First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 5

William Loader

Pentecost 5: 17 July Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The parable of the weeds appears only in Matthew's gospel. Matthew gives it similar treatment to the way Mark (and, following Mark, he) has treated the parable of the sower, which we considered last week. He first tells the parable (13:24-30; cf. 13:3-9) and then, after a space, has Jesus give the interpretation privately to the disciples (13:36-43; cf. 13:18-23). Matthew has omitted Mark's parable about the seed growing secretly (4:26-29). This parable has effectively replaced it.

Like the parable of the sower, the parable of the weeds may have functioned in various ways at different stages of its transmission. Some elements which receive emphasis in the parable, for instance, receive almost no emphasis in the interpretation. The interpretation is unlikely to have accompanied the parable from the beginning, but it testifies to creative use of the story.

The striking aspect of the parable is the skulduggery. The parable of the sower portrayed normal sowing operations and an abnormal harvest. This parable describes normal sowing but then an act of subversion. Such behaviour may have been known. Here in the parable it suggests all is not rosy with the kingdom of God. There is an enemy.

A sense that there is an enemy marks many societies, religious and otherwise. It is almost as though we need an enemy, an other, against whom to define ourselves. This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival. What will happen to the stock exchange if the armaments industry folds! A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning. There's 'them' and there's 'us'. The simpler, the better. This is the stuff of prejudice. Religion is exploited to hold the prejudices in place. This parable and its interpretation are well suited to serve such ends. Without some informed exposition they are bound to do so.

The obverse of such reflections is that we are equally naive if we view reality through rose tinted spectacles. A wishy-washy tolerance which can turn a blind eye to injustice and oppression, to exploitation and destructiveness, may sometimes masquerade as peace and harmony and its exponents become obsessed with inner stillness and survival, but this has just as little to do with the message Jesus preached. The compassion which is characteristic of the kingdom calls us to look injustice in the face and to feel the pain, to recognise the systems (the other kingdoms) which sustain inequality and exploitation, and to take a stand beside the marginalised. It does mean recognising what is the enemy of love. The ancient world personalised this and spoke of the devil and demons. The reality they spoke of is not to be passed by, even if for most of us it is no longer meaningful to employ the mythology which they used to describe it. That way of identifying evil has the disadvantage of identifying the reality at one remove from where it presents itself and can easily lead to the simplistic analyses mentioned above.

The other element which receives unusual attention in the parable is the issue of what to do with the weeds before the harvest. It is overlooked in the interpretation, but at some stage it must have been a key element in the parable and how it was being used. What is this weeding which should be avoided? It might refer to the weeding which racked many other Jewish movements of the time, where the holy pounced on the unholy in their ranks and developed strict boundaries with which to define holiness. Its effect was alienation. It was like the execution of judgement, at least the passing of sentence, before the time. In its extreme form it was violent and military, sanctioned by religious nationalist fervour, nourished by scriptural epics. Other times it was verbal and social abuse. Unfortunately Christian expositions often identified this as Jewish or Pharisaic (simplistic categories again!) and did the same to them with terrible consequences in history. There were such tendencies and they are certainly alive today in churches.

The parable appears to be making a statement against such attempts. Let God deal with the alleged weediness of others! Deal inclusively. This does not mean avoiding challenge and confrontation, but it does mean: never ceasing to have compassion, never writing people off. We see it in Matthew's approach throughout the gospel, which is very confronting. Even the advice on discipline in 18:15-18 is surrounded by the plea that the straying sheep not be abandoned (18:12-14) and that sins be forgiven 77 times (18:21-22). For very practical reasons we also acknowledge we cannot really know all that is going on in another human being. We have no right to act as if we do. 'Judge/condemn not!' (7:1).

The interpretation (13:36-43) is one of the best examples of allegorical interpretation in the New Testament, so much so that we can see in it a coded description of the judgement day as commonly understood in apocalyptic literature of the time. The imagery echoes John the Baptist's preaching (3:10). Matthew makes much of the judgement day and uses it to seek to motivate his hearers. Beyond the colourful imagery it declares that we will all be accountable before God. We need to be in touch with reality now and then. Matthew's message is that if we face up to reality now we will be able to face up to it in the future. In this sentence replace 'reality' with 'God' - and blur them into the identity they have!

Such pictures of judgement may also be the inspiration for preaching fear and threat. In such approaches an image of God emerges who is in the end unforgiving and vengeful. A certain logic follows: it is a matter only of timing. God's love and compassion is only interim. Really, in the end, God will write people off, cease loving. 'But he has to keep to his rules' becomes the rationale and a god emerges for whom rules matter more than people. Where only the timing is a factor and love is only temporary, then Jesus becomes an exception to God's true nature (or, at worst, a ploy to appease him by taking our punishment). It is then not surprising that timing is soon ignored and people feel justified already in the present in acts of righteous indignation, in burning and writing people off, even in physical, emotional and social abuse. It is why Christians, feeding on these aspects of their tradition, have perpetuated terrible atrocities and abuses, and why we find Christians prepared to call for capital punishment and measures against fellow citizens which ignore possibilities for change. Root out the weeds! They just want to be the way their god is. Christians, of course, have no monopoly on religious sanction of violence.

Whoever added the interpretation was making an important point about ultimate accountability, but also created the potential for the earlier point of the parable to be given less attention than it deserves: don't weed! Never uproot people in your mind or attitude by treating them as no longer of any worth!

Epistle: Pentecost 5: 17 July  Romans 8:12-25

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