Read the passage here.
Last week, we began looking at this section of discourse in the gospel of Matthew. It is known for Jesus’ telling of series of parables about the kingdom. We also talked a little bit about parables. Jesus tells us that he teaches in this manner in order to fulfill the words to Isaiah the prophet.
“ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.Matthew 13:14
By this, Jesus seems to mean something along the lines of, people will hear what they want to hear. If people are truly open and willing to receive Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom, they will. If they are not, they won’t (at least, this is how I see this passage).
Further, we talked about how this series of parables may be related to Matthew’s overall purpose to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Specifically, he may be responding to the doubts (of Jesus’ messiahship) that are based on the fact that those who are supposed to know about God and his kingdom do not/did not respond to the Kingdom that Jesus is talking about.
In other words people during Matthew’s time may have been wondering, “If Jesus was the Messiah, why do/did the religious leaders so thoroughly oppose him?” Through these parables, Jesus seems to be revisiting the themes that we’ve already seen – that the so-called religious-elite don’t recognize (or choose not to) when the Kingdom is in their midst.
Our passage today continues this portion of discourse, introducing several more parables.
Similar to last week, we get an initial parable, followed by a couple shorter parables, and then an explanation of the first parable. This format should lead us to believe that this section is tied together somehow. So we’re going to consider the entire section, but we’ll pay extra attention to the initial parable, with its corresponding explanation, that enclose the section.
That is, we’re concerned firstly with the parable about the weeds (vv. 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 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. 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.’”Matthew 13:24-30
Jesus, later with his disciples in private, explains the parable:
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.Matthew 13:36-43
Though the meaning of this parable is pretty straightforward, I wondered if Jesus left some of the explanation out. I don’t mean that Jesus under-explained the parable; what I mean is that I wonder if there’s a reason why this parable is shared here that we can dig into.
Going back to Matthew’s purpose in writing his gospel, we know that his intent is to show that Jesus is the promised Messiah of God. This, as we also know, is intimately tied to the identity of the people of Israel. Now Matthew is writing several years/decades after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The church of God is underway, but it is still a tiny minority among the population.
We also know that the people of Israel had long been waiting for a Messiah – a Messiah who would restore their fortunes and position as the chosen people of God. Some of these Israelites wondered if Jesus was this Messiah, but many of their hopes were dashed when Jesus was crucified.
Yet undoubtedly, they were aware of this tiny group of “Christians” who held onto the belief, and continued to profess, that Jesus was the Messiah. Well if Jesus was the Messiah, where were all the Messiah things that were supposed to happen? Why was Israel still oppressed – a minority people under the rule of the Romans? Why hadn’t the kingdom come the way it was supposed to? If the Pharisees and religious leaders were wrong about Jesus, as these Christians claimed, why were they still in power? In the narrative portion of this section (chaps. 11-12), Jesus had numerous encounters with these religious leaders. And Jesus had rebuked them for not understanding and not recognizing the Kingdom of God. If the religious leaders were wrong and Jesus right, why hadn’t God, through the Messiah, wiped them away in order to re-instate the true kingdom, the kingdom that Jesus had talked about?
In other words, people must have been wondering, if Jesus’ kingdom had come, why was everything pretty much the same?
And I think, perhaps, that this is why this parable of Jesus is here, in Matthew’s gospel. The picture that we get in the parable of the weeds is one of waiting. Jesus tells us:
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.Matthew 13:37-39
The harvest, when those who oppose Jesus and his kingdom will be done away with, is at the end of the age. The reason why the kingdom hasn’t come in the way that people expected or wanted is because we are in the in-between time. We are in the already-but-not-yet.
Now at this point, it’s worth paying attention to the other two small parables that Jesus shares in this passage.
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.”Matthew 13:31-33
As a quick aside, verses 34-35 contain a brief statement (not unlike what we’ve already seen) of why Jesus uses parables – this time focussing on it as a fulfillment of scripture.
But returning to the two short parables in vv. 31-33:
In the first, the parable of the mustard seed, the meaning seems to lie somewhere along the lines of, even something small and insignificant can grow into something grand.
The second parable is similar: Yeast, presumably a small amount, is used to mix into the whole dough and has a significant impact.
Both of these parables give the image of something small which nevertheless has a great impact. The relevance to the people during Matthew’s time isn’t hard to see. These are people who put their hope in Jesus as the Messiah. They believed that the Kingdom of God is the kingdom that Jesus spoke of (as distinct from that which the religious leaders, for example, spoke of). Doubtless, there are many who would have accused them of being ridiculous – because there was obviously no kingdom.
But these parables – the parable of the weeds, the mustard seed, and the yeast – each point to the fact that though the kingdom isn’t fully realized, it is most certainly present. (Again, the parable of the weeds probably most directly addressing the criticism and opposition that the early community might have faced).
I know many of us are gardeners, so we can consider the parable of the mustard seed as an example. After the seed is planted, there is an awful lot of time when it appears like nothing is going on. If, for example, you plant a squash, there is a lot of time when you don’t yet have a squash. In fact, most of the time, you don’t have a squash. But that doesn’t mean the squash is not there. What it means is that the squash is becoming. Most of the time, the squash is already but not yet.
As we’ve said many times before, we live in the already-but-not-yet. Most of the time, we are becoming. And the Kingdom of which we are a part, the kingdom that we hope and long for, is not fully yet, but it is sure.
In general, I think human beings are bad at waiting. This, perhaps obviously, seems to me to be a movement in culture (that is, it has become particularly pronounced in our time). We are a generation of people who have been taught that anything you want, you can have now. And we’re taught that anything you can have now is better than the things you have to wait for.
But we are in the in-between time. We are waiting for the day when Jesus’ kingdom comes in its fullness. The end is what we hope for and long for. So we find ourselves in the in-between. But the waiting isn’t just about waiting – waiting is not the same thing as nothing happening – it’s about becoming.
There’s a lot to say about becoming – there’s a lot we could say about discipleship. I think that the important thing is that only God makes the squash grow, but we play a part – our actions and our decisions matter. And there’s a lot we can learn about it from the parables.
But I think what I mostly want to say is that it’s easy to become discouraged. It’s easy to be frustrated because we are still living in the not-yet. Why isn’t it just done yet? Why cant we just have it now? I don’t really have an answer for that. God’s timing is God’s timing. But what I do believe is that while we are in between, we focus on the becoming. We focus on what God is doing and how we can participate in what God is doing.
We are not done yet. God is not done doing what He is doing. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian, or how successful a church has been for however many years. God is still making us. And we can know with confidence that, in the end, God’s purposes and God’s work will be made complete in us.
But until then, we can also have confidence that, even in the in-between, even in the becoming, Jesus is alive and working in us. God’s kingdom is being made manifest in us.