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If there’s one thing, we as human beings are good at, it’s being spiteful. Your neighbour asks you to turn down the volume on your TV – so you turn the volume up even higher. The car behind you is driving just centimetres from your rear bumper, forcing you to either speed up, or get out of his way. What do you do? You drive slower to annoy him. But it is not only individuals who are prone to this. Sometimes spitefulness becomes a community initiative. Think of the LGBTQ+ community and the way it attempts to destroy the careers of any celebrity who does not toe the party line. What is called “cancel culture” is nothing but spitefulness in community.

But spitefulness is not a uniquely 21st century problem. In the agrarian society of first century Palestine, it was common for people to sabotage the crops of their enemies by sowing weeds in their fields. It was so common, in fact, that the Romans eventually made it a criminal offence to do so. In the parable of the tares and the wheat, Jesus uses this practice to describe Satan’s efforts to undermine the growth of the kingdom of God.

In Matthew 13:24-30 we read: “He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

This parable follows immediately after the parable of the sower (which we considered last week). As is the case with all these parables in Matthew 13, the subject of this parable is the kingdom of heaven. And just like with the parable of the sower, Jesus later gives the interpretation of this parable to his disciples. The one who sows is none other than Jesus himself (Mt. 13:37). The field is the world (Mt. 13:38). The good seed in this parable is not the word of God, but the sons of the kingdom (Mt. 13:38). The weeds are the sons of “the evil one” (Mt. 13:38) and the one who sowed them is the devil (Mt. 13:39). Jesus also tells us that: “The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels” (Mt. 13:39).

According to Jesus, at the end of the age, he will send out his angels to gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all lawbreakers and they will be thrown into the fiery furnace (13:41-42). But the righteous will remain in his kingdom, shining with the radiance of the sun (Mt. 13:43).

There is so much here that could be unpacked in greater detail, but for the sake of brevity, I will only point out the key features of the parable and leave further exploration of these points over to you.

Firstly, it is essential that we take note of what the field of the sower represents in this parable. Notice in Jesus’ interpretation of the parable, the field is not the Church, but the world. I don’t know how many sermons I’ve heard on this text, where the preacher just assumes that the field here is a reference to the church. But Jesus is not speaking here about the co-existence of true and false Christians within the church. He is, as we’ll see in a moment, making a point about the way in which the kingdom of heaven grows until he returns. Yes, there is in every church a combination of believers and unbelievers, but that is not the focus of this text. To interpret this parable in that way, is to get the right doctrine, but from the wrong text.

But when we appreciate that the field in the parable refers to the world, it raises a very important biblical truth that is often neglected in Christian churches. I grew up in a tradition that taught that this world ultimately belongs to Satan and that our only hope is that we will be raptured off this globe before things really start going bad. However, notice that in this parable, the field (the world) belongs to Jesus. We are specifically told that the one who sowed the good seed, sowed in “his field” (Mt.13:42). Satan, therefore, and his children, are the ones trespassing on God’s territory and the day will come when God destroys them forever (Rev. 20). In the parable, our hope is not that we will be “gathered up” before things go bad. Instead, our hope is that there is coming a day, when Christ will send forth his angels, and “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all lawbreakers” and cast them into the fiery furnace. (Mt. 13:41-42). Then (after this judgment) the righteous will shine in the kingdom of their Father (Mt. 13:43) – then the world will be as it should be, in the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21-22).

Secondly, we must not lose sight of the context of this parable. Remember that this parable (and those in the rest of the chapter) were told in response to a question asked by the disciples in Matthew 13:10. They wanted to know why Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. Have you ever wondered what prompted this question? We need to remember what the prevailing Jewish expectation was concerning the Messiah. Their understanding of the Messiah was shaped by texts like Daniel 2:44, where Daniel interprets the eschatological dream of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. There we read: “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.” The Jewish people in Jesus’ day, were waiting for a great military conqueror who would throw off the yoke of Roman tyranny and establish a worldwide Jewish Kingdom that would never come to an end.

If you are familiar with the gospels, you know that the disciples of Jesus stubbornly held to this same expectation throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry. So, it makes sense that they would ask Jesus this question in Matthew 13:10. Why speak to the crowds in parables? Tell them plainly who you are. We need numbers if we are going to take on the Romans. Surely speaking to the crowds in ways that obscure your identity as the Messiah, rather than revealing it, is not the best strategy.

The disciples were right in expecting the coming of an eternal Kingdom, ruled over by the Messiah. But they had a flattened view of the Kingdom. They did not understand how the kingdom would come about. In the parables in Matthew 13, Jesus explains that he would establish his kingdom gradually. To be more specific, his kingdom would come in two stages – there would be a sowing stage and a reaping stage. Christ came the first time as a sower, when he comes again, he will come to reap the harvest. The wicked (the weeds) would not be destroyed at his first coming, but they would co-exist with the righteous in this world, until they are separated at his second coming.

The disciples understood that Jesus was the Messiah. What they couldn’t figure out is why he, as the Messiah, wasn’t bringing judgment down on the wicked. Jesus told this parable to explain that the judgment of the wicked would be delayed until the end of the age when he comes again. As Herman Ridderbos explains: “How was it possible for the kingdom to have come without at the same time making a separation between the wicked and the good? This was the cause of their impatience, and to this the parable gives an answer.”[1]

The parable of the dragnet (also in found in Matthew 13) was told to illustrate this same truth. Jesus explains that this first stage of the kingdom is a time of casting the net. The net gathers in both the righteous and the wicked. But when the net is full, then there will be a time of sorting out the bad from the good. Jesus concludes that parable with the words: “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt. 13:49-50). The disciples therefore were not to expect Jesus to destroy the wicked at his first coming – this was a season for casting out the net, the season for judgment would come only at the end of the age.

But what does this parable have to say to us today? Many commentators draw the application of this parable from verses 28-29: “He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” The application, they argue, is that this parable teaches us not to judge beforehand whether people in the church are truly saved or not.

But this application is misplaced for two reasons. Firstly, we’ve already noted that the field in Jesus’ parable does not represent the church but the world, so the focus of the parable is not true and false converts in the church. But secondly, notice that in Jesus’ interpretation of this parable, he makes no attempt to clarify how the gathering of the weeds would damage the wheat. He completely ignores this issue and focuses instead on the delayed timing of the gathering and destruction of the weeds and the way in which the kingdom grows. Our application must therefore align with this emphasis.

What we as Christians must take away from this text is the need to adjust our expectations of the kingdom of heaven in accordance with Jesus’ teaching in this parable. Notice, he does not teach that the weeds will eventually crowd out or overwhelm the wheat. Nor does it say that the wheat will eventually overwhelm the weeds. Instead, these two will continue to exist side by side until Christ returns. We must therefore guard ourselves against both an overly pessimistic and an overly optimistic understanding of the kingdom of heaven. We do not need to fear that there will come a time when the sons of the evil one will overcome and destroy the sons of the kingdom. Nor should we expect that there will be a time before Christ returns, where all people in the world will be Christians. Instead, our hope as Christians lies in the fact that Christ is currently populating the kingdom. He is sowing and cultivating the sons of the kingdom, preparing them for his everlasting kingdom. The sons of the evil one will always be present in this world, opposing the church of God, either in persecution or through ungodly influences (Rev. 2-3). But our hope is that a day will come when all will be as it should be. A day foretold by the prophet Daniel (which Jesus alludes to at the end of this parable – see Mt. 13:43): “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Dan. 12:2-3).

[1] Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of The Kingdom (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1962). p.138