The Parable of the Weeds: Matthew 13:24–35
He put another parable to them.
‘The kingdom of heaven’, he said, ‘is like this! Once upon a time a man sowed good seed in his field. While the workers were asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds in among the wheat, and went away. When the crop came up and produced corn, then the weeds appeared as well.
‘So the farmer’s servants came to him.
‘ “Master,” they said, “didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?”
‘ “This is the work of an enemy,” he replied.
‘ “So,” the servants said to him, “do you want us to go and
pull them up?”
‘ “No,” he replied. “If you do that you’ll probably pull up the wheat as well, while you’re collecting the weeds. Let them both grow together until the harvest. Then, when it’s time for harvest, I will give the reapers this instruction: ‘First gather the weeds and tie them up in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”
He put another parable to them.
‘The kingdom of heaven’, he said, ‘is like a grain of mustard seed, which someone took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when it grows it turns into the biggest of the shrubs. It becomes a tree, and the birds in the sky can then come and nest in its branches.’
He told them another parable.
‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven,’ he said, ‘which a woman took and hid inside three measures of flour, until the whole thing was leavened.’
Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables. He didn’t speak to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will tell the things that were hidden
Since the very foundation of the world.
‘Why doesn’t God do something?’
That is perhaps the most frequent question that people ask Christian leaders and teachers—and those of some other faiths, too. Tragedies happen. Horrific accidents devastate lives and families. Tyrants and bullies force their own plans on people and crush opposition, and they seem to get away with it. And sensitive souls ask, again and again: why is God apparently silent? Why doesn’t he step in and stop it?
These parables are not a direct answer to the question, and probably no direct answer can be given in this life. But they show, through the various different stories, that God’s sovereign rule over the world isn’t quite such a straightforward thing as people sometimes imagine.
Would people really like it if God were to rule the world directly and immediately, so that our every thought and action were weighed, and instantly judged and if necessary punished, in the scales of his absolute holiness? If the price of God stepping in and stopping a campaign of genocide were that he would also have to rebuke and restrain every other evil impulse, including those we all still know and cherish within ourselves, would we be prepared to pay that price? If we ask God to act on special occasions, do we really suppose that he could do that simply when we want him to, and then back off again for the rest of the time?
These parables are all about waiting and watching; and waiting and watching are what we all find difficult. The farmer waits for the harvest-time, watching in frustration as the weeds grow alongside the wheat. Not only the farmer, but also the birds wait for the tiny mustard seed to grow into a large shrub. The woman baking bread must wait for the leaven to spread its way through the dough until the whole loaf is mysteriously leavened. And that’s what God’s kingdom is like.
Jesus’ followers, of course, didn’t want to wait. If the kingdom was really present where Jesus was, coming to birth in what he was doing, then they wanted the whole thing at once. They weren’t interested in God’s timetable. They had one of their own, and expected God to conform to it.
Notice, in particular, what the servants say about the weeds. They want to go straight away into the cornfield and root out the weeds. The farmer restrains them, because life is never that simple. In their zeal to rid the field of weeds they are very likely to pull up some wheat as well.
Did Jesus, perhaps, have an eye here on the revolutionary groups of his day, only too ready to step into God’s field and pull up what looked like weeds? There were many groups, including some of the Pharisees, who were eager to fight against pagans on the one hand and against compromised Jews on the other. These ‘servants’ may have intended to do God’s will. They were longing for God to act, and were prepared to help him by acting themselves. But part of Jesus’ whole campaign is to say that the true kingdom of God doesn’t come like that, because God himself isn’t like that.
At the heart of the parable of the weeds and the wheat is the note of patience—not just the patience of the servants who have to wait and watch, but the patience of God himself. God didn’t and doesn’t enjoy the sight of a cornfield with weeds all over the place. But nor does he relish the thought of declaring harvest-time too soon, and destroying wheat along with weeds.
Many Jews of Jesus’ time recognized this and spoke of God’s compassion, delaying his judgment so that more people could be saved at the end. Jesus, followed by Paul and other early Christian writers, took the same view. Somehow Jesus wanted his followers to live with the tension of believing that the kingdom was indeed arriving in and through his own work, and that this kingdom would come, would fully arrive, not all in a bang but through a process like the slow growth of a plant or the steady leavening of a loaf.
This can sometimes seem like a cop-out today, and no doubt it did in Jesus’ day as well. Saying that God is delaying his final judgment can look, outwardly, like saying that God is inactive or uncaring. But when we look at Jesus’ own public career it’s impossible to say that God didn’t care. Here was one who was very active, deeply compassionate, battling with evil and defeating it—and still warning that the final overthrow of the enemy was yet to come.
We who live after Calvary and Easter know that God did indeed act suddenly and dramatically at that moment. When today we long for God to act, to put the world to rights, we must remind ourselves that he has already done so, and that what we are now awaiting is the full outworking of those events. We wait with patience, not like people in a dark room wondering if anyone will ever come with a lighted candle, but like people in early morning who know that the sun has arisen and are now watching for the full brightness of midday.