SOW WHAT? The Parable of the Weeds and Wheat and its Missiological Implications
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “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?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 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.’”
36 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.”
37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 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, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 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. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)
We know that only Jesus’ disciples are given the true meaning of this parable and that its true meaning was hidden from Israelites in general. It is fascinating to consider what the uninformed crowds might have made of what Jesus had said. We can be confident that they would have misconstrued Jesus’ words, though we are not told how. Given their preoccupation with Roman rule did they suppose that Jesus was saying that a time would come (the time of ‘harvest’) when all semblances of foreign occupation, oppression and influence would be removed; a time when the nation of Israel would re-emerge with restored purity?
Jesus does explain the parable to his disciples in verses 36-43. Central to the parable is the sovereignty of the Son of Man over the entire world. As will become apparent this has massive missiological implications, both globally and locally. Here are some key points to keep in mind as we ourselves respond to Jesus’ invitation: “he who has ears, let him hear”:
Harvest. There is a strong emphasis on harvest, the time of judgment, the ultimate fate of both unbelievers and of the people of God. The importance of mission is underscored when we take seriously the fact that people outside of Christ are in a state of condemnation and facing certain doom – eternal misery and anguish (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”) - unless they are rescued from their plight. The ration of Christian workers to population in especially Western nations is immensely disproportionate. Masses of people in our world do not personally know a believer. There is still a great need for churches to mobilise church members for overseas mission, while in many cases there also wonderful opportunities to reach the nations that have come to our own shores. If we have on our hearts what the Lord has on his heart – the world – then it will not be a case of either/or but of both/and.
Obedience. The idiom “sons of…” must be understood in the cultural context of the time. First and foremost, it is understood that the son-father relationship is an authority relationship. The son, as one under his father’s authority, is one who honours and obeys him. So the sons of the kingdom are those who live under and according to the dynamic rule of God, while the sons of the evil one are those who do Satan’s bidding.
Patience. The parable is an exhortation to patience. Note verses 28-29 and the warning to Jesus’ disciples not to ‘pull out the weeds’, not to be party to aggressive or even violent action to remove opposition to the kingdom of God. Arguably, what Jesus says here is at odds with actions that involve the imposition of Christianity upon unbelievers in what became Christendom in the Roman Empire, and more lately, with all contemporary examples of the ungodly confusion of evangelical Christianity with imposing political agendas on the general populace. Arguably, all such actions are examples of precisely what Jesus was warning against.
Jesus’ Sovereignty. Following on from Point #3 what is a Christ-honouring way of living in the world? To be patient and not force the issue and resort to coercive measures but to simply allow the Son of Man to continue to sow the good seed through the means he chooses, including our overseas workers.
Time. Given that people are constantly being redeemed and lives transformed it is tempting to reason that the analogy forged by the parable is limited and that in reality weeds can change into wheat. However, another way of applying the parable to mission which would perhaps be more in line with its tone and not require thinking such an absurdity (transforming weeds into wheat) is to think not merely of space (“the world) but of time (“the age”). That is, we need to recognize that until the Lord returns there will be two contrasting sowings: the sowing by the Son of Man and the sowing by the evil one, Satan. We know from the way Jesus trains and teaches his disciples that he does not have in mind a passive role for them. Yes, they need patience, but this does not mean sitting back and let Jesus do it all (“let go and let God”). They are implicitly servants working in his field. So, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, as his servants, we are to make themselves available to be used by him in all the world to sow the good seed and tend the wheat. Further, if we fail to make ourselves available to be used by him we are tacitly saying that it makes no difference to us if we allow the world “field” to be full of weeds sown by the evil one.
The World. The fact that “the field” is the world makes it clear that those commentators are incorrect who treat the field as if it was the church. Nowhere does Jesus equate the kingdom of heaven with the church. This parable is not about churches being made up of true believers and those who falsely believe they are believers, as many have mistakenly thought. The parable is about the church living in a hostile world. The weeds are not to be identified with false disciples per se, but with all unbelievers, all who are not true followers of Christ. Notably, the sons of the kingdom, the people of God, are “good seed.” The seed is “good” because it will ultimately produce fine wheat, a purified and, indeed, glorified people who will “shine like the sun.”
Hostility. The parable also serves to illustrate how God’s people should react when “the enemy” acts with his customary malice. Indeed, the term translated “enemy” actually means “hostile man.” It follows that “the sons of the evil one”, are those who comply with Satan’s agenda, also express this hostility, just as weeds threaten the development of a healthy wheat crop. God’s people can expect to continue to experience hostility until the day of judgment, the time of harvest.
Jesus’ World. Notably, the Son of Man sows good seed in “his field”, that is, the world belongs to him and implicitly there should be only wheat growing in the field, with no weeds at all. All people should be ‘wheat.’
Resemblance. Many commentators believe that the word used for “weeds” (zizania) refers to a particular kind of weed that somewhat resembles wheat called lolium temulentum. This is a poisonous weed. When fully grown it stands about the same height as wheat. It is also very difficult to distinguish from wheat, especially in the early stages of growth. If so, the owner’s command not to pull out such weeds carries extra weight, for it would be very easy to mistake true wheat for a weed and do great damage to God’s own people. I take it that treating professing believers as though they were unbelievers would be akin to what Jesus is warning against.
Clear Discrimination. The parable also indicates that on the Day of Judgment it will be much easier to discriminate between the weeds and the wheat because both will be fully developed at that stage. It is not easy to distinguish between zizania and wheat until the ears form.
Entangled Lives. It is implicit that the roots of the weeds and the roots of the wheat are entangled and this is a great illustration of the reality that confronts us in mission. The lives of God’s people are inextricably linked with those of unbelievers. I take it that when Christians act in a separatist manner and withdraw from involvement in the lives of unbelievers then we are not facing up to reality.
Veiled Identity. There is also the idea that, while at the eschaton the righteous will shine like the sun, in this Age unbelievers are not able to see the true glory already possessed by “the sons of the kingdom.” Here we recall that Jesus displayed God’s glory supremely and yet it was a veiled glory, and the vast majority, even of those who have been significantly exposed to the life and work of Jesus, fail to understand Jesus’ essential identity. Similarly, God’s people are maligned and persecuted because their true identity is veiled (cf. the radical misunderstanding of the true identity of Jesus and his people that Saul (Paul) was shown to have when Jesus encountered him on the Damascus Road).
Enemy Stealth. This parable teaches us about our enemy. He does his work while the owner’s servants are sleeping, that is, he avoids doing his work openly, but rather does his work secretly.
Separation. As per all the parables, this parable illustrates the essential nature of “the kingdom of heaven,” the way the coming of God’s dynamic rule impacts on the world in which we live. In the mind of devout Jews such as the Pharisees the coming of God’s rule would necessarily entail the immediate separation of the righteous from the wicked. The expectation of the Qumran community was that it would involve the separation of “the sons of light” from “the sons of darkness.” The anti-Maccabean Psalms of Solomon, dating from the 1st or 2nd century BC, promise that God would raise up “their king, the son of David” who would “thrust out sinners from the inheritance” and “gather together a holy people” (17:23-26). But Jesus teaches that this is not in fact what happens or will happen as the dynamic rule of God works itself out through the reign of Jesus (ongoing following the Resurrection). It is indeed true that ultimately the dynamic rule of God must necessarily involve the separation of the righteous from the wicked but this will only be so when that rule reaches its consummate expression, at the time of harvest.
Mission Dei. Now for the most important point of all: Mission is first and foremost Missio Dei. The “servants” are alarmed at the growth of weeds and their immediate reaction is to take decisive action to deal with the problem (see above). But it is central to this parable that the Lord is complete control of all that will happen in the world, right through to the end of the Age. The kingdom of heaven (the dynamic rule of God) is all about (and centres in) the sowing of good seed by the Son of Man, that is, Jesus’ creation of “the sons of the kingdom.” The greatest problem we face when we are preaching about mission is that we want to challenge our hearers to do something. The greatest danger we face is that of treating mission as another species of moralism, as though the cause of mission depended on what we do. Of course, we do want our hearers to not just listen to what we have to say about mission but to absorb and assimilate the message and work out its implications in their lives. But we must somehow do this in a way that emphasizes that mission is first and foremost what the Lord does and that what we need to come to terms with is how this reality shapes our lives and behaviour.
Sleeping. The parable itself provides a basis for challenging God’s people with respect to mission. We read: “But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.” With respect to mission are we faithful or faithless servants? Take the advancement of evil and the proliferation of unbelief in our own country. To what extent is this due to the fact that the church has been sleeping? To what extent must we also take our share of the blame for the fact that so many in our world are unbelieving and lost because we have been sleeping rather than working to protect the crop and see that it is properly cared for and to work to prevent the sowing of weeds (while avoiding coercive action)? Here it is significant to note that the refrain “he who has ears to hear let him hear”, as verse 36 makes clear, is explicitly addressed only to Jesus’ disciples. ‘Hearing’ means much more than simply listening. Biblical hearing also involves obedience.
Eschatology. Significantly, the ultimate destiny of the sons of the kingdom, “the righteous” is to shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. This is language drawn from Daniel 12:3, which indicates that when Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” in this parable he has very much in mind the “one like a son of man” depicted in Daniel 7, who is given authority over all nations and all the world. This is why it is the Son of Man himself who will send out his angels to weed out of his kingdom “everything that causes evil and all who do evil.” But, going back to the allusion to Daniel 12:3, note that in that context Daniel speaks of “the wise”. The righteous are those who have lived wisely. They have remained loyal to the Lord precisely because they know where history is heading and what will happen at the end, knowing they will be vindicated (cf. Dan 11:33-35; 12:1-2). Further, and this is highly relevant to a mission emphasis, the righteous or the wise who “will shine like the brightness of the heavens” are one and the same as “those who lead many to righteousness” (Dan 12:3b). I don’t think the idea here is primarily that of individual evangelism and one-to-one disciple-making (Western constructs which don’t lack pertinence), but of the people of God being used as the people of God to win others.
Furnace. There are very strong allusions back to Daniel at a number of points. The reference to the angels throwing all who do evil into the fiery furnace alludes to Daniel 3 when Nebuchadnezzar threw Daniel’s three friends into the fiery furnace. The fiery furnace of Daniel 3 is the place of certain destruction. Nebuchadnezzar claimed that no god could rescue the three men from such a fate, but God did. But now it is God himself, that is, “the Son of Man” (implicitly divine as per Daniel 7) who casts the wicked into the fiery furnace. So there is absolutely no hope whatsoever of escape from this fate.
Great Commission. “The Son of Man” sending out his angels forces a parallel with the Great Commission. When Jesus claims all authority in heaven and on earth there is a particular allusion to the Son of Man of Daniel 7. The word for “angel” actually means ‘messenger’ and there are a number of points at which it is not clear whether Jesus means ‘angel’ or ‘human messenger’, that is, disciple. Clearly, in the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat he does mean angels. But the Great Commission still involves a strong parallel. For Jesus sends out his disciples, his messengers, to disciple the nations through teaching (not coercion). We are not sent to weed out of the kingdom everything that causes evil and all who do evil (a very important point), but rather to be the workers through whom the Son of Man continues to sow good seed, bringing people to faith in Christ and teaching them to observe everything he has commanded us.
From the above observations it can be seen that this parable is rich with missiological implications. Until the end of this Age, our Lord will continue to create and develop a people for himself. As his servants we need to keep alert, mindful that our hostile enemy has similar intent - to create and develop a people for himself. Though the Lord is totally sovereign over all nations and peoples, it is not his purpose in this Age to force complete separation between his people and those who are not. In our desire to see a clear distinction between those who belong to the Lord and those who don’t, we, as the Lord’s servants, must avoid resorting to coercive and overbearing measures. Life and mission will be messy because our lives are inextricably linked with the lives of those who do not belong to the Lord. We need patience as we continue to face hostility, encouraged to know that history is moving inexorably towards a grand conclusion when our true identity will no longer be hidden and we will live as a glorious new humanity in the new heavens and the new earth which awaits us. Until that day comes, it is our privilege and responsibility, as our Lord’s servants, to be deployed and used by him in the realization of his great mission purpose, mindful of the inescapable destruction and eternal misery that awaits all who are not found to be his at that time.
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