VII Pentecost, Year A
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.
Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
There is no god besides you, whose care is for all people,
to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly;
for your strength is the source of righteousness,
and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.
For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power,
and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it.
Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us;
for you have power to act whenever you choose.
Through such works you have taught your people
that the righteous must be kind,
and you have filled your children with good hope,
because you give repentance for sins.
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel,
and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let them proclaim it,
let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.
Do not fear, or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me ?
There is no other rock; I know not one.
Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh– for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, `An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’"
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"
Reading the parables through the lens of mimetic theory is a delightful enterprise. Today’s parable of the weeds and the tares is no exception. We have heard from Bultmann to Crossan that the parables are a call to decision…and they are. We have heard from Jeremias, Dodd, and others that the parables, for the most part form the bedrock of the historical Jesus, and it appears to be so. We have read the parables interpreted in many different ways from Julicher to Scott. Each seeks ‘the point’ of the parable.
Except parables are not pointed, they are round. Jesus’ parables bring about a total shift of perspective. This is why some have written that we do not so much interpret parables as they interpret us, in other words, we are parabled. In Matthew 13 the total wholistic shift concerns our perceptions of God’s reign.
These Parables of the kingdom form the center of the larger Matthean five discourse chiasmus. They will develop themes found in the Sermon on the Mount and the Missionary discourse and they will open some themes that will be developed further in the church and eschatological discourses. There is a structural break in Matthew 13 noted by many commentators. There is a turning point. In short, this chapter contains the before and after.
We need not let the allegorizing of the parable bother us, wondering if it comes from Jesus or the tradition or Matthew. These questions have their own rightful place. But the allegorical interpretation of vss. 36-43 has a stress consonant with the anthropology we have proposed that the Gospels illuminate.
In the interpretation, the emphasis falls on an eschatological separation. But the question is rarely asked, who or what is being separated? The answer lies in the parable itself. The weeds are, as is commonly recognized, called darnel (lolium temelentum). When they are young plants they look like wheat, but as they mature their seeds become dark and are poisonous.
Something that looks like something else. Sounds mimetic enough to us, as when two rivals become more and more like the other, undifferentiated from one another. More so this mimesis is poisonous, it leads to death, victimage. Jesus observes that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a farmer sows seed and an unknown enemy sneaks in and sows bad seed. There is a farmer and he has an enemy who is retaliating by seeking to destroy or poison/kill the farmer. The enemy is clever, but the farmer is patient. Essential for interpreting the parable is the observance of the similarity of the poisonous plant to the beneficial plant and the importance of their final separation.
In each of the five major discourses, Matthew will weave in this theme of separation. In 7: 15-23 Jesus uses the metaphor of wolves dressed as sheep; appearing to be one thing but actually being another. He also compares rotten fruit with healthy fruit. But he goes to say that while many will have exercised his life giving power he does not recognize them, even if they say they recognize him. This recognition issue will be addressed throughout the gospel and culminates in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Matthew 10 again using the contrast of sheep and wolves (16) says that the disciples mission will bring about separation of themselves from society and separation of familial relationships. It is found again in chapter 13 in the parable of the dragnet. In Chapter 18, this separation takes on an ecclesial aspect. The process of separating someone from the community is now to be no longer through the mimetic process of victimage, but through the continued expression of forgiveness, even in the ‘ritual’ of separation. Finally, all of the parables of chapters 24-25 deal with a distinguishing or separation.
Our parable in chapter 13 identifies the weeds with ‘ta skandala’ and ‘tous poiountas ten anomian’: “causes of stumbling and practitioners of lawlessness.” These are not two separate things, people who are lawless scandalize. Scandals occur when we set ourselves up as model-obstacles. We do this as parents, as friends, as spouses, at work, at church, everywhere. We want people to be like us, to behave as we behave, but we do not want them to do it better than we do. We limit them by the double bind of ‘be like me/don’t be (like) me.’
In Matthew’s gospel, who are these ‘lawless ones?’ They say, “Lord, Lord” but Jesus does not know them, why? Because they are the ones who have neglected the marginalized (Matthew 25: 41-46), they have scandalized “these little ones” (Matthew 18: 6-9). They have the appearance of being followers of Jesus but are not. They claim his power but lack his presence. These scandalize by claiming Jesus’ name then acting nothing like him. For Matthew, there is a distinction between true and false Christianity.
These ‘bad seed’ fail to see that ‘following Jesus’ has implications for them at the center of their existence, in their interdividuality, in their recognizing that they are part of a whole, every relationship counts. In the end, their vision of Jesus is poisonous and rejected by Jesus himself.
The ‘good seed’ are those who hear and do the words of the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. These are the true children of the kingdom, they have the blessing.
Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus) still has the best botanical observations about the weeds.
This parable is probably best understood as a parable relating to the way certain groups separated themselves, e.g., the Qumran Covenanters and the Pharisees (from perushim = separatists). These folks engaged what Marcus Borg has called the ‘holiness code’ while Jesus taught a ‘mercy code.’ It is also probable that Matthew’s community is dealing with this issue in a post-Yavneh context (much like the Johannine community).
I usually try to give positive sermonic examples, but today I want to quote (and leave anonymous) a sermon I read online. And it occurred to me that sometimes when you interpret a parable you go down swinging. I’ve done it many times myself. It’s always a bit embarrassing (brother, if you read this know that I really liked where you were going, a just wish you had gone a little further). So, an ‘anonymous’ preacher concludes,
“First of all, the task of pulling out the weeds isn’t man’s job. Christ specifically says that the angels of heaven will do that sad task, and of course, they will do it under God’s omniscient guidance. Rebels will be lost and destroyed only because God in His wisdom gives that directive….Let’s never forget that when the weeds are bundled up and burned, this is God’s "strange act." He puts it off. He keeps Judas right there in the inner circle right up until the last Thursday evening. Hoping even against His own divine foreknowledge that somehow this thistle, this confused, rebellious little man, could be redeemed.”
Now, this preacher tried very hard to argue that the parable teaches God’s tolerance and forbearance, in this he was correct. But what ends up getting added in is the notion of ‘eternal loss.’ The purging effects of the ‘fiery furnace’ become punishing effects.
Jesus does not teach that we shall be lost, he does teach us that what we have called the story of our life may, in the end, turn out to be a false self-interpretation. We do not perish, but our self as self-interpreted does and that is why there is great sorrow ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ Whatever about us is not like Jesus is consumed in holy fire. Jesus is the only standard of judgment. Only his image in us will remain.
So, rather than turning this parable outward to distinguish others from us, which goes against the very grain of the parable, we can each of us ask instead whether or not we ourselves are like Jesus? We can ask whether we ourselves turn the other cheek, whether we are agents of continual forgiveness, whether we ourselves feed the hungry, clothe the poor and care for the sick. We need not ask ‘what kind of seed are they?’, but ‘what kind of seed am I?’