Harvest parables: wheat and tares

wheatCommentary. Although our gospel text does not seem to indicate the audience, v.34 (All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables) does make it clear that the hearers are not the disciples alone, but that the crowd is again and active participant. Given the disciples’ question: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (v.10) and the fact that Jesus is again speaking in parables, it is clear that a larger audience is present.

Weeds Among the Wheat. This parable is unique to Matthew and unlike the other evangelists who also tell a pericope of the “Sower and the Seed,” Matthew’s use and placement of this unique parable seems to serve as a reinforcement of the themes of on-going conversion (understanding, action, joy, perseverance in suffering brought about by tribulation or persecution, and ultimately bearing fruit superabundantly. The context of the parable is clearly “in the world” that place where anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit (v.22).

The opening of the parable might lead some readers astray: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man.” It is standard means of comparison (cf. 7:24; 13:31, 33; 18:23; 22:2; 25:1; 11:16) and reflects a standard Jewish idiom for “It is this way with the kingdom.” In other words, the “way” is the entire parable, not simply a man who sowed good seed in his field (13:24). Yet the man is not unimportant in the story. Unlike the person in the “Sower and the Seed” who may be a worker, a farmer, a hired hand, or the land owner; here in this parable, the man who sowed good seed in his field is clearly the householder (v.27) who is the Master (v.27) and who has his enemy (v.25). The man’s authority suits him as an analogy for God. A well-to-do man would easily be a head of a household, which figured as an illustration in rabbinic parables, and even Greek philosophers could employ a householder as an analogy for God.

Given the agrarian character of much of ancient life, it should not surprise us that fields figure prominently as settings in rabbinic parables, but their meaning is entirely ad hoc rather than standard. However, given the allegorical use of the soil in vv.3-9 and the apparent reemphasizing of those earlier themes, it may be that the land represents the “soil” of the people of God those who make up the “universe” of people for whom Jesus came to bring salvation. In other words, the kingdom of heaven.

Two key figures in the parable are the enemy and the weeds. The weeds are probably darnel, a poisonous plant related to wheat and virtually indistinguishable from it until the ears form. To sow darnel among wheat as an act of revenge was punishable in Roman law, which suggests that the parable depicts a real-life situation. Who would do such a thing? Only an enemy or rival.

With early signs of the infestation, it was perhaps possible to uproot the weeds before their roots were entangled with those of the wheat – something the servants seem willing to propose (v.28). A light infestation of darnel could be tackled by careful weeding, but mistakes would easily be made (v.29). In the case of a heavy infestation the stronger roots of the darnel would be tangled with those of the wheat, making selective weeding impossible.

After the wheat and darnel were grown, they were easily distinguished and reapers could gather the darnel, which did have one use: given the scarcity of fuel, it would be burned.

One should note that this parable is explained in Mt 13, outside our gospel, but closely placed:

36 Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house. His disciples approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” 37 He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, 38 the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40 Just as 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 who cause others to sin and all evildoers. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.

The identification of the allegorical characters is not hidden, but what is the intention of the parable as a whole, especially as it pertains to the decision by the Master to leave the wheat and the darnel untouched until the harvest. I would suggest that the meaning may well be connected to the unique element of this parable: there are two sowings.

In the parable of the “Sower and the Seed” (vv.3-9) There is one sowing with seed, a symbol of the good and potent word of God, which generates believers, and the issue is “What kind of soil are you?” But in the parable of the “Weeds Among the Wheat” there are two sowings, and the question is “Are the good seed sown by the householder/Jesus? Or are you the toxic seed sown by the enemy/Satan. This is an expression of a Matthean view of two kingdoms: of heaven and of the world.

The parable of the “Weeds Among the Wheat” points out the presence of the kingdom in the world: children of the kingdom must coexist with children of the evil one in this world until the end. As mentioned above, this reinforces the themes of on-going conversion (understanding, action, joy, perseverance in suffering brought about by tribulation or persecution, and ultimately bearing fruit superabundantly “in the world,” that place where anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word and it bears no fruit (v.22).

Notes

Matthew 13:25 While everyone was asleep: There are many places in Scripture where sleep is a metaphor for spiritual neglect or sloth (cf. Mk 13:36, 1 Thess 5:6-8 or 1 Pt 5:8). But given the whole narrative of the parable it is more likely to simply describe when the enemy would come do his nefarious deed.

Mathew 13:25 weeds: zizanion –darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat. Widespread in the Mediterranean, darnel grew each year to between one and two feet (30–60 cm.); preserved samples of wheat and barley in Egyptian tombs and excavations in Lachish show inadvertent mixtures of darnel, which can cause sickness and even death. Etymologically is may be that the Hebrew word of darnel (zûn) was associated with the Hebrew znh (to commit fornication) – thus later rabbis (Gen. Rab. 28:8) viewed darnel as false wheat stemming from the sinful period before the Flood.

Matthw 13:28 An enemy has done this: It is not hard to make identification which pits the householder against the enemy. The enemy here depicts Satan – something made clear in v.39.

Mathew 13:30 Let them grow together until harvest: The householder’s response is one of tolerance in the present time. The task of judging between good and bad is left to the householder at the judgment. harvest: a common biblical metaphor for the time of God’s judgment; cf Jeremiah 51:33; Joel 4:13; Hosea 6:11. Jesus regularly reused his eschatological agricultural images rather than assigning all details the same sense; thus, e.g., terms for “collect” or “gather” are positive in Mt 3:12; 13:48; represent judgment here as in Is 13:4; Joel 3:2, 11; Zeph 3:8; Zech 12:3; 14:2; Rev 16:16; and the good and wicked together in Mt 25:32; Is 2:2–4; 66:18.

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