TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

06 September 2017

The Wheat and Weeds story.

How things’re gonna be n this world till the End.

Matthew 13.24-30, 13.36-43

Another of Jesus’s parables about agriculture. Doesn’t appear anywhere else but Matthew, and it happened right after Jesus explained the Four Seeds story. Mt 13.18-23 Historically Christians have used it as a parable of the End Times.

Matthew 13.24-30 KWL
24 Jesus set another parable before them, telling them, “Heaven’s kingdom
compares to a person planting good seeds in his field.
25 During the person’s sleep, his enemy came and planted weeds in the middle of the wheat.
He went away. 26 When the stalks sprouted and grew fruit, the weeds also appeared.
27 Approaching, the householder’s slaves told him, ‘Sir, didn’t you plant good seed in your field?
So where have weeds come from?’
28 The master told them, ‘An enemy—a person did this.’
The slaves told him, ‘So do you want us to go off and pluck them?’
29 The master said, ‘No, never. Plucking the weeds can uproot the wheat with them.
30 Leave them both to grow together till the harvest.
At harvest time, tell the harvesters, “First pluck the weeds. Tie them in bundles for burning them up.
Gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ”

Although I’m gonna point out something they tend to skip: When the apostles described the End, Jesus first plucks his Christians and gathers us into his kingdom. Then the rest of the world gets dealt with. But in the Wheat and Weeds story, the master orders the weeds plucked first. So, the story’s timeline and the typical End Times timelines don’t sync up. Hmmm.

Well, I’ll leave you to worry about that, and talk botany.


Left, vetch. Right, darnel.

The story’s also called the Wheat and Tares story. Wheat is how sítos tends to be translated, though the word can also mean barley. Tares is the old-timey word for vetch (Vicia sativa), a type of weed which grows all over the planet. Looks like grain till it starts growing leaves and flowers. It’s also kinda toxic to humans, although bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) is edible, and sometimes the poor ate it in medieval Europe. And fava beans (Vicia faba) are used in all sorts of dishes.

However, vetch is what John Wycliffe imagined zizánion meant, ’cause of what he knew about English agriculture. Later English translations, like the Geneva Bible and King James Version, followed his lead. But Jesus isn’t English: Which plant might middle easterners have figured zizánia consists of? And most historians figure it’s darnel ryegrass (Lolium temulentum, which the Jews called zonín), another weed which grows everywhere, which looks just like wheat… till the seeds appear.

Just like Jesus described, darnel was an irritant to farmers, who had to wait till harvest time to sort out which was which. Most of ’em did as Jesus described his householder advising: Wait till harvest, then pluck and burn the darnel, lest their seeds infest a future crop. Which they did anyway, ’cause seeds get loose.

The kingdom, Jesus said, is like this. I leave it to the now-worried “prophecy scholars” as to how close a match it is.

Wheat, weeds, the Law, and the Pharisees.

Here’s another twist on the story Christians tend to skip: There’s a command in the Law forbidding the Hebrews from mixing certain different things up. Can’t plant different grains in the same field. Nor breed mules out of different animals, nor wear mixed fabrics. God didn’t want the Hebrews experimenting with nature. (What he thinks of us experimenting with nature, I won’t speculate.)

Leviticus 19.19 KWL
“Watch my decrees. Don’t mate your cattle to different animals.
In your field, don’t plant different plants.
Different clothing, mixed fabric: Don’t put it on you.”

So this enemy, sowing weeds in the field, was likely hoping the man was a strict Pharisee, who wouldn’t brook any violation of the Law whatsoever, and would have to pluck all the weeds out of his field. That, or give up and burn down the whole crop as unlawful.

Well, there were strict Pharisees, and there are loose Pharisees. Some of ’em taught darnel, though a weed only good for animal fodder, was close enough to wheat to actually count as wheat. In the Mishna, tractate Kilyaim/“Differences,” the Pharisees indicated various things they were okay with growing together, Leviticus notwithstanding.

Kilayim 1.1 KWL
A Wheat and darnel B aren’t different.
C Barley and oats, spelt and rye, beans and garbanzos, grasspeas and sweetpeas,
white beans and kidney beans: D Aren’t different, one from the other.

Rabbi Yehuda insisted they are so different, Kilayim 1.2 but he didn’t win this particular debate. For that, you gotta go to a different tractate, Terumot/“Offerings,” which realized it’s probably a bad idea to swap darnel for wheat in your grain offerings. After all, priests eat some of these offerings.

Terumot 2.6 KWL
A They should put aside olives for oil for offering; B not olives for canning.
C Unboiled wine for offering instead of boiled, D not boiled for unboiled.
3 This is the rule F for anything considered different from others.
No putting aside offerings from one instead of the other, not from the good instead of the bad.
G Anything not considered different from others:
One can put aside offerings from the good instead of the bad—not from bad instead of good.
H If one puts aside an offering from the bad and replaces it with good,
what one put aside is a valid offering.
I Except for darnel instead of wheat. J It’s not a food.
K And gourds and cucumbers are all the same thing, L though R. Yehudah says they’re two things.

So wait: They’re the same thing in Kilayim, but different in Terumot. Now what? Well, the Pharisees were permitted to pick ’n choose from the Mishna. (Just like Christians pick ’n choose from the bible. Oh wait, was I supposed to admit that? Oh well.) Basically if it was convenient to consider ’em the same for the sake of agriculture, go ahead; but you’d better not feed the LORD’s priests darnel when it’s offering time.

Anyway, depending on how strict the Pharisees were in Jesus’s area, they’d either shrug off this parable—“Yeah, makes sense to let ’em grow together and sort ’em out later”—or be horribly outraged at the compromise.

And y’know, depending on how strict the Christians are in our area, sometimes they treat it precisely the same way. ’Cause if (as Jesus will explain below) the wheat are Christians, and the weeds pagans, or even the not-so-devout, some of us are rather blasé about them being mixed among us. And some of us are downright furious about it, and want ’em gone.

Jesus’s interpretation.

That comes a few verses later, after Jesus told the Mustard Seed story, the Yeast in Flour story, and Matthew explained how parables fulfill prophecy. Mt 13.31-35 Then this happened:

Matthew 13.36-43 KWL
36 Then Jesus went into the house, dismissing the crowds.
His students came to him, saying, “Interpret the parable of weeds in the field for us.”
37 In reply Jesus said, “The one planting good seed is the Son of Man.
38 The field is the world. This good seed is the kingdom’s children.
The weeds are the evil one’s children. 39 The enemy who planted them is the devil.
The harvest is the end of this age. The reapers are angels.
40 So same as they gather the weeds, and fire burns them up, likewise in the end of the age.
41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they’ll gather from their kingdoms all the offenders,
all those who do lawless things, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace.
There will be weeping and teeth-grinding.
43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.
One who has ears: Listen!”

It’s not that complicated a parable, but the students likely wanted to make sure they understood it correctly. Which may be why Jesus didn’t repeat his bit about, “You haven’t interpreted this parable? How will you interpret any of the parables?” Mk 4.13 KWL Then, the kids weren’t using their heads. By this point, they were used to their Master teaching in parables, were used to tackling an interpretation or two, were getting the hang of it. Or at least that’s what I optimistically wanna read into it. Jesus didn’t pick dunces as students.

But some things did need clarification. Like who the enemy is. That’d be the devil. Mt 13.39 Knowing humans, we’re way too likely to assume all sorts of other things are the enemy, and use this parable to attack them: “Stop planting weeds in our churches!” We’re a little too quick to demonize our opposition. So Jesus keeps our eyes on the true opposition: The devil wants to undermine the kingdom. It’s not gonna succeed, but it, not fellow humans, is what we need to be fighting.

And the field is the world. Not just the Israeli people. Nor just the church; an error John Calvin kept insisting upon in his commentaries:

[A]nd though Christ afterwards adds that “the field is the world,” yet he undoubtedly intended to apply this designation, in a peculiar manner, to the Church, about which he had commenced the discourse. At Mt 13.24-43

When “God so loved the world,” Jn 3.16 Calvin imagined God so loved his church; when Jesus paid for the world’s sins, 1Jn 2.2 Calvin insisted it was only the church’s sins. He was so insistent God doesn’t want to save everybody, he perpetuated this defect throughout his writings. Calvinists still read that idea into this story. But enough about them.

This idea of the kingdom extending beyond Israel’s borders was, at the time, radical and new. The Pharisees never taught the kingdom is for all; they figured it was for them, and maybe gentiles would benefit by it. Jesus fully intended to incorporate gentiles into it, as they now do. (So much so, some of us gentiles wonder whether Jews fit into it. Of course they do.) Now, since there were Jews all over the Roman Empire, it’s easy to miss this idea. Don’t. Jesus doesn’t intend us to. The world is always more inclusive than we imagine.

This is not a parable about identifying these weeds among us, and converting ’em into Christians. There are other parables which suggest that idea, like the Yeast in Flour story. Mt 13.33 This one’s about the fact we live in a world with a mixture of Christians and pagans in it—and that’s how things will be till the End.

And, contrary to the thinking of various Christians throughout history, including today, we’re not to purge the pagans from among us. Leave them be. If we’re worried about their evil influences, we need to work on resisting temptation. Yeah, get the cops involved when they break the law. But otherwise be salt and light to them, Mt 5.13-15 and leave the reaping to the reapers.