Last week’s text, the parable of the sower, focused on where that seed landed and how God would provide the increase. The parable of the weeds (sometimes called ‘tares’) focuses on the judgment that will befall “all causes of sin and all evildoers” (Matthew 13:41). It appears to describe a “them-and-us” situation, tempting you and me to decide who are the evildoers and who the children of the kingdom – a trap that is unfortunately easy to fall into.
A more thoughtful look shows that this is both a cautionary tale and an encouraging one. Holly Hearon is retired as a professor of New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. She points out the connections.[i]
Jesus says that the one who sows the weeds, the tares, among the wheat is an “enemy.” This word comes up three other times in the Gospel of Matthew. The first, and probably best known, is early in the Sermon on the Mount, when we are told, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s a tall order, first of all, and one that tends to humble me when I try – really try. I’m guessing it humbles you, too.
And with that in mind, the parable of the wheat and the tares can really give us pause.
If, as verse forty-two of this parable says, these enemies are destined for a “furnace of fire,” why are we supposed to devote all that emotional energy to loving them? And while we’re puzzling over that one, just a few verses later, Jesus is reminding us that God, the Creator and Judge, causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good, making no distinction between the groups. Well, now we’ve moved into the realm of paradox. It isn’t paradise, but we can see it from here.
The second reference to “enemies” is in Matthew chapter ten verse thirty-six, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out as sheep among the wolves. There, he says, their enemies will be members of their own household. Whoa.
What does it mean that deep divisions – even what we would term enmity – can occur even among members of our own households? People to whom we are most closely bound, whether by blood, marriage, or longtime relationship?
What would make us enemies of one another? And how do you or I know whether we’re the enemy or the good guy? What is it that determines which hat we wear?
My dad tells a story from the memoir of his childhood in north-central Baltimore. Two brothers, 14 and 9, one a swaggering tough guy, and one a mild-mannered, impressionable kid. Eddie and Marty lived on 41st Street, a block away. Eddie had a reputation. Rumors of an arrest, of torturing cats, stealing candy. His father drank. Nobody ever saw him. Their mother, either. Just Eddie and Marty. Outsiders. Eddie was, anyway.
My dad was in a sandlot baseball game, standing on first base after a single, when everything stopped. Eddie was ambling across the field, heading for the pitcher.
The guys all knew about Marty. Right after school that day, he’d shot his new bicycle out of an alley right in front of a car and was killed instantly. Now here was his brother, who never had anything to do with these kids…. Why was he here? He wanted to play. Eddie’s were pale gray, vacant. Nobody home in there. Two outs passed quickly, and Eddie was reaching for a bat. Eddie swung once, rolling a slow foul ball past third.
He spit, took a long look at his feet, gulped a big breath and stood back in. Then he got real still, bent his head and started to cry. His shoulders shook. The chatter stopped.
At first nobody moved. Then the catcher started to reach out, to pat Eddie on the shoulder. Eddie dropped the bat and started to run, heading home. He stepped in a hole, stumbled, kept running, and disappeared at the corner.
What does love look like? What is love to a bunch of neighborhood boys under construction? What is a brother’s love to a 14-year-old delinquent with no friends?
Letting Eddie into the game was scary, my dad says, but it felt like it was right. My dad had been afraid of Eddie, but he wished he could have made friends with Marty. Now Marty was dead. How come these guys treated Eddie like a good guy? Every one of them did. Nobody liked him. Almost everybody feared him. And that was the most confusing part of all.[ii]
That’s the end of my dad’s story. I understand his confusion. I’ll bet you do too. Who among us hasn’t been there? Who among us has a hard time on occasion distinguishing between wheat and tares, wheat and weeds – especially within our own hearts? Who among us is not simultaneously saint and sinner?[iii] We tend not to see the good in the people with whom we disagree. It’s the opposite of rose-colored glasses. As it’s been said, “When you hold a belief so tightly you cannot see another’s humanity, it will eventually obscure your own [humanity].”[iv]
As we’ve noted, Jesus uses the word “enemy” in the Gospel of Matthew three times in addition to the parable of the wheat and the tares. The last time is in Matthew chapter twenty-two, when he speaks of the prophecy of David regarding the Messiah and quotes Psalm one hundred ten. “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”
In God’s good time, the enemies who sow weeds among the wheat will be defeated. They will be cast out from the presence of God.
These references resist our efforts to turn “enemies” into nameless opponents on the other side of a great divide. Rather, they point to something more complex, in which lines are blurred even as ultimate defeat is assured. And the complexity increases when we turn to the explanation of the parable. Jesus identifies the enemy as Satan – who also appears three other times in Matthew.
In Matthew chapter four, when Jesus is led into the wilderness for the devil to tempt him. That’s a defining moment, when Jesus must decide whom he will serve.
Jesus will face temptation again in Matthew chapter sixteen, when Peter challenges the necessity of the journey to the cross and Jesus replies, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” This is Peter. The first disciple. The rock on whom Jesus will build his church. The one who will deny him.
“Get thee behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” A reminder that Jesus, even Jesus, wrestles with temptation. And faces enmity within his own household.
And the final reference to the devil will be found at the conclusion of another sorting parable, that of the sheep and the goats in Matthew chapter twenty-five. When the goats protest that they have never seen the Lord hungry or thirsty, naked or imprisoned or sick or lonely or a stranger. And Jesus condemns those goats to the eternal fires prepared for the devil. The goats thought they were following Jesus – but Jesus says that their actions mean that they are following the evil one.
On the surface, in the parable of the wheat and the tares, you would think the difference between the plants would be obvious. The slaves notice the difference immediately. So why doesn’t the householder? For that matter, why don’t you? Why don’t I?
I believe that it’s all of the above: Judge not, lest you be judged, we are counseled. And maybe also it’s to allow God to extend his grace for yet a little while longer. And maybe also to allow us time to reflect on the wheat and the weeds within our own hearts.
In the end, then, we know this: Judgment is necessary. Judgment is vital. And judgment is not a means of self-satisfaction. It is, instead, with the abiding love and mercy of God, a painfully necessary process of lear
[i] Holly Hearon, chaired professor emerita of New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN. © 2020 on Working Preacher at workingpreacher.org
[ii] Excerpted and adapted from Jumping With Mixed Feelings: A Family Memoir. © 2013 by Raleigh Mann.
[iii] Martin Luther, “On the Freedom of a Christian,” 1520. In Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, John Dillenberger, ed. © 1958, 1962 by John Dillenberger and Anchor Books.
[iv] Brian Peck, LCSW. Found on his “Room to Thrive” blog, posted June 14, 2018.