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The Parable of the Weeds
24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of God is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27“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?’
28“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30Let 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.’”
Every time I come to this passage in the lectionary, I think it must be one of the most under-appreciated of all the parables of Jesus. It’s not one that’s usually taught to children in Sunday School, because it’s really a ‘grown-up’ kind of teaching from Jesus, with some very adult ramifications. That might be why so many church members don’t have much awareness of it. But it’s a shame we don’t pay much attention to this parable, because it has the potential to color the way we think about the world we live in today.
In older versions of the Bible, this parable was called “The Parable of the Tares.” That’s because the Greek word translated “weeds” actually refers to a specific type of plant, and the old word for that plant was ‘tares.’ Today, botanists call the plant “bearded darnel.” It’s a plant that looks like wheat when the plants are young, but then produces toxins as it matures. So in the story, these aren’t just some random weeds that get into the wheat field; instead, someone intentionally plants poison weeds among the grain.
And the landowner recognizes right away that this is an intentional act of evil, right? Remember what he says? “An enemy did this.”
So the first point of the parable seems to be a recognition that there is real evil in the world. Not just misguided people making mistakes, but actual evil being perpetrated by people who know perfectly well that what they’re doing is wrong. If we assume that the landowner in the parable represents God (which seems logical since Jesus starts the parable with “the Kingdom of God is like”), then the second point seems to be that God instantly recognizes evil in the world for what it is: the intentional work of his enemies.
(And whether you understand this to be the result of one literal ‘Satan’ getting people to do evil or of individuals doing evil for their own perverse purposes seems to me to make no difference. Evil is evil.)
But the “So what?” of this parable arises out of the conversation between the landowner and his servants. Apparently with all good intentions and in the interest of helping out their master, the servants offer to go into the field of grain and pull up the weeds. But the landowner says ‘no’ – he points out that they can’t destroy the weeds without killing some of the good wheat, too.
We have a phrase for this phenomenon, right? We call it “collateral damage.”
It seems to me this parable ought to spring to the minds of followers of Jesus with some regularity. We live in a world where there is genuine evil. Drug cartels that forcibly recruit people to smuggle drugs into the country. Corrupt politicians in Mexico who get gangs to murder busloads of college students and burn the bodies. African militias who grab little kids, fill them full of drugs and force them to do terrible things. To say nothing of deluded Muslim fanatics who actually think they’re serving God by beheading Christians. Or people who open fire on school children or concert-goers.
We see these things on the news, and we have the same reaction as the landowner in the parable. This is just evil. An enemy did this. And we want to do exactly what the landowner’s servants suggest – uproot the evil and destroy it.
But our experience proves the point Jesus is making here – that it’s inevitable that when we strike back at evil, there will be collateral damage. Good wheat gets destroyed along with the poison weeds. Terrorists hide in hospitals, and use innocent people as ‘human shields.’ The bombs that target militant masterminds sometimes get their family members, too – or whole wedding parties. And so on.
It seems to me this parable calls on those of us who follow Jesus to be voices for restraint when it comes to responding to evil in the world. Screaming for revenge feels good, and watching the video of smart bombs flying in the front door of a terrorist hideout might be the really satisfying. But in our calmer moments, we have to admit that our master almost certainly wouldn’t find smart bombs satisfying under any circumstances, no matter who is getting blasted. So maybe we should think of this parable when we think of how to respond to evil.
And it seems to me that as followers of Jesus, we should be very circumspect about engaging in the rhetoric of “holy war” against our enemies. Especially since the God whose name we invoke in blessing strikes against our enemies has already commanded us to leave the vengeance to him. (And I’m actually not sure God recognizes any of our wars as “holy,” no matter how justified we feel in launching them.)
I suppose that’s why this parable doesn’t get taught much in the kids’ Sunday School classes. It requires an unflinching recognition that evil is still a destructive force in the world, which some people would rather avoid. And the ‘so what’ of this parable isn’t as cut-and-dried as we’d like it to be. Actually, it takes a whole lot of prayerful thought to figure out how to apply this parable to most of the situations where we recognize evil at work.
But I suppose that engaging in prayerful thought before acting is exactly what Jesus has in mind for us.
Let’s pray. Lord, we recognize that there really is evil in the world. Help us to have the wisdom to confront evil in all its faces, but to so that with the greatest care to protect the innocent. Let our hearts always hunger for justice when evil strikes, and never for revenge. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and worship joyfully in Sunday!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 84 and 148; Lamentations 4:1-22; and Revelation 6:12 – 7:4.)