The problem with the way Matthew tells some of Jesus’ parables is that he lets us off the hook WAY too easily. For example, last week we had the parable of the Sower and Seeds where the sower scattered seeds onto different types of soil. Some seeds were stolen by birds. Others were scorched by the sun. Some were choked by weeds. Others fell on good soil and produced a miraculous harvest. It doesn’t matter how many times we return to this parable and ponder its meaning. We will always see something different every time. It will speak to us in a new way.
Then Matthew ruins it by offering an explanation that Jesus “allegedly” told his disciples in private: The seeds are the word of God. The birds are the Evil One. The weeds are the cares of the world. And so on, and so forth. This absolutely KILLS the parable because it sucks the mystery out of it We don’t have to wrestle with the parable anymore because we have everything figured out for us.
If there is one thing I know about Jesus’ parables, It’s that they’re supposed to make us squirm like worms on a hot griddle! If we feel all comfy and cozy after hearing one of Jesus’ parables, we better read it again. Obviously we missed something because parables are meant to challenge us and help us to grow in our relationship with Christ. This is why we are still talking about these stories two thousand years later. If parables were easy to figure out they probably wound’t have survived as long a they have. These stories are timeless and enduring. That’s why we love them so much.
Unfortunately Matthew does the same thing with today’s parable. The storyline is deceptively simple. The reign of God is compared to a sower who sowed good seed in his field. Then, in the middle of the night, an unidentified enemy sowed weeds among the wheat and they grew up together. When the hired help saw this mixture of weed and wheat they completely freaked out. They ask her for permission to weed the field, but the sower told them no. This was not their job description. The sower then instructed them to leave the weeds until harvest time when the two of them could be easily distinguished from each other. The weeds would then be gathered and burned and the wheat would be put in the barn.
When we hear this parable by itself, it comes alive. We start asking all kinds of questions like “Where am in in this story? Am I calm and wise like the sower or am I nervous and worried like the hired help? Am I feeling like an unblemished field of wheat or are the weeds choking the life out of me? Am I guilty of trying to weed out someone else’s garden, or am I focused on what’s growing in mine?”
These are the kinds of questions Jesus would want us to ask ourselves after hearing this parable. He would want us to wrestle with it, like Jacob wrestled with the angel, until we receive a blessing, or a conviction about something we need to change in our lives.
But Matthew is not content to leave us in a state of pondering and questioning. Bless his heart, he just couldn’t resist telling us AGAIN what this parable means. Here’s what we wrote that Jesus “allegedly” said to his disciples: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seeds are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children 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.”
Well, there you go! According to Matthew, it’s all done and sorted. the mystery has been solved. All that is left to do is say “Amen” and start singing the hymn of the day. There are plenty of people who would be content to do this, but I’m not one of them!
First of all, you might find it interesting to know that this same parable appears in the gospel of Thomas with no explanation attached to it whatsoever. Thomas didn’t feel the need to explain it, so why did Matthew? I believe these kinds of explanations have very little to do with Jesus, and a lot to do with the person who wrote them. They represent the way the evangelist understood the parable, but this does not mean it’s the way the parable will speak to us.
But let’s go with Matthew’s explanation for a moment and see where it lead us. Then I want to give you another way of looking at this story that I believe is immensely more helpful.
If Matthew is correct, and the good seeds are the children of the Kingdom, it sets up a dangerous assumption. This assumption is that there are good seeds and bad seeds in our world; there are good people and bad people. 99.9% of the time, people identify with the good seeds and label those who don’t agree with their religious and political views as the bad seeds. This sets up a battle of epic proportions that Jesus NEVER intended for this parable!
Democrats demonize Republicans. Republicans demonize Democrats. Conservative Christians demonize progressive Christians. Progressive Christians demonize conservative Christians. Family members become estranged from each other because they have differences of opinion. People get thrown out of churches and are labeled as heretics by those whom they thought were their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is an ugly death-spiral of name-calling, finger-pointing, and verbal abuse. I know I’m sick of it! I’m sure you’re sick of it, too.
While Matthew’s explanation of the parable leaves us with the life lesson that it’s not our job to weed the field, this is not enough. As long as we see ourselves as good seeds, and others as bad seeds, the cycle of judgment and condemnation will continue. We will keep on labeling others as bad seeds. We will rejoice every time we see them fall, or get what we believe they deserve. We will think that God is punishing them for whatever wrongs we think they’ve committed.
If this is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, then I’m outta here. I’m packing my bags and heading to Walmart to be a greeter. At least that way I can be pleasant to others, in the same way I hope they will be pleasant to me!
But what if Matthew is wrong? What if this is not the explanation of the parable Jesus gave to his disciples? How can we understand it in a way that challenges us instead of makes us feel superior to others? The way we accomplish this is by seeing ourselves as the field in this parable. When we do this, we come to the conclusion that we are a frustrating, maddening mixture of weeds and wheat. There are good seeds in all of us. There are bad seeds in all of us, as well. We are saint and sinner, fallen and redeemed. We are all of these things simultaneously! This is good Lutheran theology! It’s good Christian theology as well!
When we see ourselves as the field, an interesting thing happens: The need to label others stops, and all the finger pointing gets turned in toward ourselves. This sounds a whole lot more like Jesus, than Matthew’s explanation of the parable. When we see ourselves as the field, perhaps the lesson we learn is to trust God’s timing. God knows when the weeds in our lives need to be uprooted. If we try to uproot them prematurely or insist on weeding other people’s gardens, we’re going to do some damage along the way. I don’t have to give any examples of this, because I’m certain that we’ve all experienced this untimely uprooting in our lives. I’m fairly certain that we are guilty of doing this to someone else as well.
If we go with this interpretation of the parable, it humbles us. It challenges us. It speaks to us in many different ways, and on many different levels. If we are the field, the parable comes alive. The good news it offers us is that God is willing to let the weeds grow with the wheat. The truth it tells us is that we will NEVER be a weedless garden, no matter how hard we try. As we live our lives as simultaneous saints and sinners, we need to trust God to take care of our garden, and show us what needs to be uprooted and what needs to be planted along the way. We need to trust that our righteousness does not consist in doing right things all the time. Our righteousness is because of our relationship with Jesus, who has saved us and redeemed us from ourselves.
Jesus promises us that one day we will be a weedless field, but this is not gonna happen on this side of eternity. I know this drives us absolutely crazy sometimes, but this is the reality of what it’s like to live life with one foot in the kingdom of God, and one foot in the kingdoms of the world.
Friends in Christ, I wish this sermon was a beautiful, unblemished field of wheat, but it’s a work in progress. It’s a little weedy in places. The best I can hope for is that it makes this parable come alive in your life. I’m not gonna tell you what it means. You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself! So walk with this parable during the week. Read it at least one every day, and see how to speaks to you! Amen.
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck