Children of the God of Israel
Pentecost 8A: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
By Ellen T. Charry
This story about a weedy wheat field is the second of nine parables in Matthew 13. Through them, Jesus is carrying forward his cousin John’s urging of Judahites to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:2). Hearing of John’s dramatic premonition that divine judgment was about to overtake Judea, Jesus went south into the desert to meet him.
John appeared to be a revived prophet advising people to turn over a new leaf, and to be symbolically washed clean of their sins to escape God’s impending wrath. Jesus was deeply moved by John’s message and fasted and prayed for 40 days while discerning its meaning for his ministry.
Because “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to [John]” (3:5), the authorities arrested and eventually executed him. Knowing how dangerous it would be, Jesus nevertheless resolved to carry forward what John started. He returned home carrying John’s message northward.
He too preached to anyone who would hear him that God’s judgment was about to break in, and his hearers should repent of their sins to participate in the kingdom of heaven and avoid God’s impending wrath. Knowing that people are more likely to respond to encouraging rather than frightening news, Jesus gave the message a more positive slant than John apparently had. First, he attracted people by healing physical and mental illnesses so that he appeared to be not just a prophet like John but also a wonder-worker. People were amazed by him, attracted to him, yet flummoxed and confused. Then he began preaching in parables.
A parable is a gentle rabbinic teaching tool that addresses people indirectly. Jesus primarily uses agricultural and economic metaphors. Today’s parable uses the metaphor of a wheat field to entice people to crave the reign of heaven. Although the homeowner did not plant weed-infested seeds, they spring up, apparently choking the wheat. The fieldhands report this to the owner, wondering where the weed seeds came from. The owner suspects that some nefarious business is happening here. The workers offer to weed the field, but the owner has another strategy. Let both plants grow, and at harvest time the reapers will separate the weeds from the wheat, preserve the wheat, and burn the weeds. Letting the weeds grow gives people time to redirect their lives so that they can be among the wheat kernels when the time comes.
Well, nobody seems to get the metaphors, including the dense disciples. Privately they ask Jesus to explain it to them, and he does. While most parables identify the landowner as God and the field as Israel, Jesus turns the parable around. It is now not about God and Israel, which all the prophets (including John) preach, but Jesus substitutes the Son of Man for God. While Christians may not blink at this, from a human point of view it is startling.
This title appears in all the Gospels, but most frequently in Matthew. It is rooted in an Aramaic phrase in Daniel 7:13-14, where it means something like a person who will be given authority and power over all nations, who will serve him. It is theorized that Jesus may have known about Daniel’s apocalyptic vision and patterned himself on that figure. While no character directly says that Jesus is this person, he applied it to himself, constructing a divine identity as the one who can rescue Israel from deserved punishment and then rule over the world forever. It is understandable that this self-construction was controversial.
The wheat are the righteous and the weeds are those inspired by evil (the Devil) who planted the weed seeds. The eschatology is that when the dreaded or eagerly anticipated day arrives, angels will collect all the weeds (those who are persistently evil) and throw them into a blazing furnace, while the righteous will celebrate in God’s kingdom.
It has been popular that Christians preach that the pious are bound for the kingdom, while the impious will burn. While the parable is about Jews who follow Jesus and Jews who do not, it has been heard as if Christians represent the wheat and Jews are weeds to be burned. This is of course a dangerous idea, as we now know. Designating one group for the kingdom of God and another to be thrown into the furnace, motivating as it has been, is unhelpful regardless of who is slotted into those roles, because everyone is both. Let us assign that polarizing judgment to the furnace and more realistically preach that everyone is at times the wheat and at times the weed, depending upon circumstances and various pressures. The answer to “wheat or weeds?” is “Yes.”