Thought for the day
Again today we have two versions of the one parable, the original and a later church interpretation or reception. Communities of faith are always “mixed,” in that some people are fully engaged, some are half-hearted and many, perhaps most, are somewhere in between. What to do? The temptation to go for a radical, purified church has been a recurring one across history. The teaching of this parable is let things alone—it is not for us to judge. It could be (we hope!) that less committed believers may change and a welcoming, compassionate approach may enable that to happen.
Jesus, your compassion to all inspires us today to recognise our own need of your grace. Help us work on the plank in our own eyes before we dare to recognise, much less to offer to remove, a splinter in our neighbour’s eye.
Matt 13:24 Jesus presented them with another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a person who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed darnel among the wheat and went away. 26 When the plants sprouted and produced grain, then the darnel also appeared. 27 So the slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then where did the darnel come from?’ 28 He said, ‘An enemy has done this!’ So the slaves replied, ‘Do you want us to go and gather it?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, since in gathering the darnel you may uproot the wheat along with it. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I will tell the reapers, “First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burned, but then gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
Matt 13:31 He gave them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches.”
Matt 13:33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all the dough had risen.”
Matt 13:34 Jesus spoke all these things in parables to the crowds; he did not speak to them without a parable. 35 This fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
Matt 13:36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him saying, “Explain to us the parable of the darnel 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 are the people of the kingdom. The poisonous 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 reapers are angels. 40 As the poisonous weeds are collected and burned with fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather from his kingdom everything that causes sin as well as all lawbreakers. 42 They will throw them into the fiery 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. The one who has ears had better listen!
(i) The parable of the weeds (darnel, tares) and the wheat and its allegorical explanation are unique to Matthew. The suspicion that we are dealing with Matthean material and even Matthean composition is supported by sampling the vocabulary and noticing how much of it is typical Matthew (compare 8-1-3-0; weeds 8-0-0-0; bear fruit 23-0-14-2; householder 7-1-4-0; to gather 7-0-1-0).
(ii) The parable of the mustard seed is found in Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19. Matthew omits the opening question in Mark and Luke, possibly because he has used the word compare at the very start.
(iii) The parable of the leaven is found in Luke 13:20-21. Matthew’s version is slightly shorter, again omitting the opening rhetorical question.
(iv) The passage on the use of the parables is found in Mark 4:33-34. In Mark, it functions as a pedagogical observation. In Matthew, it is theological, complete with a citation from Psalm 78:2.
(v) It is likely that the opening parable and its interpretation are meant to deal with issues which arose after the resurrection and perhaps even after the first missionary thrusts of Christianity. Together they address a “church” question: what do we do with people who are “in” but not “of”? How do we deal with people who are half-hearted or lukewarm in the community? The broad response is tolerant: leave them alone and at the time of harvest all will be revealed! At the same time, the parable and its allegorical reading function as frames around another series of mini-parables, taken from the common tradition or from the sources used by Matthew and Luke. Both of the mini-parables “comment” on the parable of the weeds. The mustard seed represents astonishing growth, i.e. there is always hope, things can change. The broad “hospitality” of the mustard tree might itself be a little allegory for the Matthean community to be more welcoming! Secondly, leaven has a kind of inevitability—the bread will rise almost no matter what. The leaven will cause “rising” of its own accord. Matthew thus relativizes the intolerance of insiders.
Kind of writing
There are three kinds of writing here. (i) Straight parables intended to provoke and give rise to changes in attitudes—the mustard seeds and yeast parables. (ii) A short chreia in the form of a question, which is answered by a citation. (iii) Allegories—the weeds and the wheat parable is at least incipiently allegorical—the suspicion is confirmed by the decoding at the end. The allegory sets up seven points of comparison:
1 The sower = the Son of Man (Jesus).
2 The field = the world.
3 The good seed = the children of the kingdom.
4 The weeds = the children of the evil one.
5 The enemy = the devil.
6 The harvest = the end of the age (or this world).
7 The reapers = angels.
Old Testament background
Harvest is used in the OT as an image of judgment, a very natural image of sifting, as found in Psalm 1:4-6. Cf. “It is perhaps on account of us that the time of threshing is delayed for the righteous—on account of the sins of those who inhabit the earth.”” (2 Esd 4:39)
New Testament foreground
As we saw above, the use of Is 6:9-10 is spread across the NT. The same puzzling rejection of Jesus is being addressed in each case.
Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:6-8)
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1:9-11)
Verse 24 The parable, unlike Jesus’ own parables, is not particularly disturbing—it doesn’t challenge common sense etc. It does, in the form of the allegory, teach moral attitudes and practical approaches. There is, perhaps, a discreet critique of the community members who are quick to evaluate others. It is not really your business! Cf. Romans 14:1-4, which puts its very succinctly indeed.
Verses 25-26 There are two sowings, in this parable. The Greek term zizanion refers to an especially undesirable weed that resembles wheat but has poisonous seeds.
Verses 27-28 You can feel their consternation—a very real thing for us today in the church—and the desire to clean things up.
Verses 29-30 The reply is plain: no, and in any case, it is none your business! The Lord of the harvest will see to it at the right time.
Verses 31-32 The parable of the mustard seed is offered without comment, almost like a zen koan. It does bring together, however, the issues of the preceding parable, i.e. expansion and hospitality. Even though the expansion of the church can bring with it a lowering of commitment, nevertheless, hospitality is the mark of the kingdom.
Verse 33 Even this parable takes up issues raised in the first one: yeast takes time and we have to allow the time for the transformation to take place. And yet, yeast has its own power and inevitability. Likewise the kingdom—do not give up too soon on others, or even on yourself! The quantities are extraordinary: a measure was c. 7 kilos, the total should be 21 kilos — bread for about 100 persons.
Verses 34-35 This rather hopeful read of the function of the parables is in tension with a similar passage between the parable of the sower and its allegorical interpretation. At least here, Jesus speaks in order that they will understand! Frequently in Matthew, you have a fulfilment citation—actually not from “the prophet” but from Psalm 78.
Verses 36-40 A more allegorical reading of the parable is offered, which spells out the original message by “decoding” it.
Verses 41-42 These verses combine original Jesus material (v. 41) with Matthean commentary (v. 42). The language of Jesus is very apocalyptic and fits with his preaching as an end-time figure. Gnashing of teeth as an expression of punishment is almost unique to Matthew (8-0-1-0).
Verse 43 Nevertheless, it all closes on a brilliantly positive note, not unlike the last parable of the Great Assize in Matthew 25. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3) Cf. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Matthew 17:2)
Pointers for prayer
1. The owner of the field who allowed the wheat and the darnel to grow together is a reminder to us to be patient with ourselves and with others when we see everything is not right. Sometimes a preoccupation with the negative (the darnel) can blind us to seeing the positive in our own lives and in the lives of others. When have you found that a willingness to live with the messiness of the present created the conditions for future growth?
2. Have you ever found that it was through accepting the darnel that you learned important lessons for life, e.g., learning by making mistakes, or asking stupid questions, or taking foolish risks?
3. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are reminders that seemingly insignificant things can have very positive results. Have you ever been surprised by the benefit to yourself or others of a kind gesture, a small initiative, or a word of encouragement?
O God, patient and forbearing, you alone know fully the goodness of what you have made. Strengthen our spirit when we are slow and temper our zeal when we are rash, that in your own good time you may produce in us a rich harvest from the seed you have sown and tended.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.