Sermon on Matthew 13: 24-30, Colossians 3.12-17, St Matthew's, Oxford, 6th February 2011.
The first verse of our Epistle reading: ‘Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long suffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another’ is such a great verse - particularly in this translation. And there is, of course, a connection between this verse and our Gospel reading – the parable of the wheat and the tares or wheat and weeds. In the Epistle Paul is urging the Colossians to forgiveness and forbearance of those amongst them who seem to be straying. This surely connects with the parable: a parable, Jesus says, about the Kingdom of God. In the parable the sower – the owner of the field – says, ‘Let both wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest’. And I assume this is the connection between the two passages Cranmer had in mind when he put them together as today’s two readings.
So let’s look a bit more at the parable with this connection in mind.
In Matthew’s gospel the parable of the wheat and the weeds comes immediately after the parable of the sower and immediately before the parable of the grain of mustard seed. But Matthew is the only one of the gospel writers to report it – whereas Mark and Luke both have the parable of the sower and the parable of the grain of mustard seed. All three parables are about seeds growing which surely means that Matthew sees a connection between them.
Both the parable of the sower and today’s parable feature weeds as well as wheat. The weeds in both parables grow amongst the wheat. In the parable of the sower they are thorns/thistles which choke the wheat but in the parable of the wheat and weeds the weeds are probably what has become known as darnel – a plant that looks a bit like wheat. It does not harm the wheat, just does not produce anything that can be eaten.
In the parable of the sower the weeds are seemingly more successful in their rate of growth but in the end clearly aren’t going to produce any grain. We aren’t told what happens to them as they are only marginally important to the story. In the parable of the wheat and weeds the servants of the sower ask whether they should be weeding out the weeds with the implication that they think they should, but the sower tells them to be patient and wait until the harvest when they will be burnt.
The parable surely invites us to see ourselves as the wheat and the weeds as other people: other people who in some ways resemble us but who are fundamentally different from us: non-believers if we are believers, but perhaps also believers if we are non-believers, gay if we are heterosexual, men if we are women, etc. But does it suggest that we should treat these other people differently – even reject them - as a consequence?
Well yes it probably has been taken to suggest this over the years – not exactly helped by Matthew’s account of Jesus’ explanation of the parable. This comes a few verses later after the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast (another sort of seed?). Here Matthew has Jesus say explicitly that the ‘Weeds are the sons of the evil one’ and that ‘Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age’. This is all rather difficult to swallow. These weeds might be our friends even if they aren’t exactly like us.
No wonder then that many theologians argue that the interpretation did not belong to the parable from the outset. They even suggest that the explanation was largely composed by Matthew and badly reports what Jesus actually said. They note that the explanation focuses on the weeds and what happens to them whereas the parable itself is clearly as much about the wheat as the weeds and, in particular, the need to be tolerant of the weeds until the harvest.
There is likely some truth in this. Jesus rarely offers interpretations to his parables. And when he does, he does so only to his disciples. Jesus is generally reluctant to discuss his parables. Just a few verses before the parable of the wheat and weeds Jesus is being questioned by his disciples about why he tells parables. He says, rather opaquely ‘This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.’ This, amongst other things, surely means that there is no one simple explanation of a parable.
And in this regard it is interesting, I think, that Matthew does not put the interpretation immediately after the parable – possibly because he wants to set the parable in the context of these other parables about seeds. And it is not to say that Jesus never gave an explanation of a parable or the particular interpretation of this one. It is to say that there may be more than one interpretation of the parable and to suggest that there are lots to this parable besides the rather simple explanation Matthew has Jesus give.
Moreover Jesus’ parables are clearly not just stories told to instruct. They are – as I have said before - designed to change peoples’ way of thinking. They always contain something shocking or even confusing designed to make those who hear them, and are prepared to try and understand them, consider things differently. So what is shocking about the parable of the wheat and weeds? Would people be more shocked about the ultimate burning of the weeds or the sower allowing the weeds to grow amongst his crop until the harvest?
Setting the parable of the wheat and weeds in a group of parables about seeds invites the reader to compare and contrast the parable with the other parables but also to think what it also has to say which is distinctive.
In all three parables the seeds represent something different but note that in all three parables the good seed: the seeds which fall on the fertile ground, the wheat seeds and the mustard seed and the wheat seeds all grow into something much greater than previously: they bear fruit in other words. The Kingdom of God is where things grow!
But the parable of the wheat and weeds is distinctive – presumably deliberately distinctive - in that when the goods seeds grow the plants cannot, initially at least, be distinguished from the weeds and when they do their roots are intertwined so that the owner of the field tells his servants not to try and separate them ‘lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them’.
A very surprising and confusing thing here –designed to shock its listeners into thinking about things differently - is why the growth of the wheat and the weeds should be virtually indistinguishable from one another and all growing together in one place until the harvest. It’s probably only we who are shocked by the subsequent burning of the weeds.
Or in other words Jesus is surprising his listeners (and surely us) when he is suggests that it difficult to say who is a member of the Kingdom of God and who is not. And indeed like the servants of the sower, anxious to uproot the weeds even if that would damage the wheat – we are urged not to try. We know from our own experience that we are always tempted to divide people into people like us and people who are not, those who we like and those who we don’t, goodies and badies. Christians seem peculiarly tempted in this regard. Witness the furore about homosexuality within the church and before that….
But Jesus tells us that it is sometimes the least obvious person who turns up trumps in a difficult situation. Who would have thought it was going to be the Samaritan who helped the traveller who got mugged on the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. Furthermore Jesus –by associating with prostitutes, tax collectors, etc. turned upside down peoples’ perceptions of the rightful members of the Kingdom of God.
Instead of trying to distinguish and root out the weeds amongst we ‘should put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long suffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another’ And we should leave judgement to God.