The Wheat and the Weeds (Part 3), Matthew 13:36-43

Sometimes it is difficult to see people struggle because the wicked seem to prosper. Some who have done great wrong never even go to trial, much less to prison. Human experience cries out every day for a great and long-delayed balancing of justices scales.

The proverbial doubter loudly wonders why God allows disastrous or cruel acts to occur, somehow supposing that such deeds should corrected by instant miracle or immediate punishment. Given the passage of a little time, can we say that anyone would remain unpunished? Perhaps it would be wiser to hope that God will sort things out in his own good time.

Matthew 13:36-43

36 Then 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.

37 He answered, The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and 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. 41 The 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. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Commentary

The disciples wisely chose to wait until Jesus entered the house before asking for an explanation of the Parable of the Weeds. Keep in mind that we have already learned that the weeds were darnel, a plant easily mistaken for wheat and one capable of causing great harm.

Verse 37 again bears the marks (in Greek) of a significant statement or new development. Jesus quickly delivers a set of identifications (verses 37-39):

  • the one who sowed the good seed = the Son of Man [Jesus]
  • the field = the world [not the church]
  • the good seed = the people of the kingdom
  • the weeds (darnel) = the people of the evil one
  • the enemy = the devil
  • the harvest = the end of the age
  • the harvesters = angels

Note carefully that a seed in this parable stands for a person; back in the Parable of the Sower, the seed stood for the word taught about Gods rule. When you study Gods word, it is important to be attentive rather than assuming that things never change, and that includes symbols used in parables.

The phrases people of the kingdom and people of the evil one (verse 38) need further explanation. These phrases rely on the same Jewish idiom. A son of the kingdom is a man who has repented and followed Jesus, thus being characterized by the rule of God. The same would hold for a daughter of the kingdom. So, these people of the kingdom are Jesus disciples. A similar analogy holds for the people of the evil one, who are like the devil; they are not Jesus disciples and are outside the house, ignorant of this deeper knowledge.

After Jesus finished making the identifications for the parable, he began speaking about the dynamics that will occur at the end of the age. In fact, Jesus concentrated more attention on the end of the age than anything else. Every Jew knew that the end of the age was the time of final judgment, when everything would be sorted out. Jesus wants us to be sure that we know: the kingdom has begun to spread, and even though judgment is delayed, it will come at the appropriate time.

Events unfold swiftly when the Son of Man sends out his angels to sort the people of the evil one from the people of the kingdom. What is plain is that everyone who rejects Jesus will wind up in the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (verse 42). So, those opposing Jesus will be overwhelmed by shame, crushing regret and suffering.

The situation for the righteous (verse 43), those who have repented and become people of the kingdom ruled by the Father, is one of honor and splendor. This is a brief description of the vindication that Jesus disciples will receive at the end of a long, hard road. They will shine like the sun.

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

The Wheat and the Weeds (Part 2), Matthew 13:31-35

We have learned that Jesus is offering many glimpses of the rule of God that he has brought to the world. One of the biggest questions is how Gods kingship will propagate and change over time. That question is almost as important today as it was in the first century.

Matthew 13:31-35

31 He told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.

33 He told them still another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.

Commentary

The Mustard Seed (verses 31-32)

First, we will find it useful to get some facts on the table to help us interpret what Jesus says in this Bible passage. Even though mustard seeds are extremely small (1-2 mm) less than half the diameter of the lead in a fine-point mechanical pencil even smaller seeds are known. But the existence of smaller seeds is beside the point because Jesus used mustard seeds as the proverbial standard for smallness in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world.[1] Mustard seeds germinate quickly and grow to a height of about ten feet.

We can learn something here about parables and similar stories. They frequently include exaggeration and must not be subjected to an overly strict or literal interpretation. This trait made them more useful and flexible when speaking to audiences accustomed to such material.

The Mustard Seed presents an analogy between {the mustard seed and mustard plant} and {the present and future kingdom}. I have gotten free with symbols here to make the analogy more clear. All facts about mustard seeds are irrelevant except for the one fact that it starts as such a tiny seed and grows so large when it becomes a mature plant.[2] That one things makes it comparable to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus used the Mustard Seed to address a question burning in the hearts of many people in Galilee about the kingdom of heaven: is that all there is? Jesus had done many marvelous things, and his teaching easily outclassed anything they had ever heard, but Roman rule over Israel remained unchanged, and evil had not been finally defeated. This was not the glorious kingdom they had been led to expect.

Using the Mustard Seed, Jesus says that the small and unimpressive beginning for the kingdom of heaven should not be used to make assumptions about its final scope. Snodgrass says, The point is that what one sees with Jesus will lead to what one hopes for in the kingdom. … The future kingdom is already present in Jesus teaching and work.[3] As such, the Mustard Seed is a statement of hope and confidence.

The Leaven (verse 33)

The farther I get into research about these parables and similitudes, the more it has become apparent how alienated I have become from the land and its products. After all, my fruits and veggies come as full-grown, finished products at the store!

So, again we start with a few facts. Today we do not generally bake bread and other baked goods as they did in the ancient world. In their efforts to make what is ancient feel more modern, numerous English versions mention yeast in verse 33. NIV, NET, NLT, HCSB and CEB versions all inaccurately say yeast. Other versions, KJV, ESV and NASB, correctly say that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven. Yeast and leaven are not the same.

Leaven is nothing more than fermented dough. Ancient bakers kept aside a small lump of dough from the previous baking and kneaded [mixed] that into the fresh dough so that its leavening effects would spread throughout. When mixing was done, a small lump would again be reserved to do the same thing next time. The leaven contained gas-producing bacteria which helped the bread rise, making it easier to eat. [So does bakers yeast, but that is another story.] Today we call bread made the ancient way sourdough.

So, in the simple story Jesus tells, a woman takes the leaven and mixes it into sixty pounds of flour, enough to feed bread to 100-150 people.[4] Except, Jesus did not say that the woman mixed the leaven into the flour; he said that she hid (Greek egkrupto) the leaven in the flour. Note that ESV, KJV and NASB lead the way among English versions by preserving the meaning hid. What is the point of this word choice? Once you put that leaven into sixty pounds of flour, the leaven is inside doing its vital work even though you cannot see it. The active agent makes the bread rise even though it is hidden from view.

Just as the leaven transforms an enormous amount of flour, so the rule of God transforms the world in a powerful and significant way even though its activity is hidden. Both parables, the Leaven and the Mustard Seed, portray the surprising large effect of something small and unobservable.[5]

In verse 34, we move on to a reminder from Matthew that Jesus spoke to the masses only in parables. He gave the leaders who had plotted to kill him nothing with which to accuse him. The words attributed to Jesus in verse 35 are a paraphrase of Psalm 78:2. The first half of verse 35 explains how Jesus deals with outsiders. The second half of verse 35 informs us that the disciples received things hidden since the creation of the world. Matthew explains that both approaches were revealed by Asaph in a prophecy long ago. The Son of Man fulfilled prophecy. He still does!

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008) 220.

[2] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 220.

[3] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 225226.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 527.

[5] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 233.

The Wheat and the Weeds (Part 1), Matthew 13:24-30

Even uneducated people know that evil plays an active role in our world; they may even have a greater experience of it than those who have been to college. Since Jesus came bringing the rulership of God to this world, and did so long ago, what can we say about the ongoing presence and power of evil? Will things always be like this?

Jesus tells us how our world is and how it will be. Listen up!

Matthew 13:24-30

24 Jesus told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 The owners servants came to him and said, Sir, didnt 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. 30 Let 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.

Commentary

Matthew 13 is full of parables about Gods rulership — also known as the kingdom of heaven — and we learned from the Parable of the Sower that the world will divide in its opinions about Jesus. We all have a horse in this race: knowing how God is going to respond to the division over Jesus. Will he do nothing? Will he destroy the world to eradicate the opposition? Or perhaps something in between.

As you know, Matthew 13 contains many parables that Jesus taught concerning the rulership of God — also known as the kingdom of heaven (verse 24). Each one is designed to teach a different facet of Gods rule through Jesus to help his disciples know what to expect. The crowd hears the parable and can discern what the subject is, but Jesus has already made clear that he will explain the parables only to his disciples (Matthew 13:11).

From the whole of the parable, we learn that the main character is a farmer who has servants to carry out the work; in verse 25 he is simply called a man who sowed good seed. We are soon told that the seed is wheat (Greek sitos). Verse 25 bears the mark — in Greek — of a fresh development: an enemy came in the night sewing darnel (Greek zizanion) all over the field where the wheat was newly sown.

Essential Background

NIVs translation weeds for the darnel makes it sound relatively harmless, failing to reveal why an enemy might do this. We will review the facts. First, wheat and darnel are very hard to tell apart until the plants are more fully grown. Wheat (Latin: Triticum aestivum) and darnel (Latin: Lolium temulentum) are two different species from the same biological family of plants.

Now, here is the kicker: darnel often produces a fungus that releases a toxin useful in repelling insects. If darnel is harvested with the wheat and ground into flour, a person eating that flour will experience a drunken nausea, possibly because an ether compound is part of the toxin. That is why the Latin name for darnel includes the adjective temulentum, meaning drunken in English. Sowing a field with darnel was such a hostile act that the Romans had a law against doing it.[1]

The presence of darnel among the wheat makes the crop commercially useless, but the plants are difficult to tell apart until the heads of grain form, at which time the difference is obvious.[2] This fact will make verse 26 easy to understand. By the time the difference was clear, the roots were so intertwined that pulling the darnel would harm the wheat. Action was only practical at harvest time.

The Mixed Field

As soon as the heads emerged, the difference between darnel and wheat could be seen throughout the field (verse 26). Naturally, the owners servants told him at once (verse 27). He knew immediately that an enemy had done this to the wheat crop (verse 28). Since the owner was unwilling to risk damage to the wheat, the best option was separation of the darnel from the wheat at harvest time (verses 29-30), a labor-intensive operation.

The final stage of the parable was to bundle the darnel for burning, possibly as fuel since forests had gradually become scarce. The wheat would get priority treatment by being placed in the barn (verse 30). In this way the parable ends, without explanation. Jesus will explain the parable to his disciples in verses 37-43.

Snodgrass informs us that this parable has been misused more than any other by people who interpreted it as talking about a mixture of good and evil in the church.[3] But, as we will see in a future lesson, Jesus explained that the field in which the seed was sown was the world (verse 38). This is another example of what I spoke to you about before: many interpreters try to make every part of the Gospels directly about us rather than giving an interpretation comfortable in the original context. You can learn a lot about reading and interpreting the Bible by the simple expedient of avoiding that erroneous practice.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally produced for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used with permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 521.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 526.

[3] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008) 214.