Matthew 13:24-30 Weeds and Wheat

Sun, 26/02/2017 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Do you ever wonder why God doesn’t fix the world faster?

You watch the news, you see acts of violence and terrorism. You see civilians trapped, starved and killed in Syria. You know people who have suffered as the victims of crime or abuse. Do you ever wonder: Why doesn’t God fix the world faster?

He has a really good reason for the delay. We’re looking this morning at part of Matthew chapter 13, a chapter we’re working our way through this spring. The chapter as a whole is asking why more people don’t follow Jesus.

Which just begs the question: If not everyone is going to follow Jesus, why does God continue to leave the bad people behind, with so much influence to do bad things? And will things improve with time?

Well, as I say, there’s a really good reason why God doesn’t wrap history up right away. There’s a really good reason why God doesn’t remove all the bad people from the earth today. And that reason comes in the story Jesus told about a farmer and his field of wheat.

The Parable

Let’s make sure we’re all clear how the story goes. Then we’ll look at what it means. Then we’ll look at how it explains the delay before God wraps things up and fixes everything.

Here’s the story, then: A farmer has a field he sows with wheat. During the night, an enemy comes and sows seeds that will grow weeds. The weed in question was called darnel. It was a particularly nasty thing to do. So nasty, in fact, that Roman law had an entry in its penal code for precisely this act of aggression.

Three things made this particularly nasty: Number 1: Darnel and wheat look almost alike when the plants are young. Number 2: Darnel puts down elaborate roots that tangle around the roots of other plants. Number 3: Darnel is poisonous to eat.

So the farmer had to get rid of the darnel. If he didn’t, the crop would be contaminated with the poisonous darnel, and would lose any commercial value. So the farm hands come and ask if they should pull up the darnel.

The farmer wisely says no. They couldn’t tell the plants apart at this stage. And even if they could, the intertwined roots meant they’d end up yanking up the wheat anyway.

Instead, here’s the plan: Let the two kinds of plant grow together until it’s harvest time. Then they can cut the darnel and put it on the bonfire. Lastly, they can harvest the wheat, and put it in the barn. Food for the winter.

The Interpretation

It’s a simple story. It concerned a world that his hearers knew well. But what does it all mean?

Most of Jesus’ parables are not explained. He expects us to think, to let the story get under our skin. This one still needs us to chew on it if the story is going to affect us with any depth. But Jesus actually explains it.

That comes over the page in verses 36 to 43.

So, the good farmer is Jesus, the Son of Man. The enemy is the great enemy, the devil, the evil one. The wheat are the people of the kingdom, Christians, people who follow Jesus. The weeds, on the other hand, are the people who don’t. Instead, Jesus says they belong to the devil. They are the people of the evil one. It’s a very black and white parable.

Harvest time is the end of the age. The end of history, when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead. The harvesters are the angels. As Jesus explains the parable, he pays great attention to the future that will be faced by the two groups of people.

First, the weeds. Verse 42: “They [that is, the angels] will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That’s a truly awful picture. Weeds don’t have teeth, so this is not continuing the picture language of the parable. This is what that picture language refers to in real life. The future is to be burnt. It’s a future of pain, weeping. And it’s a picture of regret, gnashing teeth, the frustration that this is where you’ve ended up, and it’s now too late to change it.

That’s the weeds. Things are much better for the wheat, verse 43: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” As the wheat is gathered into God’s barn, so the righteous will spend eternity in God’s house. Maybe you’ve been invited to spend a holiday in a friend’s holiday cottage. “Stay in our place in Portugal for a week!” Maybe you’ve done a house swap, and their house is nicer than yours. Maybe you look back on a particularly special holiday. All those things come to an end. The carriage changes back into a pumpkin, and normal life resumes. Well this one will never end. We get to live in God’s house forever. And we will shine like the sun, a phrase which comes from Daniel chapter 12, and refers to living in splendour and glory.

Let’s Talk about Judgement

There’s the story. And there’s the way Jesus explains it.

Before we think about how this explains the delay before everything is fixed, there are two things we need to do.

Firstly, we need to think about this language of there being a judgement. It’s slightly strange to our ears. Many of us have got used to the fact that we will one day die. Life just goes on, until we die, and then that’s the end.

If the idea of judgement is strange, the language of weeping and gnashing of teeth is especially so. It’s not comfortable. We didn’t know that this kind of thing was in the Bible, and if it is we didn’t expect to find it on the lips of Jesus himself. Isn’t he supposed to be about love?

Well, yes he is about love, and we’ll get to that.

But in order to see that love, we need to come to terms with what’s here. The fact is that Jesus has more to say about judgement than any other part of the Bible, and some of the hardest teaching on hell comes from Jesus himself.

It’s actually a good thing.

The journalist Robin Lustig used to present for the BBC. He wrote a piece the week before last drawing together two brutal conflicts of the past 50 years. Firstly, he talked about Srebrenica, a massacre of at least 8000 in the year 1995. 8 police officers have just gone on trial, charged with playing a part. Justice is catching up with them, as it has with Mladic before them.

We’re glad to see justice being done. It never brings back the dead, but we want to say that the things that were done did not go unpunished.

But then there’s modern day Syria. The Balkans conflict is over, but the Syrian one is not. Amnesty International have written of a prison just outside Damascus where they claim 13000 people have been killed without trial in the past 5 years.

And here’s Robin Lustig’s point. Just suppose that what Amnesty writes is true. Suppose those murders did take place. Will any of those currently carrying out those atrocities make the connection? Let me quote him:

“So here's what I'm getting at. One day -- perhaps in twenty years' time, or perhaps much sooner than that – some of the people responsible for the obscenities taking place at Saydnaya will stand trial. Just as senior Nazis did at Nuremberg, and senior Khmer Rouge officials did in Cambodia. Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice.”

We wouldn’t want to live in a world without justice, or where wrongs are unpunished.

The message of Jesus is good news. It says we live in a world where wrongs will one day be punished, every single one of them.

What hope for us?

That is good news, but that brings us to the second thing we need to think about before we get to why God doesn’t fix things right away. It’s good to live in a world where there’s justice, but how is it good news for us?

As I said, it’s a black and white parable. We’re all either people of the devil, or people of Jesus’ kingdom. For this to be good news, we need to know that we’re Jesus’ people not the devil’s people. We need to know that we’re headed for the barn not the bonfire.

If it was just about justice, we’d need to be honest and say that we’ve all done things that are not good. None of us could really sleep easy in our beds, confident we will never face justice.

And this is where God’s love comes in as well. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, we get to the death of Jesus. There we’ll find that Jesus dies in the place of his own people, so that we can be forgiven. He does not require us to be perfect. He only requires us to be forgiven.

So how do we come to be in Jesus’ kingdom? How do we find forgiveness? We met an answer to that last time. We looked at another parable, the parable of the sower. We discovered that all we need to do is hear the good news of Jesus, and then build our lives upon it.

We met the same answer a few weeks ago when we looked at the end of chapter 12. There Jesus invited us to be his disciples. To learn from him. To go through life doing an apprenticeship with him. To let Jesus lead us through life. And we’ve met this same answer in many other places in Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus offers out a free gift. We can be in his kingdom any time we choose. All we need to is recognise him as the true king, and choose to base our lives on him. He then forgives us all the things we’ve done wrong in the past, and all the things we do wrong in the future.

We’re suspicious of free gifts, and with good reason. A free gift is often something cheap that you throw away. Long ago, I decided to spend 10p and buy a biro, rather than waste hours of my life trying to make a free one write. Or a free gift is a free trial, really trying to hook you in to pay for something you don’t’ want and that’s overpriced.

When Jesus gives us a place in his kingdom as a free gift, it’s none of those things. It certainly is not cheap – it cost him his life. It’s certainly not worthless – a place in God’s barn is the most precious gift we could ever have. And it’s not a free trial, it’s genuinely free.

Anyone who wishes to can move from being one of the devil’s people to being one of Jesus’ people. And it’s completely free.

Why the delay?

So now we’ve got there. We’ve looked at the story of the field with the wheat and the weeds. We’ve looked at what the details in the story represent. We’ve come to terms with the idea of a judgement, and we’ve seen how freely and easily anyone can become part of Jesus’ kingdom, can become wheat not a weed.

So now we ask: Why the delay? Why does God not solve the world’s problems sooner?

It’s a question the story identifies with. It’s the very question that the farm workers asked. Verse 28: “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” The farm owner’s reply shows what’s wrong with this. It’s not that it’s not their job. It’s that it’s not yet time. Verse 29: “No, because while you are pulling up the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”

If they were to blow the final whistle now, and start pulling up everything that looked like a weed, lots of plants would be pulled up unnecessarily. Lots of plants would get pulled up as weeds, but if they’d been given a little more time they’d clearly be seen to be wheat.

All the time, people become followers of Jesus. By delaying the date for the harvest, there’s time for more people to become Christians. For each one of them, if Jesus had returned earlier, they’d have been yanked up as a weed, and burned on the fire. But because Jesus delayed, they became his followers, and by the time he returned they were wheat. Into the barn for them.

Let’s make this personal. Many people here can remember the date when they first started to follow Jesus. 15th March 1989. Or if you can’t remember the date, you can remember the rough year, or the season of your life.

Isn’t it a good thing that Jesus waited until after that date for his return? Isn’t it a wonderfully good thing?

Here’s why there is a delay: To give more people time to start following Jesus. To give more people time to be wheat.

Applying it today

Which means: If you’re here today, and you’re not yet following Jesus, there is still time to do so. Your eternal destiny is not yet set. You could decide to follow him any day you wish, and then your future is in the barn not on the fire.

We don’t know how much time we have. I’ve taken many funerals. Sometimes, it was for someone who lived to a ripe old age, and had plenty of warning that the end would be soon. Other times, it’s all the more tragic because it was so unexpected, even sometimes so young. Leaving aside the reality of death, God has set the day when Jesus will return, and it could perfectly well be during our lifetime.

We don’t know how much time we have. But for the time being, there is still time.

The delay is also good news for those of us who do follow Jesus. The chances are that many of our friends do not. There is still time for them. So tell them about him. Told them before and they aren’t convinced? Keep on, lovingly explaining, answering their questions, bringing them to events where they can find out more.

Sometimes it’s tempting to give up with someone. “That person will never turn to follow Jesus.” Don’t give up. If you do, you’re deciding now that they’ll always be a weed. That’s the mistake the farm workers made in the parable. It’s the mistake that Jesus does not want us to make. We can’t be sure. It’s too early to call. We keep on pointing people to Jesus, and we leave their response to him. That’s the whole point of the story.

If you watch the Bake Off, there’s that knuckle biting moment when the word comes that it’s time to stop work and step away from the table. If you’ve sat an exam, you’ll know the words “stop writing please”. The final curtain has fallen. There’s no time left. What a relief when you get a bit of extra time.

Or you know what it’s like to queue for a ride that can only take so many people. Someone is staffing the gate deciding how many people to let through. You’re in the line, wondering if they’ll leave the gate open long enough for you to go this time.

Or you know the pain of watching a football match that’s gone full time and it’s a drawer. Then to your relief the linesman’s board goes up – there will be 6 minutes of extra time. Phew – there’s time to rescue this game after all.

God is good. Jesus is good. We’ve been given extra time. Not extra time with which to pull up our socks. It’s not like the 11+. We haven’t got time to answer a few more questions, to get a few more marks.

Remember: It’s binary. We’re all either weeds or we’re wheat. You either follow Jesus or you don’t. We’ve got that extra time to make friends with Jesus. To accept his free offer of a place in his kingdom. To receive forgiveness. To enter his family.

And if you do that, you change your eternal destiny forever. Your place is in God’s barn. And if your friends do that, they change their eternal destiny forever.

We’re in extra time, and it’s a wonderful kindness that we are.

The door is still open. It won’t be open forever, but there is still time for now.

Please make sure you’ve personally entered the kingdom. And please keep telling others, too.

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