24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And 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?” 28 He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” 29 But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let 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.”’
36 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.’ 37 He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
If a basic law of logic is that A=A, then when is a seed not a seed, a weed not a weed, or a plant not a plant? When is it true that A = Not A? The answer is in speech, particularly in the kinds of speech that might be called poetry, symbolism, simile, analogy, sarcasm, comparison, figure, fable, deception, illustration, or parable. In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the plain speech of the Sermon on the Mount gives way to sub-verse, the meaning below speech, in words that point beyond their customary referents in the subversive “kingdom speech” of parables.
Matthew’s use of parables challenges the popular understanding that parables are merely illustrative material, taking deep concepts and explaining them in familiar language and imagery. Yes, there are deep concepts and, yes, there is familiar language and imagery, but the meaning of Jesus’ parables is not easily discernable. In fact, Jesus’ rationale for his use of parabolic speech implies that “explanation” is the opposite of what parables intend: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’” (Mt. 13:13, citing Isaiah 6:9). Jesus’ parables have a quality about them whereby the meanings are open to some—those with “ears to hear”—and closed to others. For that reason, many biblical scholars discourage attempts to turn parables into analogies, where every element of the parable can be identified as representing this or that.
Yet, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus himself seems to treat parables analogically, offering explanations of the parables that seem pedestrian and obvious. The explanation of the parable of the sower (Mt.13:1-9, 18-23) is almost the exact piece-by-piece analogy that scholars insist is the wrong way to read parables. It seems like Matthew’s/Jesus’ own approach to parables flies in the face of the sub-versive quality of parables, making them two-dimensional and obvious, not multi-dimensional, complex, or disruptive.
Perhaps, though, the sub-versive quality of Jesus’ parables lies not in the way one interprets the parables, but in some quality of the parable itself. For the parable of the sower, maybe the ridiculously abundant seed on the good soil—which is out of step with the routine and expected outcome of seeds that fall on rocks or thorns—is the sub-versive part. A scoffer might say, “Thirty-fold? Sixty-fold? That never happens. And a hundred-fold? Get real!” The scoffer, then, might write Jesus off as a Galilean fisherman who knows nothing about agricultural reality. Or, maybe the wild card in this story is the ill-disciplined sower, casting seeds in every direction with no regard for where it falls—surely a waste of precious resources for sustenance farmers. It would be easy for someone to hear this part of the story and conclude—as Jesus’ family does in the previous chapter—that Jesus is simply out of his mind. If it is the case that the parables themselves are sub-versive, then the use of parables is not so much a matter of esoteric knowledge, only accessible to insiders who are given the secret keys to insight. Instead, the sub-verse is that parables are only meaningful to those who are willing to think the ridiculous and imagine the non-mundane possibilities of everyday life.
With that kind of approach to sub-versive parabolic speech, hear then the parable of the wheat and weeds. On the back end of the parable is the keen insight that if one should go into the field and try to rectify the problem of the co-mingling of good and bad prematurely, one runs the real risk of destroying the good while trying to get rid the bad. To the chagrin of the workers, the owner wisely advises allowing the weeds to grow alongside of the wheat, so that the weeding process will not cause unintended harm to the good seed. A less obvious sub-verse of the parable is the narrator’s claim and owner’s observation that an enemy is responsible for the weeds. This is one hard-working, devious enemy! There have to be easier ways to destroy a crop than to plant weeds among them, so that nobody notices until the seeds begin to sprout. This evil act of enmity is not simple vandalism. It is an act of systematic imitation. It is systematic in that the root systems of the wheat and the weeds are intertwined to the point that pulling up one might result in pulling up both. It is imitative in that the weeds will also take root and grow, just like the wheat. In other words, the enemy operates by very deliberately cultivating something which acts very much like the wheat it is meant to destroy.
This parable is ridiculous if one considers the reality of such a diabolical, deliberate method of destroying a wheat crop. But, if one has ears to hear the sub-verse of the parable—“an enemy has done this”—it becomes a profound exposé of the nature of evil. More to Jesus’ point, it becomes a profound depiction of what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is like a carefully cultivated field of wheat, where one discovers that, alongside of that which is intended, there is a parallel reality of systemic imitation that threatens to undo it. And while one’s natural reaction is to “rid the world of evil,” the reality is that evil’s root system is so intertwined with the kingdom that the unintended consequences of such actions are devastating. In fact, one completes the enemy’s work by trying to separate the wheat and the weeds prematurely.
Interestingly, that piece of Scriptural wisdom is precisely what H. Richard Niebuhr argued in 1933, when many were calling for action against Japan for invading Manchuria. Niebuhr raised the issue of this parable with the aptly named article, “The Grace of Doing Nothing.” For Niebuhr, ‘doing nothing’ was not the same as ‘not doing anything.’ It was, rather, a deliberate action of patient faith. There are times when doing nothing is ethically necessary because the unintended consequences of doing something (anything!) in the face of evil can often end up destroying the very thing one is trying to preserve. It was a profound albeit a losing argument in 1933, followed quickly by a retort from his brother Reinhold entitled, “Must We Do Nothing?” That question, “Must we do nothing?” is ever the retort against the parable of the wheat and weeds. Yet, the owner’s wisdom proves remarkable time after time. In trying to rid the world of global terror, not only have countless innocent lives been lost or shattered, but every act of overreach against terrorism seems to become convincing propaganda for producing more terrorists. Richard Niebuhr’s insight—the insight of this parable—proves itself tragically over and over.
In the sphere of political decision-making, ‘the grace of doing nothing’ is usually a losing proposition. Certainly one could argue that the Christian church has never taken it as an article of faith. Typically when sabers rattle, the church rallies with them. But this parable, with its unlikely phrase, “An enemy has done this,” invites even the angriest reactionary to consider the complexity of wheat and weeds, good and bad, us and them.
In the end, there is hope. The weeds do not destroy the wheat and the parable concludes with some of Matthew’s familiar eschatological imagery. The false kingdom is destroyed and the true kingdom is gathered in. But, until that time of utter clarity comes, the kingdom of God keeps its complex, intertwined relationship with the parallel imitative kingdom that the enemy has sown. The sub-versive quality of this parable is that doing nothing in the face of that reality is often the right thing to do.
D. Mark Davis is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Theology, Ethics and Culture. The author of two books, Talking About Evangelism and Left Behind and Loving It, Mark exegetes the RCL Gospel reading each week at leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.org.