PROPER11 Thistles Among The Wheat
Ordinary Time 16
5. Thistles Among The Wheat
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven
may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;
25but while everyone 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.'"
36Then 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!"
The parable of the weeds and wheat is intriguing. It raises
a number of issues that are complex and can be confusing. Some
resolutions of the issues are suggested while for others you need
to look elsewhere for more adequate explanations. Some
differences are found within the parable itself and the
interpretation given to the disciples.
One of the issues is the question about the nature of the
church. Does this parable apply to the church as part of the
kingdom of God? If so, is the church a divine or a human
institution? How should the church deal with differences and
dissent among its members? Should a person ever be excluded from
membership in the church? What kind, if any, of discipline
should the church exercise? If so, when, why and how? Is the
church intended to be inclusive so that it encompasses anyone who
wants to belong? Or is the church exclusive, so that certain
conditions are established for entrance into and continuing in
membership in the church? It is the issue posed by Troeltsch in
his description of the church as inclusive or the sect as
exclusive. Which should be the true form of the church?
Another broad issue raised by the interpretation of the
parable is the presence of evil in the church and in the world.
Should the church advocate the eradication of the evil by
destroying the perpetrators of evil? What is the role of the
church in supporting attempts to remove the evil? It even raises
the question of why a good and powerful God permits evil to
persist in the world. Can we trust that God will ultimately
overcome all evil? If so, when and how will that happen? How
should the church and Christians behave toward the evil in the
world during the interim until God brings the end of history,
especially when evil seems to be overwhelming the good?
The parable is one of three in the current series, all
having a similar purpose in understanding the nature of the
kingdom of heaven.
Context of Matthew 13
Three parables from an agricultural setting are given in
succession in Matthew 13: the parable of the seeds and the sower
for the previous Sunday, the parable of the weeds and wheat for
this Sunday, and the parable of the mustard seed which interrupts
the flow from this Sunday's parable and its interpretation in
verses 36-43. Three additional parables are found in Matthew 13.
They will be the Gospel reading for Pentecost 10.
Context of the Lectionary Lesson
The First Lesson. (Genesis 28:10-19a) Jacob is in flight
after having tricked his brother Esau into giving him the
inheritance in exchange for a mess of pottage. As he sleeps at
night he has a dream of God's messengers ascending and descending
from heaven. In the dream he gains assurance that he is in the
line of Abraham and will be the recipient of the promise of his
covenant. When he awakes he memorializes the place and calls it
Bethel, the house of God.
The Second Lesson. (Romans 8:12-25) This lesson deals with
the universal need for deliverance from sin. Those who accept
God's deliverance will be his heirs. The Gospel account waits
for the harvest. This passage waits with hope for a full
deliverance of all creation.
Gospel. (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43) The parable uses a story
about weeds in the midst of wheat and Jesus' interpretation of it
to the disciples. He deals with the issue of evil in the midst of
the world and the church. It addresses God's prerogative in
dealing with the eventual elimination of the evil.
Psalm. (Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24) The psalmist acknowledges
that nothing can be kept hidden from God. God knows our
innermost being. Though Jacob could flee from his brother Esau
in the first lesson, the psalmist asserts that it is not possible
to flee from God. Jacob in his flight also did not escape from
God's presence. The psalmist concludes by praying for God to
examine him and to lead him in the way everlasting.
Context of Related Scriptures
Daniel 12:3 Ä An earlier use of the expression "then the
righteous will shine."
2 Esdras 7:36 Ä Mention of the furnace of fire.
Matthew 3:12 Ä Another instance of gathering the wheat into
the granary and winnowing the chaff with fire.
Matthew 18:15-20 Ä The process for dealing with sin within
Matthew 28:20 Ä A favorite phrase of Matthew about "the end
of the age."
Mark 4:26-29 Ä Has some parallel ideas of wheat growing and
harvested, but without the weeds growing in the midst.
Precis of the Parable
The parable tells of an incident that would be familiar to
those who heard it. In a society which was basically rural and
agriculturally related in character, the growth of weeds in the
midst of a grain field would be common. Weeds growing in a field
of wheat can still be seen where farmers do not use herbicides.
Some commentators raise the question as to whether the
parable is a variant of the parable recorded in Mark 4:26-29
since the parable only appears in Matthew. In Mark's parable the
point is that God gives the increase which results in a fruitful
harvest. Perhaps Matthew expanded on the parable to explain the
experience of the early church when it became evident that not
everyone in the church acted purely.
A somewhat different emphasis is given in the interpretation
in verses 36 to 43. Many commentators are inclined to believe
that this interpretation did not come from Jesus. It seems to
have more linguistic characteristics from Matthew than from the
sayings of Jesus recorded elsewhere. The commentators speculate
that the interpretation which seems to shift the locus of the
field from the church to the world and introduces a second sower
who accounts for the weeds as a deliberate act represents the
experience of the later church.
Thesis: God is the judge of what is ultimately good and
Theme: The experience of evil and good in history is
ambiguous. Human perceptions of what is real and what appears as
evil are not certain.
Key Words of the Parable
1. "Asleep." (v. 25) This term may be an echo of Mark 4:27.
In both instances the growth took place while persons slept, so
they cannot take full credit for the harvest. In the final
analysis it is the work of God.
2. "Enemy." (v. 25) The interpretation in v. 39 describes
the enemy as the devil.
3. "Weeds." (v. 25) The weeds were darnel (lolium
termulentum). When they grew up they had a similar appearance to
wheat, though they were slightly darker in color. They did grow
as tall as wheat. Their seed was poisonous. Rabbis considered
them as a perverted form of wheat.
4. "Slaves." (v. 28) Probably the disciples if from Jesus,
or, if from Matthew, others in the later church who wanted to
purge the church of all whom they considered unfaithful.
5. "Let them grow together." (v. 30) This is the main
point of the parable. It calls for a measure of tolerance for
sinners in the church, and later, as part of the interpretation,
in the world.
6. "Weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned." (v.
30) An image of the last judgment. God had promised after the
Noah experience not to destroy the world by flood. In the New
Testament period, the final judgment was anticipated to be
accompanied with destruction by fire. See, for example, 2 Peter
7. "Then he left the crowds." (v. 36) The interpretation
was not given to the multitudes but only to the inner circle of
8. "The Son of Man." (v. 37) The term sometimes referred
simply to a person when used with the indefinite article, "a son
of man." In this case where the definitive article was used, it
denotes the title of the apocalyptic figure associated with the
final outcome of history.
9. "The field." (v. 38) The figure is of a global nature,
not the "world" as sometimes used in a missionary sense.
10. "Children of the evil one." (v. 38) Some commentators
think this is a harsh judgment of the Jews.
11. "Evildoers." (v. 41) Literally from the Greek "doers
12. "Weeping and gnashing of teeth." (v. 42) Except for a
use in Luke 13:28, the phrase seems to be used only in Matthew.
It appears elsewhere in Matthew 13:50, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30,
always as a transhistorical event.
1. The Age of Redemption vs. Judgment. Jesus came as an
agent of redemption. His message was one of repentance, grace,
and forgiveness. Only at the "end of the age" would Christ be an
agent of judgment. Now in history is the opportunity to avert
the consequences of judgment and to prepare to participate in the
full glory of the heavenly kingdom when it is revealed in its
2. The Way of Invitation. The method Jesus used and to
which he called his disciples was that of inviting all people to
enter the kingdom of heaven. It is not the way of coercion,
forceful conversion, or the destruction of those who decline the
invitation or oppose the kingdom. Instead it is to woo them by
the attractive power of the kingdom and to warn them of the death
to which they are tending when they refuse the invitation.
3. Confidence in the outcome of history. The parable
manifests a confidence about the working of God's kingdom in
history. If the seed is sown, we can be confident that it will
germinate without our having to force it. It will produce fruit
and the harvest will come. We are not the servants who are to
try to sort out the ambiguities of good and evil in history.
Rather we are to sow the seed and wait in confidence that the
harvest will come, that the good will endure beyond the fruits of
4. Evil is found in the world. Dante in his Divine Comedy
says the evil is an absence, excess, or distortion of a good. In
a world created by God anything that is absolutely or totally
evil could not be allowed to exist. Nevertheless, evil is real
and we need to contend with it. We need to recover the good
intended by the Creator from the evil. In the world and in
history, evil exists and we need to participate both in the
struggle to overcome it and to discover the good that lies beyond
the evil. We do so in the faith that the good is more enduring
than the evil because God is both good and powerful.
5. The Field is the World. "America: Love it or Leave it,"
"They ought to go back where they came from" and "Yankee go home"
are slogans often heard when persons do not agree with someone
who speaks out against an injustice or an evil. The kingdom of
heaven is not restricted by political boundaries set up by human
institutions. The call to sow the seed is to go into all the
world, to all of God's creation. It is all God's domain, and if
we are members of his kingdom and are to sow the seed in
faithfulness, our vision and our terrain is global in reach.
1. Hope of Harvest. The parable offers an opportunity to
consider the evangelism process, whether it is within the church
family or as a mission outreach.
A. The Seed is Sown. What is the message of the gospel that
needs to be given to people?
B. The Seed Grows. How does the church nurture the seed,
but how do you let it happen without intervention?
C. The Harvest Comes. To what degree does the church screen
out who becomes members and to what degree does the church accept
members with the final judgment in God's hands?
2. The Kingdom Conquers Evil. People need hope in facing
the mixture of good and evil.
A. Evils in the World.
B. Good in the World.
C. God Assures the Greater Good.
3. Evil is Self-Destructive. Here deal with why we should
participate in the good and refrain from the evil.
A. Evil is Counteractive. Evil has no center of energy, no
organizing principle. Instead, various evils act against each
other in chaos that is self-destructive.
B. Good is Cumulative. Because God gives a center to good
actions, they reinforce each other in a harmony of order. This
means the power of a good increases the power of other goods and
then in turn is increased by them also.
C. History Moves Toward Good Ends. Despite the apparently
overwhelming evils of the moment, evil is transitory; only the
4. The Church's Responsibility for the World.
A. When are we Responsible for the World?
B. When do we Leave the World to God?
C. Tolerance for Some Mix of Good and Evil.
5. The Deceptive Nature of Evil. Just as the weeds at times
look like wheat, so some evils are attractive because they look
like a good.
A. The Deceptive Nature of Drugs. Why do people think drugs
are good? What are the misleading aspects of them?
B. The Deception of Sex. Why is something as good as sex
and as necessary for the future of the race so wrong when
C. The Deception of Wealth. When does the pursuit of wealth
become an evil?
Points of Contact
1. The Weeds in the Christian. We all have biological urges
which help to maintain life and make us survivors. Yet the
greatest good can become a great evil. For example, the sexual
drive which helps to assure the survival of the race can lead to
the most intimate and loving relationship between two people and
lead to a caring, nurturing family. Yet the abuse of sex can
lead to the most bitter relationships if fulfillment of the drive
is perverted or abused. Crimes of passion are some of the most
2. Weeds in the World. A frequent puzzle for people is why
good does not always seem to happen to people of faith while
others seem to escape unscathed. People ask, why do I or a loved
one suffer an incurable disease or a fatal accident? They need
to prepare for the suffering of disease or a natural disaster,
not only at the time when it occurs, but ahead of such events.
3. The Mystery of Growth. In the spring of the year what
appears to be dead comes to new life. The work of the Holy
Spirit operates in a similar way in the life of people. It is
always something of a mystery as to how and when people are
aroused to faith. We can work at teaching and preaching, yet
people do not automatically respond. It is often surprising when
some people seem suddenly to respond and begin to show unexpected
4. The Illusion of Good and Evil. Our judgments of people
can be fallible. Our knowledge of how people turn out and what
brings change is faulty. Who would have thought that Saul when
persecuting the church would become Paul, the greatest missionary
in spreading the church to the Gentile world and leaving a body
of literature to guide the church for future generations? If we
call for the death of some person because of the appearance of
evil, how do we know whether we will prevent the ministry of a
significant agent for accomplishing God's will? We need a
tolerance for the growth of the weeds and the wheat together
because we cannot always know in the final analysis which is
Points to Ponder
1. Church Discipline. When, why, and how does the church
exercise discipline? Three reasons are often given for
disciplining church members: 1. To redeem the sinners. 2. To
keep the church from being infected by the example of the sinner.
3. To protect the reputation of the church in the world. If the
prime reasons become two and three instead of one, discipline
easily becomes punitive instead of redemptive. If no discipline
is exercised, it appears that the church is indifferent toward
sin. How do
you maintain the purity of the church and still allow for that
sin that befalls all of us at times?
2. What are the Limits of Means to Oppose Evil? Are some
means of eliminating evil also evil? Can we ever use evil means
to cast out evil? When do we become guilty of playing God if we
try to eradicate evil by destroying the evildoer? Do we leave
the outcome of evil in history in God's hands, or do we take some
actions against evil, but refrain from seeking final solutions to
evil in history? When do we set bounds on our actions and leave
the harvest to God's wisdom and power?
3. Are the Weeds Only in the World? Does the parable only
have reference to how we deal with sin inside the church, or does
it have reference to the world and the church? If it only has
reference to the church, or both to the world and the church,
what are the implications for the actions of the church in
toleration of the mixture of weeds and wheat?
4. Our Mission to the World. To what extent should
Christians be involved in trying to deal with evil in the world?
Should the church be engaged in social action: solving problems
of unemployment, homelessness, crime prevention, drug addiction,
overpopulation, and similar issues? Is the church concerned
about the amelioration of evil by minimizing violence, correcting
violations of human rights, eliminating injustice, and working to
avoid environmental degradation? Or is it the church's task only
to preach the gospel and seek the conversion of persons, and to
leave the problems of society to other agencies? Is social
change a hopeless endeavor since evil and sin will continue to
exist along with the good in history?
5. Heresy and Dissent. What is the role of heresy and
dissent in clarifying truth? Have not the disagreements of the
past helped the church to arrive at a better understanding of
Christian doctrine? How do we deal with heresies to use them
constructively for the faith and not destructively?
1. The Seed of the Word. Including New Testaments, booklets
and tracts, the American Bible Society (ABS) reported that it
distributed 15,000 pieces to those who survived the midwestern
floods of 1993. They were active from North Dakota to Missouri,
supporting church groups, disaster relief agencies, the Salvation
Army and community groups. The ABS also distributed 21,000
pieces after the January 1994, Los Angeles earthquake.
2. Planting the Seed. In 1994 permission was granted to
evangelical Christians in Iraq to organize Bible studies in the
public schools. The Ministry of Religion also arranged with the
Bible League to receive materials. According to The Church and
The World, 2,000 Bibles were recently shipped to local churches.
3. Eradicating Weeds. In the sixteenth century in the
Netherlands, a church dispute arose. As it became increasingly
severe, two groups separated with each excommunicating the other.
An issue to be settled was the use of the substantial church
building. The two groups finally agreed to build a wall down the
center of the sanctuary. Both parties continued to worship in
the building, but a wall separated them!
4. Separating Weeds and Wheat. Some church groups have
sought to keep a pure church by excommunicating those with whom
they do not agree. In one instance it went to such an extreme
that a leader excommunicated everyone but himself and his wife.
5. A Bad Harvest. In the Middle Ages the Spanish
Inquisition tried desperately to root out all heresy. Many
persons were burned at the stake in so-called auto-de-fes. Some
historians have proposed that after the Inquisition executed many
of the best people the impoverishment of Spain lasted for
centuries and that accounts for its slow progress into a modern
6. Planting Thistles. "The Meanest Man"
He carried thistle seeds in his pocket,
and now and then dropped some on favorable ground Ä
favorable, that is, to his personal dislikes Ä
and pushed them in with his heel.1
7. Choosing the Right Seed. On July 29, 1994, a former
Presbyterian pastor, Paul Jennings Hill, shot abortion doctor
John Bayard Britton and his escort Herman Barrett and wounded
Barrett's wife June in the arm in Pensacola, Florida. A later
report indicated that Paul Hill was in part influenced in his
action by the Rev. David Trosch, a Catholic priest who was
removed from his parish by Mobile Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb
because he was advocating the slaying of abortion doctors. The
priest owns two guns, a .22 pistol and a .20 gauge shotgun. He
has never used them to kill anything other than a bird on one
occasion. The report said, however, that he has weapons that may
be a graver danger than his guns: that is, his mouth and his
clerical collar. The Rev. Trosch earlier had paid to advertise a
cartoon that showed an anti-abortionist shooting an abortion
doctor with the caption "Justifiable Homicide." The Rev. Trosch
is known to have been friendly with Paul Hill after the earlier
shooting of another doctor in Pensacola. Some would hold Trosch
equally responsible for the deaths of Dr. Britton and Herman
Barrett and the wounding of June Barrett.
1Millen Brand, Local Lives, (New York: Clarkson N. Potter,
Inc., 1975), p. 334.