moment, there are more unbelievers in the church than there are believers.  And it has often been so, strange to say.

Third, the distinction between kingdom and church that is now a fixture of New Testament theology is overdone by half.  When we read in Matthew 16 the Lord saying that he will build his church and, in the same breath, goes on to say that he will give to his apostles the keys to the kingdom and whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, we are given to understand – what I think any early reader of the New Testament would surely have understood – that the keys of the kingdom are the keys of the church.  It is a way of speaking about letting people in and keeping people out of the church of God.  There are texts in which the kingdom and the church are not the same thing – to say that the kingdom of God has come is not the same thing as saying that the church has come – but there are other texts in which the difference between the two terms reflects a distinction without a difference.  This parable of the weeds seems to be one of those latter texts.

Fourth, that way of speaking of kingdom and church as overlapping ideas is reinforced in statements like the one in Matt. 8:12 where we read that “many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness…”  It is a warning to the church of Jesus’ day, the Jews, who thought themselves saved.  Jesus is saying that the believing Gentiles will be brought in and the faithless Jews who rejected him will be cast out.  But “sons and daughters of the kingdom” in such usage is obviously a way of speaking of members of the church. The Jews were members of the church – they are called here sons of the kingdom – but they did not really believe; they rejected Jesus when he came among them.  They were members in an outward way but not in the way of inward faith and love.  Jesus here, in the parable of the weeds, says that they were the sons of the Devil even though in 8:12 he calls them sons of the kingdom.  In the language of our parable they were weeds sown by the Devil in the kingdom of God. The Jews thought that Israel was the kingdom of God and they often referred to it as such.  And, as Paul would say, one can be an Israelite and not an Israelite.  One can be an outward Israelite while not being one inwardly. And the Lord is saying here, in the parable of the weeds, that the same thing will often be true as the kingdom of God advances into the whole world.  And at the harvest the sons of the kingdom who did not really believe, who were in fact sons of the Devil, will be weeded out of the kingdom and cast into darkness.  He says the same thing in a different way in the Sermon on the Mount when he says that the son of man will say to some members of the church at the last day, “Depart from me; I never knew you.”  It is very hard to know how what Jesus says here is different from saying that members of the Christian church who were not genuinely faithful Christians will be weeded out of the church at the last day.  The fact that these weeds are “sons of the kingdom” outwardly but not inwardly, and that, as Jesus says in v. 41, they will at last be weeded out of the kingdom seems to me to confirm the identification between kingdom and church in this parable.

Fifth, the last use of “kingdom” in the parable, in v. 43, confirms this still further.  Here the kingdom is heaven.  There will be only true sons and daughters of God in heaven.  There will be a mixture until then, in the kingdom as it exists in this world, but not then, not as the kingdom will exist then.  We are talking about the kingdom of God not about the world.

The fact that we read in v. 38 “The field is the world” is really not an obstacle to this view.  This is the shorthand that we grow accustomed to in reading the parables of the Lord.  We pointed out last time, in regard to 13:18-19 that the phrase “parable of the sower” is really a form of shorthand.  The parable is not about the sower but about the sower sowing his seed and the soils into which he sows it and what happens when the seed is sown in various soils.  The parable is about all of that as the explanation makes clear.  To call it the parable of the sower is just shorthand. Again, at the beginning of this parable, we read in v. 24 that the kingdom of heaven is like “a man who sowed good seed in his field.”  Well, it’s not like a man, it is like this whole matter of good seed being sown in a field and an enemy coming along behind and sowing weeds, and the weeds growing together with the wheat until harvest.  The Lord interprets his parables and describes them with a very generalizing form of words.  “The field is the world” means only that where we find this mixture of good and bad seed and where the two are going to grow up entangled with one another is in this world, and, perhaps, in the whole world in history, not just among the Jews.  In any case, we read in v. 24 that the Son of Man – for Jesus says in v. 37 that the sower is the Son of Man – plants good seed in his field.  The field we are talking about is his field, where his servants work.  And the weeds are likewise sown in the Son of Man’s field.  The world as a whole is not, in the language of the gospels, the kingdom of God, the world is never called the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is in the world, it comes into the world, it forces its way forward in the world, but it is not the world.  But the kingdom of God is sometimes the church, sometimes a way of speaking about the community of faith, the people of God, the assembly of the Lord.  Both the kingdom of God, as here, and the church are sometimes conceived of as a visible community and sometimes as only the true, faithful sons and daughters of God.  People outside of the church are never called sons of the kingdom.  If it is his field, we are talking about the mixture of true and false sons in the community associated with the Son of Man, that is, the church.

Take all of this together and it seems clear to me than anyone reading this parable and its interpretation would have understood the Lord to mean that the kingdom would advance with traitors in the midst, the army of the Lord would be beset with a fifth column, the battle with the kingdom of darkness would be made so much more difficult by the presence of the Devil’s allies in the Lord’s own ranks.  Nobody was expecting that at the appearance of the Messiah, just as no one was expecting that many who believed the message about Jesus when it was preached would receive the word with joy only to lose interest later on.  The first two parables of chapter 13 are not so different in meaning.

Jeremiah prophesied a time when everyone in the church would be a true believer.  He prophesies a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  A time when it will be unnecessary for a man to teach his neighbor or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  Everyone was expecting that that day would dawn when the Messiah appeared.  But it was not to be.  We have often spoken of the foreshortening that is characteristic of the prophets, how they see the future as a single event, a single outcome.  How often they speak of the Messiah’s coming and immediately of his establishing justice in the earth.  But, of course, there is a long stretch between his first coming and his second, between the beginning of the consummation and its conclusion.  And throughout that time the church will be – strange to say – as it always was, a mixture of true faith and hypocrisy.

This sermon has been unusual in being taken up with so much argument.  But it matters how one reads the parable.  It determines what one carries away from it.  One of the most discouraging things about being a Christian in this world is that so much of the battle that Christians fight is with others who call themselves Christians.  How much easier it would be, altogether easier to be a Christian and to stand as a Christian, if only the church spoke with a single voice and a united heart.  If only everyone could see the difference and could take note of the separation between those who belonged to the Lord and those who did not.  How much easier it would be for young Christians if they found the church a community of people who all together adorned and confirmed their new-found faith.  But it is not so.  That line that divides the living from the dead runs invisibly even through the church of God.  Why, we have no idea what the church would look like and be like and live like if only she were composed of every true lover of Christ and every true follower of the Lord in the world and had within her membership not one single false son or daughter of the kingdom.  Imagine the energy that could be spent more profitably elsewhere if the church were not so often consumed with concerns about her own fidelity and that of her people.  Imagine how powerful the church’s life and witness would be if she herself were not sinning so much and tolerating so much sin among her people.

The church, the people of God, is often the best recommendation for the gospel of Jesus Christ, but, alas, it is often also the worst.  Like it or not, we must live with that fact.  But the Lord reminds us here that this ambiguous and frustrating situation is temporary.  It will come to a shuddering end when the Lord Jesus appears again and brings the entire world to judgment at the end of the age.  It is a most fundamental conviction of the Christian mind and heart that one cannot judge the meaning of anything by appearances in the present.  It is what will happen in the future, at the great day, that determines what anything means here and now.  Christians know that the future will be very different from the present and that all that frustrates and disappoints and complicates our lives now will be utterly and forever removed from our lives then.  The evil ones, especially those in the church, for to be evil in the kingdom of God is to be evil indeed, will be shown for what they are.  The righteous too, who have labored long under very difficult conditions, will be made conspicuous for their righteousness.  And Christ will be seen as the Savior he is.

Again and again Matthew returns to this all-important fact:  what will happen when Christ comes again.  Matthew, we said at the outset of our studies in this Gospel, is concerned with the nature and character of true Christian discipleship: what it means really to follow the Lord.  Over and again he is at pains to tell us this: Live your life in the active expectation of the last day and you will be a Christian indeed!