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The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 9

The Parable of the Weeds

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 13:24-30
Matthew 13:36-43

Jesus uses another agricultural parable to teach that at the same time as the Kingdom of God is growing, so too the power of evil. Ultimately, the victory will come at the Second Coming.

Jesus uses another agricultural parable to teach that at the same time as the Kingdom of God is growing, so too the power of evil. Ultimately, the victory will come at the Second Coming.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 Episode 9. We're studying parables at the moment and this is ‘The Parable of the Weeds.’ This is Matthew 13, which is a chapter given over to seven different important parables. We're going to be studying Matthew 13: 24 - 30 and then, later on, verses 36 - 43.

Introduction and Recap

We are at a very important time in the life and ministry of Jesus. After a successful first tour of Galilee (which we studied in Series 3) and after a very profound teaching which he gave on The Sermon on the Mount (which we studied in Series 4), we're now in the second tour of Galilee where he is taking his newly appointed Apostles around, extending his ministry and performing many miracles, engaging in key teaching and some debates and arguments with his opponents. We've definitely seen the sense of conflict between Jesus and his religious opponents increase during Series 5 in this second tour of Galilee, and this provides the context for the parables of Matthew 13. Matthew himself, in chapter 12, gives us an account of a fundamental moment of conflict and division and that casts a shadow over the rest of the Gospel story but it particularly helps us to understand the significance of parables.

In Matthew 12: 22 to 37 and then onwards to the end of the chapter, we have a major conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over his identity. The crowds wanted to call him the Son of David (which is a title for the Messiah, the deliverer, the Saviour from God) and the Pharisees claimed, at the same time, that his power came from Satanic, evil forces - in other words, he was a totally false messiah operating with occult power. It was an astonishing conflict and that conflict will roll on through the story. Matthew notes that immediately after that moment of conflict - which represents a settled decision of the religious establishment (the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin and the priests) as far as we can tell - this is the moment when Jesus focuses on using parables. We discovered, earlier in the last episode, that a parable is a symbolic story which usually has one main meaning. Although some parables can have a detailed allegorical interpretation of individual details, we can only determine whether that's the case when those explanations are given by Jesus.

That was, in fact, the case for the first parable that we studied, which was the Parable of the Sower. That was in our last episode and that's an episode well worth reading in this context, if you haven't done so yet, because we looked at some of the introduction to the use of parables. The Parable of the Sower really emphasises the significance of the act of preaching and sharing the message of Jesus. The overwhelming message from that parable is that we should keep sowing the seed, as it were, of the Word of God - whatever the outcome. The parable determined four different outcomes: some of them very bad, some of them rather mixed and only one of them really good in terms of productivity and growth. The seed that's sown in the ground successfully, in good conditions, can be extraordinarily productive; Jesus said it can be up to a hundred times reproduced. That was the first parable and we also looked at the purpose of parables and the fact that they have a kind of almost prophetic purpose because they illuminate and illustrate and encourage the believer who is following Jesus and they sort of close the door and confuse the person who's set themselves against the Gospel message - they confirm decisions already made by being a little hard to understand. Jesus explained that by reference to a prophecy in Isaiah 6, which he quoted and applied to the current generation of Jewish people. I think Jesus was fundamentally concerned for the Jewish people of his time because, although he was popular in one level, he was aware that the whole establishment was against him and they could sway the nation against him in the long term and, therefore, prevent many people coming to be true believers, to being born-again, to becoming disciples and members of the Church community that would follow after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. He is very concerned and he also points out in the Parable of the Sower that there is a Satanic opponent - Satan himself - all the powers of darkness are against the Gospel. They don't want the message to spread; they don't want the message to be understood; they'll even take the seed (the idea of the Gospel) out of people's minds directly, as quickly as they can - they are able. That point is made very explicitly in the Parable of the Sower.

Agricultural Conflict

We have another theme in this Parable of the Weeds concerning opposition and the reality of that opposition is very clearly stated. Let's read the Parable of the Weeds, which is the first of the two passages that we're going to study today. The second one which we'll read a little later, is Jesus' explanation of the parable. First of all, let's read it. We're now in Matthew 13: 24 - 30:

24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds amongst 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.’”

Matthew 13:24-30, NIV

As we said in the discussion of the last parable in the last episode, Jesus is speaking very familiar language to his listeners about agriculture, farming and smallholding. To make that point clear, not only (as I said last time) was Galilee - the area he was in - very fertile, very agricultural, one of the best parts of the country for agriculture; but the whole of Jewish society was set up around the principle that everyone had access to land. This didn't work out fully in practice but the Law of Moses actually had stated that the land was going to be distributed to all the twelve tribes in their different geographical areas and then the land would pass from father to son in the same family, without being sold outright to anyone else, from generation to generation. The Jews never fully followed this pattern and it had been disrupted by exile and return, Roman occupation and other things like that. In the days of Jesus, generally speaking, most people had access to some land and big commercial farms were relatively few. People understood about sowing the seed and creating a harvest. Self-sufficiency on the land was a goal of many people and they were very sensitive to the weather, the climate and other economic conditions (irrigation, water supply) that affected the production levels for their agriculture.

Jesus is speaking their language and, as he does so, he now uses the concept of sowing the seed in a different way than he did in the earlier parable - the Parable of the Sower. He's not talking about different types of soil and rocks and the receptivity of the soil, he's actually comparing two different seeds. He's describing a social incident that might actually take place in a Jewish village, town or in a very remote area. He's describing the result of a kind of social conflict that might take place in a small community - he's describing someone who, maliciously, comes secretly at night and plants weeds in a field that has just been planted with healthy seed. This was the sort of thing that could happen and conflicts between families, and between individuals, often spilled over into agricultural incidents and issues - issues with land and farming, planting and sowing and reaping. Also, very often, incidents with livestock - particularly with cattle, with sheep or goats, shepherds would be in conflict over different areas that they might go roving with their flocks and, in terms of the actual farming, there was the possibility of conflict over many issues.

Old Testament Example

One such conflict that is recorded in the Old Testament is quite an interesting thing - the boundaries between land were usually marked by boundary stones - not so much with enclosed fencing, as we would have in the modern world (particularly the developed world and the Western world) that was very rare in those days. It would be boundary stones that would mark the land and the Old Testament is a place where we can see that there is a warning: “Don't move the boundary stone.” Now, why would you move the boundary stone? Because you are in conflict with your neighbour and you're using the issue of land as a point of conflict and gaining an advantage against your neighbour. Proverbs makes the point clearly. Proverbs 22: 28, says: ‘Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors.’

A Mean Trick

In that context, it's easy to imagine that another way that a conflict could play itself out would be in this rather mean and nasty trick, whereby someone literally throws in the seeds of a particular weed. Many people have wondered what actual weed have we got in mind here? Many scholars have come up with the idea that this may be a weed called darnel which is a little bit like wheat, superficially, and it grows up initially (in the early stages of the plant) to look a little bit similar to wheat and other similar crops but then it is very different once it is fully grown. Darnel was available then and you could easily access it in seed form or collect the seeds and maliciously you could spread the seeds on your neighbour's plot of land. This is a very conceivable possibility and it's difficult to spot as soon as it's been done because the seeds look so similar to the wheat seeds and the early plant looks similar too. It's only as time goes on that you begin to realise, on closer inspection, that you've got two types of seed that have been mixed up together. This causes a really significant problem for the farmer because the weeds will be taking up space, nutrients and moisture, which restricts the growth of the wheat seed - or whatever other seed that there might be. When it comes to the decision of whether you pull out the weeds you've got a very complicated thing to do because you have to tread on the land. If there are a lot of those seeds, it's very difficult to identify each one and to pull them up without disturbing the wheat or the good seed that you have sown. Jesus is describing, vividly, a real difficulty that people might experience if someone maliciously came and tried to undermine your agricultural production in this direct way. There's no easy way to solve the problem. The instinct of people is to get rid of these weeds as quickly as we can but if they're there in large numbers, all over the field, it's almost impossible to do without an enormous amount of effort and great interference with the good seed - which will restrict its growth and make it less productive. On the other hand if you leave it until harvesting, it's all mixed up together.

As Jesus tells this story, you can easily imagine this being quite an emotional story to tell because people would be feeling this sense of anger and frustration and thinking, “Yes, this could happen to me,” or, “I've heard it happen in these different situations.” It's a living story and people were very sensitive about land. Again, just to emphasise the point, we didn't have enclosed land with heavy fencing and gates and any kind of security around land that is common in developed economies today. No, that wasn't the case at all. No - land was open, generally speaking. The boundaries were marked by stones and other indicators here and there and it was easy to cross over from one person's land to another; there was no real sense of any kind of security system or police to police these things. It was really an open situation. People were often feeling vulnerable about what happened on their land. Another issue that was easily problematical was if animals, like sheep, trampled on land which was being used for agricultural purposes; that was another common issue and those flocks of sheep and goats had to be kept separate from the productive areas of the land.

An Allegorical Interpretation

This story makes a lot of sense: it's the sort of thing that did happen; it's the sort of thing that could happen. In verse 36, the disciples approach Jesus after another parable has been told and they want some more explanation about what he means and what implications we should draw from it. Let's now turn to verses 36 to 43, which is the second half of our passage today:

36Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38The field is the world, ... the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”’

Matthew 13:36-43, NIV

Jesus is very explicit; he creates an allegorical interpretation. As I said earlier, occasionally parables are given this more detailed interpretation by Jesus and that helps us to understand the meaning and the emphasis that he wants to give. The initiative of God is to take believers, disciples, and to place them in the world so that they will have influence and reproduce - multiply - but the context of the Son of Man doing this (that's one of Jesus' titles), is that the evil one - the spiritual enemy of the Church - Satan, the devil - is using a similar tactic. He is working through people who act, whether they know it or not, as his agents in the world to infiltrate the world and to control it. The basic message that Jesus gives is that over the passage of time the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness are both going to grow. This is a fundamental reality that Christians need to grasp and something that they find difficult. For example, some people find it difficult to believe that the Church will continue to grow, and is continuing to grow, because they've got a pessimistic outlook on the Church - they can see all the opposition, they can see all the difficulties that it faces. Jesus actually indicates to us that the Church is going to grow through time, not necessarily consistently every single year or decade, but over a longer period of time you'll see growth towards the ultimate point of this story - which is the Second Coming, the return of Christ and the Day of Judgement. Christians need to grasp hold of this way of thinking and take a positive view of the growth of the Church despite all the problems.

On the other hand, we also need to accept that the kingdom of darkness, and the many people who associate themselves with the world, against Christ, that's going to grow too. It's going to grow numerically and it's going to grow in spiritual power through the years. Jesus is anticipating an ongoing spiritual tension throughout every generation of the Church between the Church's ministry and mission and message, on the one hand, and forces in society and demonic spiritual forces that oppose it on the other. He is encouraging his followers to embrace both these realities and not to be intimidated by that reality or imagine there's any way the Church can resolve the conflict. There's no way the church can pull out the weeds; that's basically the point. We can't use force to do that, we simply haven't got the power and it's not a productive thing to do. We have to live in this time of conflict but - and this is an important but - the conclusion of the process will be an absolutely one-sided victory for the Kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus who, when he comes back in his Second Coming, will remove the spiritual darkness and the people who represent it will be judged. Jesus is saying, “Leave the judgement to God. Leave the resolution of this conflict into the future and commit yourselves to the present task of growing the Kingdom of God.”

It's a fairly similar message to the message of the Parable of the Sower, where the ultimate message came over: we need to keep sowing, sowing, sowing the Word of God, getting the message out. Jesus is saying in this parable that his Kingdom is going to grow - it's got the DNA within it to grow - so commit yourselves to that task of growth and be aware that there'll be conflict and difficulty along the way as a result of the fact that the enemy is also seeking for his kingdom to grow.

I wonder if it helps you to make sense of your experience? For most people, this is quite a liberating parable because it really helps us to understand the positive dynamic of the Kingdom of God but also the fact that there is significant opposition and resistance to it in many different ways. Disciples, ultimately, will be vindicated at the Second Coming when ‘they will shine like the sun.’


What concluding reflections can we bring? Expect the growth of the Kingdom of God and so when you pray that prayer: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, that prayer which we studied earlier on when we studied the Sermon on the Mount in Series 4, is really important. ‘Your Kingdom,’ we should be praying that regularly, believing that God is going to win more people to himself and strengthen his Church around the world. We also should be aware that, as that process goes on, there'll be setbacks, there'll be difficulties and there'll be opposition. There will be evil; there will be suffering; there will be spiritual battles; and, from time to time, there's going to be persecution. When that happens, we must not lose our confidence. It's what we expect from the pages of the New Testament and it's what we should expect, very specifically, from this parable and the teaching of Jesus.

Therefore, we're going to have to resist the temptation to think, as some people do, that the Church is simply going to take over the world - it's going to be so successful that it's going to take over the world. Some theological positions adopt that view but it is an unrealistic view from the point of the evidence of the New Testament and, particularly, passages like this one. We are praying for God's Kingdom to come now, knowing that it will only come in its fullness with the Second Coming of Christ.

The final thing to say on this passage is that it focuses on the Second Coming. It's incredible how much material in the Gospels speaks about Jesus' Second Coming - and in the rest of the New Testament for that matter. It is a major doctrine of the Church that Jesus comes twice to this world: once as Saviour and Redeemer and once, at the end of history, as judge and Lord. We know that our vindication is tied up with his return; we don't know when that's going to be but we know that the Church is going to be vindicated at that point and all the evil strategies that stand against it are going to be overturned. Let's not underestimate the power of the Gospel and let's not underestimate the extraordinary work that God is doing in our world today. Stories come to me, regularly, from different parts of the world telling me of incredible miracles, of revivals, of groups of secret believers in situations where they have to operate underground, of sudden conversions, of dreams, of visions, of tremendous interest in the Bible in people's individual languages and different nations around the world - and in some countries we see the growth of huge churches and huge missionary movements. Whatever the bad news in the world is, there's also good news and that good news is in this parable. The sons of the Kingdom, sown into the world, are going to be fruitful and productive and when Christ comes again they're going to be vindicated and we will be found to have been on, as it were, the winning side. Let's follow Christ wholeheartedly and, if you face difficult circumstances, as you read this, I want it to nourish you, to encourage you, to the very depths of your being and to give you that courage to be steadfast, to stand up against all the forces that might stand against you, to pray the Lord's Prayer with conviction: “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Your will be done here, now, and in the future.”

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Jesus spoke about farming which his listeners knew. What could he use if he was speaking to you in your culture?
  • Discipleship
    1. How difficult is it to accept that the kingdom of darkness exists at the same time as the Kingdom of God? Does this fact help to understand the world around you?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. In the face of different theories about the end of the world, how important is the doctrine of the Second Coming to you?
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