Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Sinners, Saints, and the Mercy of God

The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30)


"Parable of the Enemy Sowing Tares." Unknown, 1894.
 24He put another parable before them, saying, (A) "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds[a] among the wheat and went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27And the servants[b] of the master of the house came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?' 28He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' So the servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29But he said,(B) 'No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers,(C) Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

  1. Matthew 13:25 Probably darnel, a wheat-like weed
  2. Matthew 13:27 Greek bondservants; also verse 28
Cross references:
  1. Matthew 13:24 : Matthew 13:37-42; Mark 4:26-29
  2. Matthew 13:29 : 1 Cor 4:5
  3. Matthew 13:30 : Matthew 3:12
Even the name by which this story has come to be known could color the way we understand this particular parable of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven.  But the focus of the story doesn't have to be the weeds which have grown up among the wheat in the field.  The appearance of the weeds certainly upsets the servants of the master of the house, who offer to immediately go out into the field and pull them all up as a service to their master.  But we notice that the master himself is not upset, nor does he even seem surprised.  He also apparently knows the source of the weed seed, and in his wisdom, is content to let the weeds grow up among the wheat until harvest time.

We note that the enemy mentioned had come and sowed weeds among the wheat while the master's servants were sleeping. We also note that the master does not chide his servants for sleeping.  It was not as though they had been "sleeping on the job". By contrast, perhaps the master's own lack of surprise, and in fact, what would seem to be his full knowledge of how the weeds came to be there, would indicate that he himself had witnessed exactly what had taken place; that the master in this parable is none other than "He who watches over Israel" and the One who "will neither slumber nor sleep" (Ps. 121:4). Could this mean that the master then knowingly allowed the weeds to be sown amidst his wheat? Perhaps the master of the house has a plan of which no one else knows.

What do the wheat and the weeds then represent in this parable about the Kingdom of Heaven? Are we to understand them simply as sinners and saints, who at the time of the harvest will either be punished or rewarded for their deeds? Yet, if the weeds definitively represent sinners and the wheat saints, then doesn't that seem to say that sinners cannot repent and become saints, and saints cannot before the end of their lives turn into unrepentant sinners, ultimately rejecting the Lord? Such an interpretation would seem to simultaneously favor two Calvinist doctrines:  first, of predetermination; that is, that God only desires the salvation of the elect, and then, of "once saved always saved." But rightly knowing that we are each endowed by our God with free will, we clearly see the error in these doctrines.  Each soul is free to ultimately either choose or reject salvation.  Sanctification is also a process worked over time by grace with our cooperation, not an immediately complete, once-and-for-all event performed by God alone and apart from our will.

Clearly, the master of the house knows that in trying to pull up the weeds from among the wheat, some of the wheat might be pulled up as well before it has matured. If heaven were to rain down judgment upon the sinner while he yet lives, such judgment could also take the life of his neighbor the just man. Perhaps, then, there is much more to the wisdom of the master than meets the eye. Letting both the weeds and the wheat grow up together until harvest time is a decision that he alone has made, and which no one else seems to understand or appreciate. Perhaps, then, only the master knows, understands and can see that it will only be at harvest time-- at the time of judgment-- when it will be ultimately known which plants bear grains of wheat and which are truly weeds; which are saints and which are sinners; whether a soul has finally persevered or has at the moment of death despaired and rejected God, in spite of his continual call to repentance and offer of mercy. The parable then seems to serve as a reminder to us that the Lord God is the only just judge.

The focus and purpose of this parable then, would seem to be, not to remind us once again of the four last things-- death, judgment, heaven and hell-- but rather to reveal to us in a new way the great merciful heart of our Heavenly Father. While others would judge our eternal destinies still in the midst of our lives, the Father is infinitely patient with us.  Further, if we are sinners, he gives us the gift of saints to live among us, to serve as living examples of what we can be if we would only turn to Him. If we are humble and obedient, we might be living holy lives, perhaps with apparent sinners living among us, for whom we should constantly pray as well as remember that we are only what we are ultimately by the grace of God.

Finally, how are we to understand what happens at the time of harvest, where the weeds are bound into bundles to be burned, with the wheat gathered into the master's barn? When something is burned, all of the moisture, all of the life and potential life, is removed from it, and ultimately, it is reduced to dust, and therefore worthless. It is also no longer recognizable as what it was before it was burned.  When one burns a plant after it is harvested, the ultimate intention is to kill its seeds, so that it might not further spread or reproduce. But as for the wheat, which the master will gather into his barn, the grain will either be ground into flour or it will be sown in the ground again.

This parable of the weeds-- that might yet be wheat-- seems to echo the beautiful words of Isaiah 55, of God's free offer of mercy, calling the sinner to repentance, so that he might yet know the wonderful compassion of the Lord-- and live.

9“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
         So are My ways higher than your ways
         And My thoughts than your thoughts.

10“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
         And do not return there without watering the earth
         And making it bear and sprout,
         And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;

11So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
         It will not return to Me empty,
         Without accomplishing what I desire,
         And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

12“For you will go out with joy
         And be led forth with peace;
         The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,
         And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

13“Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up,
         And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up,
         And it will be a memorial to the LORD,
         For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.”