|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
We continue our lessons from the parables of Matthew. As I noted last week, within Matthew's narrative, these parables answer a question raised in by the actions in ch. 12: "Why do people reject Jesus and enter into conflict with him?" (Jensen, Preaching Matthew's Gospel, p. 118)
Last week, the parabolic answer is that the seed sown by Jesus falls on different soils so some produce fruit and others don't. This week the emphasis is on the "enemy" (vv. 28, 39) or "evil one" (v. 38, see also vv. 19, 49) who produces faulty faith.
ANSWER 1: The one who sowed the weeds among the wheat while everyone was sleeping, defined as the devil (diabolos) in v. 39.
ANSWER 2: The slaves of the householder, who, thinking they would be doing what the owner wished, wanted to pull up the weeds. They don't appear in the explanation, but are replaced by the angels.
ANSWER 3: Mean parents who make their children go out and pull weeds in yards or gardens.
Answer 3 illustrations one misuse of this text. It does not present a universal truth for all situations. It should not be used by smart(-alecky) children -- not that I was ever like that -- as a reason not to pull weeds from the lawn or garden. It should not be used to excuse or do nothing about sinful and destructive people in the congregation. We need to remember the discipline section of Matthew 18:15-17. When one member of the church sins against another member, and does not repent, we are not to let the two "grow up together" until the "harvest". The unrepentant member is "to be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (v. 17). Jesus gives the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" to Peter (16:19). Jesus gives similar power and authority to the whole church when he says: "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (18:18). There is also that incident in 1 Corinthians 5 about removing someone from the fellowship. This is not a text that prohibits disciplining members by congregations or synods.
We also know from last week's parable that the presence of other plants in the field can choke and keep the good seed from producing the proper fruit. Sometimes -- if not most of the time -- proper weeding is necessary for the health and growth of the good plants. This weeding may be in society when we tell our children not to associate with "that" group of children. This weeding may be in congregations when disciplinary actions are necessary. This weeding may be within one's own self as the evil within is confronted and confessed and died to.
As we look at the other answers, perhaps we can discover the proper context and meaning for this parable -- even though some of us would like to use it as an excuse not to do yard work <g>.
Answer 1 is what the explanation in the second part of our text suggests by calling the "enemy" the devil (13:39). While one may talk about the devil as an evil spirit who sows bad seeds in the world and within congregations; one might also take the approach that diabolos literally means "slanderous," and then "the one who slanders" -- and that does not have to be limited to a supernatural being. It can mean "malicious talk or gossip". It is used this way in 1 Timothy 3:11. Taking this approach, one could talk about the evils of malicious talk in congregations -- the bad seeds that such gossip can sow.
At an installation service many years ago, the preacher rhetorically asked, "Which of the Ten Commandments is most often broken in congregations?" He answered, "No! Not the adultery one; but the one about bearing false witness against your neighbor. Listen to Luther's explanation: 'We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbors, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest ways.'" He emphasized the last part with his voice.
When congregational members talk about others in the church, what kind of language do they use? Do them defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest ways? Or is their talk more "diabolical"? Do they talk about "them"? Or do they talk about "us"?
The following is one of my favorite Jewish stories, which I have often used when the topic is about demons or evil spirits. It's from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York
The Evil Spirit once came dejected before God and wailed, "Almighty God -- I want you to know that I am bored -- bored to tears! I go around doing nothing all day long. There isn't a stitch of work for me to do!"
"I can't understand you," replied god. There's plenty of work to be done only you've got to have more initiative. Why don't you try to lead people into sin? That's your job!"
"Lead people into sin!" muttered the Evil Spirit contemptuously. "Why Lord, even before I can get a chance to say a blessed word to anyone he has already gone and sinned!" [p. 7]
I'm not sure that we need much demonic aid to cause crises in congregations. We do it pretty well by ourselves. However, once it's there, what should we do?
I think that the key to the parable lies with answer 2. The central problem in the parable is not the weeds and wheat, but the impatience of the slaves and they assumption that they knew exactly what their lord wished.
The actions of the slaves would have had worse consequences than those of the "enemy"! The sowing of the bad seeds probably decreased some of the wheat's fruit-bearing, but it didn't destroy the good wheat. It created an inconvenience for the owner; but even with the weeds in the field, the owner is still going to reap a good harvest. However, if the well-meaning slaves had pulled out the weeds as they wanted, they would have destroyed the good wheat. There would have been no fruit for their lord. In their eagerness to please their lord, they would have obliterated the whole harvest. The slaves could easily have become more destructive "enemies" than the "enemy"!
Often God's worst enemies are friends! An editorial by Bill McNabb in The Door some years ago briefly elaborated on this idea:
I had an old seminary professor who began and ended his apologetics lecture with one sentence: "You defend God like you defend a lion -- you get out of his way." God, it seems, has never had much trouble with his enemies -- it's his friends who give him fits. . . . The theologian Karl Rahner put it this way: "The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny Him with their lifestyles is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable." Perhaps the best defense of God would be to just keep our mouths shut and live like He told us to. The gospel would then have such power and attraction that we wouldn't have to worry about defending it.
Although the weeds among the wheat field is an issue in the parable, it is not a problem that we, God's servants, are going to solve -- especially if the field is defined as "the world" as v. 38 indicates, rather than just the church or a congregation as it is often interpreted. We will not remove all the evil from the world or even the church. Part of the problem in the parable is that when the plants are young, you can't tell these weeds apart from the wheat. Both the good and the bad look the same. Often we don't have the proper perspective or knowledge to determine who is good and who is bad. [Sometimes we do, then perhaps disciplinary actions may be necessary as in Mt 18.]
When the plants are older and differences can be seen, their roots are so intertwined, that the bad can't be pulled out without destroying the good. Many years ago I heard Johnny Carson utter this quote: "Choose your enemies carefully, because you become like them." It can be very easy to become intolerant with intolerant people, or angry at the people who are angry at us, or bigoted toward bigoted people. By seeking to destroy our enemies, we usually condemn ourselves because we have become just like them.
Speed Leas on a workshop on systems theory made this comment, "Fighting is enmeshment -- one can't differentiate self from the fight." The other person has hooked our reptilian brain, which knows two approaches -- fight or flight. At least from this theory, animosity between good and bad indicates that they are intertwined and reacting at a sub-human, irrational, reptilian level. Does this ever happen in congregations?
However, I don't think that the weeds and wheat present the deeper problem in the parable, which is indicated by impatience of the slaves. They think that they know what their lord wants; but their actions would be more destructive than the presence of the weeds. This parable, as do many others in Matthew, indicate that there will be a separation at some time in the future: weeds and wheat (13:30, 40-43), good and bad fish (13:47-50), sheep and goats (25:31-46), but this "harvest" takes place on God's time-table not ours. The final judgment is God's, not ours. In this parable, the proper response of God's slaves is to patiently wait -- or to use another Matthean phrase: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (7:1-2). [NOTE that ch. 7 goes on with instructions about how one might remove the speck from our neighbor's eye. Again it is not a universal truth that there should be absolutely no judging.]
As I was first working on this text, I was also reading The Pastor's Survival Manual, by Kenneth Alan Moe (The Alban Institute, 1995). The following paragraphs about workaholics seems to describe the servant in the parable -- as well as many pastors and some parishioners.
Workaholics harm themselves and others by caving in to the persistent urge to do something, take action, or control events when the opposite is needed. Workaholics are reluctant to let matters unfold naturally, so they rush in to fill the perceived void of inactivity with anything that will keep themselves busy and events churning.
As a result, problems often grow larger because workaholics cannot leave them alone. Situations get worse because of irritation from their constant tinkering, from forcing premature activity, or from spending too much time with small matters, thereby granting them greater importance. [p. 63]
Probably most of us could cite examples of congregations or denominations being torn apart by a small group of members crusading to purify the church. Usually such people have the best of intentions. They are slaves of God. They are doing what they believe God wishes. They are going to help God eliminate the sin in the church or in the world. The Pharisees in Jesus' day sought to be good "weeders". They considered Jesus and his group as some of the weeds. Saul consented to the stoning of Stephen. It's not always easy to distinguish between the wheat and the weeds. The "weeders" can easily make the wrong judgments.
The "weeders" judgmental attitude towards others is a prime indication that their thoughts and actions have been sown by the "enemy" rather than the gracious God. Jesus did not weed out Judas from the twelve, even though, according to some accounts, Jesus knew about the upcoming betrayal before it occurred. Jesus did not weed out Peter from the twelve, even though he knew about his upcoming denials. Jesus knew that all the disciples would run away -- they were all "bad" followers. They weren't producing the fruit that was expected -- but he did not weed them out of the fellowship. If Jesus were to weed out all the imperfections, who would be left?
Wally Armbruster in Noodles Du Jour raises this question: "Is a weed a flower that's the victim of prejudice? (Does God think more of a rose than he does of crab grass?) Are you sure?" Could that quote apply to this parable? To the way we treat other people?
In a sermon on this text I used this story.
A young child asks her father, "Why don't you go to church?"
He replies, "Because the church is full of hypocrites."
"What's a hypocrite?" she asks.
He thought for a moment and answered, "A hypocrite says one thing and does something else."
"That sounds like you, Daddy!" She replied.
"I'm no hypocrite!" He responded.
"Yes, you are," she said. "You say that going to church is important. You say that I have to go to church, but then you don't go. You say one thing and do another. Doesn't that make you a hypocrite?"
For a slightly different illustration of making things worse by trying to fix them, I'm using From Stuck to Unstuck: Overcoming Congregational Impasse, by Kenneth a. Halstead. He gives this definition of "stuckness":
Essentially, stuckness is trying to solve difficulties of living and working together in community in ways (usually the same old ways) that make things worse by creating self-reinforcing, vicious circles. The problem may get worse right away (when a fight escalates) or seem to improve at first and get worse later (when we try to cover up and ignore pain, only to experience symptoms of repressed pain later). In either case, when things get worse, more of the original solution is tried, and the cycle continues. [p. 5]
Later he quotes from another source a much simpler definition and cure: "The (attempted) solution is the problem!" so we have to "Do something different!" [p. 19]
The "something different" is presented later:
To become new-paradigm churches, our congregations need to replace control and competition for control with the image of cooperation. Domination should be replaced by mutual empowerment, and caretaking should give way to trustful, mutual caring. Concepts that serve cooperation, mutual empowerment, and trustful caring should be embraced. [p. 22]
This may relate to our parable if we look at the servants as people who are well-meaning, who have the best of intentions, but want to be in control. Note that they are not the ones who will bring in the harvest. While it can be extraordinarily frustration to sit back and wait; to invest time in prayer and reflection -- and do nothing -- sometimes that's what's necessary. Often we may be mistaken about who are the wheat and who are the weeds -- who are the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one.
It has been my experience and I believe that it is a message from this parable, that God's worst enemies often assume that they are God's friends -- doing God's work. Proper servants of God can't assume that they always know God's wishes. Discerning God's will not only involves Bible Study and prayer, but the wisdom of the community. When disciplinary actions are needed as a result of sin, it quickly moves beyond individuals to "two or three" and then to the church. However, in The Pastor's Survival Manual, by Kenneth Alan Moe, he turns a typical understand of the "actives" and "inactives" upside down.
In any given congregation, certain people will drift away from active participation for a variety of motives. Usually they depart quietly. In congregations characterized by addiction or codependence, a significant proportion of the inactives will be the mentally healthiest and spiritually most mature people in the congregation. To avoid being caught up in sick systems, they absent themselves. They drop out to save themselves, regardless of the source of dysfunction. That is, healthy people leave their congregations when their pastors are addicts or codependents and also when significant numbers of board members and other lay leaders are addicts or codependents. 
It may be impossible for us to distinguish the weeds from the wheat; or the children of the kingdom from the children of the evil one. I'm thinking that I may need to visit more of our inactive members. Perhaps by judging them to be "weeds" and by seeking to "weed" them out, we may becoming God's worst enemies; and destroy the fruit that we could be producing in the future.
The Son of Man will send angels to do the gathering at the end of the age, rather than his slaves prior to that time; thus, I believe, that it is not our job to separate the "children of the kingdom" from the "children of the evil one" during our stay on earth.
I notice that the angels collect "out of his kingdom". Earlier the field was defined as "the world" (kosmos, v. 38). Does Jesus/Matthew intend us to think that "his kingdom" is the same as "the world," or, as I've discovered in other passages, there is a greater judgment for those on the inside, who don't measure up in some way.
Those that are gathered for punishment are defined as "all causes of sin" and "all evildoers" (NRSV). These need further comments.
"causes of sin" is skandala. This word originally referred to a trap -- most likely the type held up by a stick; then, metaphorically, to something that causes a person to be trapped, caught, be stuck where they don't want to be -- that is something that was offensive to them. Finally, came to refer to things that tempted others to stray or sin. The word is used three times in Matthew (once in Luke and no occurrences in Mark or John).
On one hand, especially with the verb, skandalizo, there is the sense that such things have to be removed, e.g., if a part of your body causes you to sin, remove it (5:29, 30; 18:6, 8, 9). The noun is used three times in 18:7 to refer to the dangers of being a cause of sin to others.
Besides seeing "causes of sin" as people within the community who are leading others astray, they could also be within each individual -- parts of us that remain under the power of sin and continually tempt us to stray away from the faithful life. The parable suggests that the day will come will all of that will be destroyed. Then, we, as truly and fully righteous will shine like the sun. To use Luther's terms, presently we are simultaneous sinner and saint; but the day will come with the "sinner" part will be removed and destroy. All that will be left is the saintly part.
The other use of the noun presents an interesting problem. In 16:23 Jesus turns and says to Peter: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Similarly, the verb is used of the disciples in 26:31: "Then Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'
Peter and the disciples are "causes of sin," but will they be gathered and thrown into the blazing furnace?
Perhaps we can say that they deserve that kind of punishment, but by God's grace they don't receive it.
"all evilders" is more literally "the ones doing lawlessness". They are those living as though there were no law. Matthew has made it clear that Jesus came to fulfill the law (5:17-18) not to do away with it. (I might phrase it, "He came to restore the law to its proper uses.") My hunch is that there may have been some within Matthew's community who proclaimed that the law no longer applied to them, and lived without it. For Matthew, "lawlessness" is not just outward acts, but one can be "lawless" inwardly (23:28), perhaps not inwardly wanting to obey the law, but putting on an outward show of obedience.
The images of "furnace of fire" and "weeping and gnashing of teeth" seem to be Matthian. Only Matthew uses "furnace" (kaminos) as a picture of punishment (13:42, 50). (Its other uses are Rev 1:15; 9:2).
It is used often in the OT as a picture of refinement (Is 48:10; Sir 2:5; 27:5; 31:26) -- so this text could be interpreted as refining those who are in the kingdom. They are purged of all the sins and lawlessness that is within them through the fires of God's judgment.
The phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" occurs six times in Matthew (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30) and once in Luke (13:28), and no where else in the NT. Thus, it seems to be a strong emphasis in Matthew.
What I find interesting about Matthew's six uses is that those who will weep and gnash their teeth, all seem to have been "insiders"!
8:12 it is the "heirs of the kingdom" (probably Jews vs. many from east and west)
13:42 some from "out of his kingdom"
13:50 evil from righteous, but both are "caught in the same net"
22:13 someone at the wedding banquet, but not wearing the wedding robe
24:51 wicked slave (as a slave, he was part of the household)
25:30 worthless slave (as a slave, he was part of the household)
It seems to me that this harsh judgment is uttered against those within the community of faith, but who fail to bear the proper fruit of living in Christ. As was true in the OT, God's harshest judgments were pronounced against his own people. So, too, Matthew does in his gospel.
In a sense, we can't go looking out and declare those people to be the ones who will burn in the furnace of fire; but we need to look in -- probably at ourselves, and see if we might be a cause of sin, if we may be ignoring the law, if are being wicked towards others, or failing to invest the wealth God has given us, etc.
I think that the example of Peter as a "cause for stumbling" shows us that even if we find such wickedness within, there is grace to be found with the savior. As such, these verses seem to fall under the second use of the law -- they reveal to us our sins and God's harsh judgment against them. The result of this is either turning to Christ to be saved from that judgment, or facing it on our own.
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