Listen to the gospel writers: The weeds and their interpretation

Wed, 12/04/2017 - 11:12 -- James Oakley

I often tell people that we need to listen to the gospel writers whenever we read the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke or John are teaching us something by recording the things they do. We need to let them do that. The words Jesus spoke within the gospels were spoken to other characters in the narrative, not to us directly. Our job is not to apply those words to us, but to ask what the gospel writer is wishing to communicate by recording those words in the setting they occur in.

A few weeks back, I gave an example of this from the end of Matthew 12. Both Matthew and Mark record a visit from Jesus' mother and brothers, but they're making quite different points as they do so.

Today, I wish to give another example, this time from two passages in the same gospel, indeed two passages in the same chapter of the same gospel. I wish to consider Matthew 13:24-30 and Matthew 13:36-43.

The parable of the weeds

Here's Matthew 13:24-30

Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.

‘The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”

‘“An enemy did this,” he replied.

‘The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”

‘“No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: first collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”’

In brief: The "weed" here was zizania, tare, or darnel - a plant that looks like wheat in its younger stages, is poisonous to eat, and had a root system that entwined itself around other plants. It needs pulling up, because it could render the whole crop inedible and so commercially worthless. To rip it up early would be impossible - genuine wheat would be mistaken for darnel, and the tangled roots means you'd yank everything up anyway.

Commentators observe that the emphasis appears to be on the conversation between the land owner and his servants, debating whether the weeds should be pulled up right away. The owner urges them to be left, and gives his reasons.

The interpretation of the parable

Here's Matthew 13:36-43:

Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.’

He answered, ‘The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Commentators puzzle over this one. The conversation between the owner and the servants, which dominated the parable, isn't even mentioned here. Instead, the focus is on the final destiny of the weeds (the bonfire), and the wheat (the barn). Other features of the parable are explained, but not the servants who wanted to do their weeding prematurely. Why is this?

Various explanations have been put forward. Of course, some writers think this is evidence that either the details in the parable, or the explanation, were not original to Jesus and were added later. The trouble is, there's no evidence at all for this. As with all such theories, it simply transfers the incompetence to the editor of Matthew's gospel, so nothing is solved.

Different points

There's a simple answer, though. We need to remember that our aim is not to listen to this parable, in glorious isolation, trying to work out what the message of the parable is. Instead, we're aiming to listen to Matthew, asking what he wishes to say to us through chapter 13, and in particular what he's saying in 13:24-30 and 13:36-43 to contribute to that overall message.

Once we've reminded ourselves of that, might it not be as simple as this: Both the parable and its interpretation are original to Jesus. As ever, Matthew had to summarise and abbreviate as he recorded Jesus' teaching. He did so according to what he wished to say. And, in 24-30 and 36-43, he wasn't wishing to say the same thing.

The commentators are correct, the emphasis in Matthew 13:24-30 is on the delay before the judgement. It gives reasons for this. By 13:36-43, the emphasis has changed, and is on the final destiny of the two kinds of plant.

This fits perfectly with the verses surrounding these two passages. The parable itself is followed by Matthew 13:31-33, two short parables about the growth of the kingdom. It starts from small beginnings, but will one day permeate everything. This is the perfect sequel to the parable of the weeds, with its point that the delay allows more plants that looked like weeds actually to be wheat by the end.

The explanation of the parable is followed by two short parables, to which I'll return, before the parable of the net in Matthew 13:47-50. This makes almost exactly the same point as Matthew 13:36-43, using very similar language. There are two eternal destinies, this time for good and bad fish.

In between comes two short parables which speak of the supreme value of the kingdom of heaven. There is nothing more precious than to belong to the kingdom. In the light of the fact that membership of the kingdom, or lack of membership, affects your destiny for eternity, then that makes perfect sense.

Shape of Matthew 13

So, let me offer a structure for Matthew 13. It's a bit rough at the edges, and there are a few sections that we need to fit into this, but I think it works as a broad outline.

  • Matthew 13:1-23 — As people hear Jesus at any moment in time, and during the months and years that follow this, they will respond in different ways.
  • Matthew 13:24-33 — Then look at the big picture, and the way that the overall response to Jesus develops through time. The picture is one of growth. If you took a snapshot at any point in time, and concluded from that how big the kingdom will be, you'd underestimate it.
  • Matthew 13:36-50 — There is, however, an end to this growth. Not every individual will be in the kingdom. There is a judgement to come, when there will be a separation, and eternal destinies are set. This means there is nothing more valuable than being in the kingdom.

In part, we got there, by allowing Matthew to be saying different things as he records first the parable of the weeds, and then later its explanation.

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