A sermon by Graham Low, 1 March 2020. Text: Matthew 13.24-30, and 36-43.
In choosing to offer some words on this richly allegorical parable I know that I am on difficult ground because this has often been seen as the most challenging of all of the parables of the kingdom.
Firstly, we need to remember that this parable, and others in the same chapter of Matthew’s gospel, was written at a time Matthew and his followers were finding marked rejection of Jesus by the community as a whole, rather than particular disquiet within the Christian community as such.
Like many of the parables in Matthew’s gospel this parable is less about the problem of evil and more about the features of God’s kingdom. As we begin to look at it we find that motifs from other parables in the chapter are prominent: sowing, soil, kingdom, obstacles to growth, the devil. Their overall message is similar: God’s kingdom will be victorious (n.b. today’s collect) but the progress towards this victory will be hampered by unbelief and its effects. There is an emphasis on the devil who imitates Jesus by sowing his own seed, as in the parable of the sower. And the devil shares the responsibility for human sin: those without faith are described as the sons of the evil one.
This parable has traditionally been understood as having no direct parallel, but some see it as a re-writing of Mark’s parable of the secret seed (4.26-29), to meet the particular needs of Matthew’s own community.
Following the parable itself (vv24-30), we are given an explanation of it (vv.36-43). This is both about its immediate meaning and also how it may be understood at the eschatological (end of time) level. Thus, in verses 37-39 Jesus gives a specific and eschatological view of the meaning of the seven elements: the sower of good seed is the son of Man; the field is the world whose children are of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the veil one; the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age; the reapers are the angels.
As we read this parable we can easily find ourselves dwelling on the details of the parable, rather than grasping its main point which is that the kingdom on earth, including, but not only the church, is a mixed body of people. Some people are more saintly than others, and some more sinning than others, as they live here on earth, until the final sifting by the agents of God. Until that final sifting we are called to live our lives with patience, tolerance and forbearing. Nevertheless, the parable indicates that we should not be neglectful of, but actively prepare for eventual divine judgement at the end of the age. In a different time and context Paul writes of the church as a body of people who are in some sense are more saintly than others, though by no means perfect. However, we need to be mindful of the fact that down the centuries many puritanical groups within the Christian church which have sought to exclude all who they regard as sinners, have been short-lived.
The problem with Matthew’s view is that it might point us towards doing little or nothing about the evil in our midst. We could simply be passive and indifferent to evil. But I do not think that this can be our conclusion. Like Matthew, we too know that weeds which are unchecked choke wheat and so must be kept under control, even if they cannot be eliminated completely.
I think this parable points us towards a church, or indeed a kingdom of all people, which is constantly and actively seeking transformation, constantly seeking positive action, and constantly seeking holiness. It is called to do this with wisdom, hope, joy, and love. Furthermore, the church is called to do this without believing that there is a single way of purity of thought or of action. In faith we are somehow to find a way towards an elusive but essential balance.
It is obvious that this one parable cannot say everything. I have already mentioned the parables in this part of Matthew’s gospel share common and overlapping themes. This is particularly so in the parable of the dragnet, where fish of every kind are caught: some are good, some are rotten, like saints and sinners. But unlike today’s parable, other parables in this chapter are not explained but left in the air. They are to do their work on us quietly. We can over-analyse them and fail to see their central challenges. Nevertheless, the gospel points us towards patience and tolerance and towards understanding that the eventual sorting out is to be left in the hands of God alone. As we reflect on these parables, we might also dwell on the real possibility that Matthew’s hearers have lost something of their first enthusiasm for the gospel and he thinks that they need a sharp reminder. We live in a time when we have been given a sharp reminder about our complacency, and our unpreparedness at so many levels for a pandemic which is shaking the foundations of how we live and care for one another everywhere. Covid-19 is a sharp reminder to us about the shortcomings of how we live. We have to do much urgent sorting out of our ways of life in the days, months and years ahead. As our collect says, may we do this sorting out in the faith that we shall eventually triumph in the power of Jesus’ victory. Amen.