Matthew 13:24-29; 36-43
by Daniel Harrell
Throughout the early history of Christian biblical interpretation, theologians regularly resorted to allegory as a way of understanding the Bible. For believers, Scripture contained a deeper, hidden meaning which required faith to mine. Imagination and creativity helped too. For instance, in the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, an allegorical interpretation might have posed the unfortunate man who fell among thieves as representing the human race. The thieves themselves might have been the devil and his minions. The Good Samaritan who saved humanity would therefore have been Jesus. His two salves of oil and wine, the Old and New Testaments. The inn where he took wounded humanity would have been church, making the innkeeper the Senior Minister, let’s say, with the two pence paid for humanity’s safekeeping the sacraments themselves, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It can get a little silly. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Though allegorization was enormously popular in early Christian theology, I was taught this was no way to interpret Scripture. And yet here we have Jesus obviously doing it in this morning’s parable. He labels the sower the Son of Man, the field as the world, the good seeds as kingdom kids, the bad seeds Beelzebub brats. The enemy who sowed the seeds is the devil, the reapers are angels and the harvest is the end of history. Jesus tosses in a fiery furnace and gnashing teeth for good measure, assuring the demise of wickedness and thus allowing the righteous they’ll shine like the sun. It’s quite a mouthful and admittedly unusual for Jesus.
As such, modern scholars widely concur this was Matthew’s doing. The parable only appears in his gospel. Matthew puts allegorical words in Jesus’ mouth to serve the needs of the church in his time: a marginalized community oppressed under wicked Roman rule, their good fruit choked off by all sorts of malicious seediness. The sure fire future of God’s judgment against oppression and maliciousness gave courage and hope to the present. In our time, sensitive souls are easily offended by any Jesus who’d assign an evildoer to eternal perdition. That Matthew authored the allegory lets Jesus off the hellfire hook.
However, for those who hold to a doctrine of inspiration—the thing that makes the Holy Bible the Holy Bible—then somehow the Holy Spirit was inspiring Matthew to write in ways distinctive from those authors whose contributions didn’t make Scripture’s cut. We are not allowed to toss out bothersome passages just because we don’t like how they sound. For those whose cities and villages in war-raved countries have been plundered and burned to the ground by the vengeful, God’s fiery recompense is pure gospel. The same goes for those whose daughters and sisters have been raped, for wives who have been beaten and abused, for brothers and sons senselessly shot, for blameless bystanders and public servants murdered. A God who never does justice for fear of offending must sooner or later be construed as the God who never exhibits fury toward the offender no matter how vile their offense: a fairyland god so benign as to be indifferent, so slow to anger that he is too late to save.
Over and over, Old Testament and New, from beginning to end, justice gets done by a titular “Son of Man” riding in to the rescue, an army of angels in tow. The Son of Man debuts in Daniel’s prophecy, adorned by God with all authority and power, his mission a coming kingdom that cannot be destroyed. Jesus appropriated the Son of Man title to himself, then confirmed it by his resurrection and ascension, with the promise to come again to judge the quick and dead. Intent on harvesting the earth of its ripeness, the Son of Man unleashes his angelic army of grim reapers on that day to weed out the wicked—the chaff, the lazy servants, the goats, the broods of vipers and hypocrites to be bundled and burned. The vindicated righteous then rise and shine and give God the glory-glory, sweet dreams for the oppressed and abused.
The nightmares arise when Christians presume divine justice is theirs to execute. Because our hearts and hurts so easily deceive us, Scripture continually cautions against throwing stones or passing judgment lest ye be judged. Rather, you are to “love your enemies,” Jesus said, and pray for your persecutors. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them;” the apostle Paul added, “If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Now those who know their Bibles also know Paul affixed an addendum ; “by doing this you will heap burning coals on your enemies’ heads,” which can sound like Paul condones being passive-aggressive. But this odd metaphor actually comes from Proverbs which draws on an ancient Egyptian repentance ritual. A brazier of smoldering coals would be worn on a repentant sinner’s head as a constant supply of ashes to express his or her profound remorse, similar to the ashes we wear on our heads every Ash Wednesday. Burning coals worked like a searing conscience; it’s that guilt your co-worker who called you a jerk now feels after you kindly gave him an unexpected birthday present. Of course it may be that you gave your co-worker the present just to make him feel guilty. In which case you’re the jerk. OK, so loving enemies can derive from mixed motives. Fair enough. But fair enough is not good enough for God. True justice has to be textbook perfect.
Therefore, Paul writes, “Do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath. As it is written, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.’” Unlike popular depictions of human justice, God neither dons a blindfold nor needs scales to measure. The Lord does his justice with eyes wide open.“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known,” Jesus warned. The Lord who loves mercy is not impartial toward evil; but does love mercy. Certainly more than we do.
The un-allegorized parable has an enemy maliciously sowing weeds among a farmer’s wheat. Rather than expunge the bad seed from the good soil, Jesus says leave it alone and do nothing, otherwise you’ll ruin everything. As with the parable of the sower earlier in Matthew 13, Jesus displays an apparent failure of horticultural know-how. The farmer in his earlier parable threw seed everywhere, on rocks and roadways, a lousy aim if ever there was one. Here the farmer allows weeds free rein. You can see why Matthew might have felt the need to editorialize. He treads the real tension between mercy and justice, between reconciliation and recrimination, between humble pie and just desserts. Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus indeed portends Judgment Day, reverberating the doom told by prophets and poets before him, assuring the innocent who suffer that their suffering will not have been in vain. But here he seems too lenient. If weeds are evil, why let them live?
I, for one, am an obsessive crusader against weeds in my yard: particularly the notorious and noxious Creeping Charlie, the epitome of evil itself. I am engaged in a constant turf battle. Charlie, like Satan, insidiously creeps its counterfeit greenness into everything, a fiend amidst my fescue, hogging the sun and sapping soil. Organically taking matters into my own hands, (I try to do right by the environment and renounce chemical weed killers), I lowered the judicious boom of my hoe to crush the creeper’s leafy head. I yanked up the vile weed by its roots with my rake, destroying its life and thus liberating my landscape, so I’d hoped. But within days the sod became sad and everything died. My delicate turf is now a desolate tundra.
“Pull up the weeds and you may uproot the wheat,” Jesus warns. Best to leave justice to one who knows what he’s doing. The innocent will surely not suffer in vain, but then again innocence is not so clear cut. People are not perfectly partitioned: light on the right side and darkness on the left. Wheat and weeds can both exist in one person. Our souls can be murky as to motive, shadowed and uncertain, our best intentions tinged our self-interest. Our hearts and our hurts too easily deceive us; we pervert justice even as we seek to do it. As theologian Miroslav Volf observed, “the fiercer the struggle against the injustice you suffer, the blinder you will be to the injustice you inflict. We tend to translate the presumed wrongness of our enemies into an unfaltering conviction of our own rightness.”
Pull up the weeds and you may uproot the wheat, Jesus warns. He then goes on with a verse I failed to assign to be read—a Freudian slip to be sure. Jesus says in verse 30, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” using a word for let them be that gets translated elsewhere in Scripture as forgive. Scripture sings repeatedly of a Lord who despite weedy sinners is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” His slowness is patience, we read, a desire for “none to perish, but for all to come to repentance.” Any tardiness of justice on God’s part is not abdication or indifference, nor is it fairness. It is a determination to forgive; a deliberate setting of fairness aside, an absorbing of another’s wrong into yourself. This is the crux of the gospel, the cross on which Jesus died. Using the same word he uses of the weeds in the parable, Jesus says to his enemies and executioners from the cross, “Father let them be, they don’t know what they are doing.” It is amazing grace, outrageous forbearance, exorbitant mercy, the thing that makes Christianity Christian. And yet, as we Christians struggle so to do unto others as has been done unto us. We can’t forgive weeds to grow, how will we ever have a nice yard?
I’ve been conducting a psychological experiment on folks around here of late. It’s called the Rozin Dixie Cup Experiment. I’ve tried it out on both our middle schoolers and some of older members. It starts with having a volunteer swallow their own saliva. Easy enough. I then ask this same person expel some saliva into a sterile Dixie cup they alone hold in their own hand. You know what’s next. “You’re going to make me drink it, aren’t you?” asked the middle schooler, a grimace of disgust running across her face. It doesn’t matter that only seconds prior, when the saliva was in her mouth, swallowing was no problem. The Dixie cup is sterile and only her hands have touched it. But it still doesn’t matter. Inside my mouth it’s me, my saliva, but outside it’s spit, slobber, dribble, drool, a loogie, alien and other and no longer part of me.
Psychologist Richard Beck describes our bodies as boundaries for self. Inside exists what is personal and embraced, familiar and welcomed. Spit it out and the same thing turns foreign and disgusting. It happens so fast. A mean word or betrayal, a slight or a lie and a close friend becomes a worst foe, love fuels the hatred, the more personal the transgression, the more resistant we are to show mercy. Evil is said to get its power from the goodness it distorts. Weeds get their strength from the same soil as the wheat. Injustice, infidelity and distrust are but perversions of prefix. It doesn’t take much to cause a tremendous chasm. Forgiveness involves bringing back, taking in, setting fairness aside, we absorb another’s wrong into yourself. How can you do this? You can’t drink your own spit.
But then Jesus says drink his blood? How disgusting is that? Yet, do it, Jesus says, and you become part of him, brought back, taken in, absorbed and transformed to be like him, his spitting image, so to speak. Disgust is not something we’re born with. As babies and children we’ll put just about anything in our mouths. We learn to discriminate. Forgiveness is natural, we’ve just learned not to do it. Jesus says we need childlike faith. We need grace to give grace.
According to Matthew, in this parable Jesus sows and we are the seed. In the earlier parable of the sower, God sowed Jesus as seed. There is a connection, continuity: good seed produces good fruit and the more good seed. The good fruit of grace is fruit of the spirit and not our own doing, it traces its roots to the seed. We can love, Scripture says, because Christ loved us first. The revolting is reconciled and the wrong is made right, and then comes the harvest—a bounty of grain so much more plentiful for having waited on justice, for having forgiven and let grow.