The parable of the wheat and the weeds is one of the more difficult to interpret and one of the most misinterpreted parables.
The primary misinterpretation is to make it about the Church (an error quite common among Church fathers).
Consider these profound words from our Savior. (Audio message here)
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
The Parable Explained (Matthew 13:36-43)
Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
The story unfolds…..
- The owner plants good seed (wheat)
- The enemy plants bad seed (weeds)
- The weeds become evident
- The servants want to pull the weeds
- The owner says let both grow together until the harvest
- Then there will be a separation and destruction of the weeds
- The owner is the Son of Man
- The field is the world
- The good seed is people of the kingdom
- The weeds are people of the evil one
- The enemy is the Devil
- The harvest is the end of the age
- The harvesters are angels
- The weeds will be cast into furnace
- The righteous will shine forth in the Kingdom
Note: The “tares” or “weeds” probably refers to darnel, a weed organically related to wheat and difficult to distinguish in early stages of growth. After the darnel and wheat are grown, they’re more easily distinguishable and harvesters can separate them.
- Can the work of Jesus and his followers really be the kingdom when there is still so much evil in the world?
The background for this question is the way first century Jews viewed the Kingdom in national-political terms. There expectations of a Messiah were shaped around hope for deliverance from earthly oppression and the establishment of a Kingdom for God’s people that would overthrow all earthly kingdoms. While there is plenty of prophecy regarding this expectation, Scripture also pointed to a suffering Messiah who would be “despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3).
John the Baptist had difficulty with this aspect of Jesus’ ministry – see: Matthew 3:10-13; 11:3
We might ask how Jesus words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18) could possibly be true when it appears that evil is more in control.
Two Primary points…..
- The kingdom of God has come with Jesus’ ministry, but final judgment awaits the appointed time for the harvest when God will separate the evil from the righteous
- The kingdom is present but in an unexpected way because of the delay of judgment and the continued presence of evil
“If the parable is about the presence of the kingdom in the midst of an evil world, the kingdom of the Son of Man is the kingdom that the Son of Man has brought as an incomplete kingdom, a proleptic kingdom which does not yet obliterate evil. This kingdom remains incomplete until the consummation when evil will be removed. Note that both “all offenses” (neuter) and “all those doing lawlessness” (masculine/generic) are removed. The completed kingdom devoid of evil is the kingdom of the Father. This understanding of the kingdom of the Father as the consummation of all things is paralleled in Matt. 26:29.”
“…its primary teaching is that the kingdom is present despite the presence of evil and that evil will be dealt with at the judgment. The focus is the nature of the kingdom, and implications for human conduct are secondary. The use of the aorist passive “The kingdom has become like…” is no accident. The kingdom has arrived and is like a field with both wheat and weeds which will one day be separated. The kingdom is like the whole process described in the parable from sowing to separation. The parable is not a complete picture of the kingdom; no parable is. But it does emphasize the presence of the kingdom and the future judgment” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).
Lessons from the parable
1. The kingdom is present and judgment will come
“The present church needs to make the same two points the parable teaches. First, the kingdom is present, even though judgment is not taking place, because of the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Spirit. The presence of evil is no evidence that the kingdom is not at work. Second, while this is not the time for judgment, judgment will certainly come” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).
2. The parable does not endorse passivity toward evil and non-retaliation
“It answers the question “How can this be the kingdom if evil is present? not “What shall we do about evil?” …It also provides a worldview that accounts for and is not surprised at the presence of evil.” … “In light of the teaching of Jesus any thought of passivity toward evil or assertion that the church does not need to be a pure community is bizarre.”
“Questions about how we should respond to evil are spawned by the parable, but not addressed. Other texts must be brought in for that discussion, but clearly any idea of doing God’s work of judging or any thought that we will obliterate evil are set aside by the parable. The biblical message always leaves us dealing with tension. We cannot be tolerant of evil, but the destruction of all evil is not our task. We must stop being evil, and we must stop evil from destroying, but how can we stop evil without becoming evil in the process? That may well be the human question. (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).
3. The parable helps us understand the presence of evil in the world
“The parable contributes to discussions of theodicy and helps address our consternation that evil still is at work, that life is not fair, even though Christ and his kingdom have come. God is not the only one at work, and not all actions in this world can be attributed to God. God often gets blamed for every event that occurs, but he is not the cause of every event. Evil happens that can only be identified as the work of an enemy. Accordingly, this parable should slow down an overemphasis on the sovereignty of God or a naïveté that attributes every event to God’s manipulation. …. The parable is also a reminder that Christians should be neither surprised at nor unaware of the fact that evil is active at the same time that God’s reign is. ” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).
4. Reflect on these truths when you desire judgment to fall on the wicked
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9).
“So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:3-4).