He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” 28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
Translation: He placed before them another parable, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a human being who sowed good seed in his field, but while the people slept, his enemy came and he sowed tares in the midst of the wheat and he left. But when the blade sprouted and made fruit, then was made manifest the tares also. But the servants of the householder came (and) said to him, "Lord, did you not sow good seed into your field? Why, then, does it have tares?" But he was saying to them, "A human enemy did this." But they say to him, "Do you wish us to go that we might gather it?" But he says, "No, lest when you gather the tares, you might pluck up the wheat along with them. Leave both to grow together until the harvest, and, in the time of harvest, I will say to the reapers, 'Gather first the tares and bind them into bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Background and situation: The parable of the weeds, otherwise known as the parable of the wheat and the tares, follows immediately after the parable of the sower (13: 1-23). It appears to come from a source other than either Mark or Q. The only parallel is in the Gospel of Thomas (57).
Chapter 13 of Matthew is made up of a string of parables, many, like this one, introduced by alle, "another." This tends to give the section a cohesive quality, and again accentuates Jesus in the role of teacher, an important theme in Matthew.
The enemy sows "air heads": Jesus starts off by saying that the kingdom of heaven was like a person who sowed good seed in a field, but "while the people slept, his enemy came."
The enemy sowed zizania--otherwise known as tares, darnel, cockle, or, technically, lolium temulentum. It's a weed that, especially in its early stages, looks like wheat, but instead of producing edible grain, produces only bitter-tasting seeds. (So the exegetes say. Anybody raised on a farm would recognize it immediately.)
At maturity, the weight of the grain in the wheat bends the heads down. Since there's not much of anything in the heads of darnel, the plant continues to stand straight. Darnel is, thusly, a plant of "air heads." It looks pretty good, in other words, but there's nothing there. (One wonders: What does that say about the relationship between the kingdom and the enemy?)
This also explains why it was only after the plants grew up and produced fruit that the weeds "appeared." The word is ephane, which comes from the word for "light," and is in the passive voice. "Brought to light" would be a good translation.
The fruit of the "good seed" revealed the hollowness of the bad seed. The fruit of the good seed illuminated the failure of the weeds to produce fruit.
Resisting evil: The word sperma appears forty times in the New Testament. Usually, this means not the seed itself, but the offspring of the seed. This sense of the word should be kept in mind. Indeed, in verse 38, Jesus will identify the good seed--the kalon sperma--as the "children of the kingdom."
Jesus identifies the enemy as exthros anthropos--a "hostile human being." In other words, the enemy is a created being, not a divine being. (Later, Jesus will identify the enemy as the devil or diabolos.) Whoever it is, it's not on par with God. The scriptures can get pretty fuzzy about the original of evil, but the power of evil or the devil is never placed on the same level as the power of God.
The slaves of the householder, those closest to the actual operation of the farm, are the first to consider taking action against the weeds. "Do you desire for us to go and gather (the weeds)?" Do you want us to respond to this initiative from the hostile enemy? How are we to fight back?
Jesus' response: Do nothing! "No, lest when you gather the tares, you might pluck up the wheat along with them." In your zeal to root out the enemy, you're quite likely to tear up the whole field.
Then Jesus says that "in time of harvest," he will instruct the reapers to gather the weeds in bundles to be burned. The word translated as "time" is kairos, which means "God's time."
In other words, God will deal with the problem of evil. There will be an eschatological solution to the problem of evil, but that is God's work and not ours. Evil will be checked, but not by human beings.
This is exactly what moral crusaders do not want to hear. They're on a mission, after all, to root out evil and get people to straighten up. Such people are dangerous. They're quite liable, in one of their moralistic crusades, to go into the field and start tearing up the whole dang farm. In their zeal, they are, unwittingly, and rather cluelessly, willing to rip out the good along with the bad.
Which is why I like to say that good people trying to do good can do more real damage than bad people doing bad. Bad people doing bad results in individual acts of criminality. Good people trying to do good can result in doctrinal rigidity, inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, and concentration camps.
Forgive them: Notice that Jesus flatly says "no" to the idea of tearing out weeds. Then he says, "Forgive them to grow together until the harvest." The word is aphete. It may be translated as "permit," "allow," or "let"--NRSV has "leave" here--but the most frequent meaning of aphete is "forgive."
The word occurs 156 times in the New Testament. About a third of them are regularly translated as "forgive," and probably more should be. Evil is to be dealt with by human beings through letting it be, permitting it, forgiving it.
It will be dealt with ultimately through the purifying fire. The purifying fire may not be the most pleasant of Biblical images, but it is certainly a dramatic one. The prophet Malachi spoke of none being able to stand at the day of the Lord's coming "for he is like a refiner's fire (3:2)." The apostle Paul talks of revealing a builder's work through fire. Anything not built on Christ gets burned up (1 Cor 3: 12-15). The whole concept of purgatory grew out of the idea of the purifying fire.
We all have our "weed side"--that part of us which may look good, but doesn't produce fruit. This part will be burned away, leaving only that which is built on Christ. Don't worry. In God's time of harvest, this will be seen and experienced as a good thing. After all, the one who judges us--the one who sends the purifying fire--is really the one who loves us the most.
Our propensity to judge others will be burned away. Our sucking up to heirarchical authority will be burned away. Our subversion of God's kingdom through gender inequality will be burned away. Our trying to see ourselves as better than others will be burned away. Our moralistic fervor will be burned away. Our self-righteous attempt at self-inflation will be burned away. Praise God!
"The just ones will shine forth":
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ 37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears*listen!
Translation: Then he left the crowds and went into the house, and his disciples came to him, saying, "Make clear to us the parable of the tares of the field." But he answered (and) said, "The one who sowed the good seed is the son of humanity, and the field is the universe. But the good seed, these are the children of the kingdom, but the tares are the children of the wicked one. But the enemy who sowed these is the devil, and the harvest is the gathering together of the eternal, and the reapers are angels. As, therefore, the tares are being gathered to be burned of fire, so it will be in the gathering together of the eternal. The son of humanity will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all the stumbling-blocks and the ones doing lawlessness, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the just ones will shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their father. The one having ears, let that one hear."
Jesus left the crowds and went into the house, which, incidentally, may have been his own residence in Capernaum. In the house, the disciples want an explanation for the "parable of the weeds," which shows, right there, that they didn't get it.
In the parable of the sower which precedes this one (13: 1-23), God is clearly the sower, and God sows the Word (Christ) everywhere. In this parable, Jesus is the sower, and he is sowing "good seed." This good seed is the children of the kingdom (13:38). They produce fruit. (Matthew emphasizes producing fruit. Karpos (fruit) appears 19 times in Matthew.)
Notice that the "good seed" is never threatened in the parable. No matter how many weeds are planted in the field, no doubt whatsoever is expressed about the good seeds' ability to germinate and prosper. In fact, it was the very produce of the "good seed" that illuminated the failure of the weeds in the first place.
Jesus is generating disciples who produce fruit. He calls them "children of the kingdom" who live out the ways of the kingdom--open table fellowship, gender equality, non-heirarchical living, inherent worth of every human being, and opposition to oppression.
Those who don't follow this way of the kingdom are instead pressed by the weeds of hardship and difficulty. They suffer the weight of heirarchy, scarcity, tribalism.
God will deal with evil: Then Jesus amps up the language. The opponent is now, finally, identified as diabolos--the devil (13:38). The harvest is clearly eschatological. Sunteleia aionos means something like "the bringing together of everything forever," or "consummation eternal." "The reapers are angels"--again, an eschatological reference.
The son of man will send angels and they will "gather out of the kingdom" all the skandala (impediments that cause someone to stumble) and anomian (lawlessness). These will all be thrown into the furnace of fire.
Again, this is "purifying fire" imagery, along the lines of Hebrews 12: 29: "Indeed, our God is a consuming fire." Whatever is not of God will be burned up--not now, not in chronological time, but in the kairos, in God's time, at the consummation of the universe.
Then, having eliminated our skandala and lawlessness, "the just ones will shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of my father." (NRSV translates dikaioi as "righteous," but "just ones" seems more appropriate in this context.) These just ones "will shine out" (eklampo)--they will have impact--illuminating the world with the ways of the kingdom.
Image: Grain and weeds, James B. Janknegt