‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field.’ Matthew 13:24
Did you ever try to imagine what the parables meant for those to whom they were told? Did you ever ask how important these words were for those who had first-hand knowledge of the things Jesus used as examples in his teaching? The words would have had far more force for those who heard them for the first time: it was Jesus who was speaking and the listeners would have had direct experience, or would have seen around them in their everyday lives, the things about which Jesus talked.
As he tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds, or, as we sing about it in the harvest hymn, “Come, ye thankful people, come”, the wheat and the tares, how did his listeners react? What did they believe it said to them?
In Saint Matthew Chapter 13 Verse 24, Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field”. It conjures, for us, pictures of fine fields in good countryside being sown in the autumn or the spring; the wheat or barley appearing as green shoots and growing into stalks; the grain in the ears being filled out and ripening in good sunshine and gentle rain. Our pictures are far from the reality that Jesus describes.
Sowing a field with wheat was an experience altogether different from what it would be today. It was hard work. Hands would have been calloused from the many hours of preparation; backs would have been sore from the manual labour of agricultural work in times before any machine existed; bodies would have been tired and weary. After the sowing there would have been a sense of relief the task had been completed and prayers said for a good yield, for seed was something precious and bad harvests could leave people in absolute poverty. Exhausted after the hours in the fields and relieved that the task was complete, the sower sleeps well that night.
Verse 25 tells us, “while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away”. Jesus’ listeners knew how much work had gone into sowing a field and would have known how much damage the weeds could cause. The tares were darnel, a weed that looks identical to wheat, until it reaches full size and produces no ear of grain. The sowing of darnel seed was not just an act of mischief, it was a deliberate attempt to cause hurt to the sower, to destroy his crop. The listeners would have felt anger towards the enemy; farm work was hard enough without malicious attacks.
In Verse 26, we read, “So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well”, it is only when the wheat has reached its full growth that the darnel is identified as a weed; only when it is too late to do anything that it becomes apparent that the owner has been under attack. The servants are mystified as to what has happened, they go to the farmer and ask, in Verse 27, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” They know that this is not the way that things should be, that this is not the proper return for all the labour that had gone into preparing the field and sowing the seed.
How would the people to whom Jesus told the story have reacted to a tale of unpunished wrongdoing? The owner in the parable realizes that there is nothing to be done, “An enemy has done this”, he declares. The servants volunteer to go to pull up the darnel, but the owner knows that this would cause severe damage to the crop. He tells them, in Verses 29-30, “‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
For someone who worked the land, someone whose livelihood depended on a good yield, this was a provocative story, for there is no suggestion that the enemy was called to account, how could the kingdom of heaven be compared to such a field? For the disciples, it must have seemed a confusing story, was Jesus saying that someone could carry out an injustice and get away with it? The disciples want clarification, what was it that Jesus was saying? In Verse 36, we read, “Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” They are troubled by the story they have been told, how did it compare with the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus’ explanation must have been even more troubling. “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom”, he tells them in Verses 37-38; that part would have been more easily understood. The more disturbing part comes in Verses 38-39, “the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.”
To people who regarded themselves as part of the “elect”, to people who saw membership of a particular tradition as the way of “salvation”, the idea that the weeds were identical to the wheat would have been worrying, how would one tell between them?
If one had asked Jesus’ listeners how one could tell between the wheat and the tares, how one would know what was the true crop and what was weeds, they would have answered straightaway, “by the grain they yield”.
Our response to Jesus is what shows whether we are wheat or weeds, and, Jesus warns, only at the end will it become clear who are the wheat and who are the tares. He describes a final judgement, a final separation in Verses 39-42, “the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
What impact would Jesus’ words have had upon the disciples? Wouldn’t they have gone away and pondered what this might mean for them? Wouldn’t they have realized that their own response to Jesus was far more important than their upbringing, or their tradition, or their religious practices?
What impact do Jesus’ words have upon us? Do we ever look at ourselves and ask what yield our own life is producing? Do we ever ask how we might be seen at that final harvest?
“Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” says Jesus in Verse 43, “Let anyone with ears listen!” He couldn’t speak much more plainly.