Proper 11 • Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43 • July 17, 2011
By Travis J. Scholl
Consider this act two in the grand dramatic entrance of the parables into the Gospel of Matthew and the Matthean lectionary, the second of three consecutive readings of Matthew 13’s “parables of the kingdom.” The lectionary divisions essentially follow what exegetes have found to be the triadic pattern of the chapter (for example, Davies and Allison, Matthew 8–18, 370–372).
And there is great drama here amid the rising tensions between the crowds, the disciples, and Jesus. Coming on the heels of Jesus’s redefinition of his human family (“whoever does the will of my Father . . .” [12:46–50]); Jesus has made a radical turn. After chapters of straightforward teaching (most notably in the Sermon on the Mount), he has begun to speak in the mysteries and paradoxes of parable (13:3, from last week’s pericope). Within the context of Matthew, it is no small wonder that the disciples quickly and repeatedly ask the question that is on everyone’s mind: “Explain to us . . .” (13:36, cf. 13:10, 34).
Davies and Allison suggest that this shift in Matthew corresponds to the rise in conflict, that the turn to parable is in answer to the question, “Why has the good news of the kingdom engendered so much opposition?”1 This particular question helps explain the content of both the parable of the sower and, perhaps even more so, the parable of the wheat and weeds. But it also helps us understand the pedagogical shift in Jesus’s teaching and ministry. The mystery and narrative ambiguity of the parables matches the mystery and ambiguity of the rising narrative tension.
Perhaps a harder question, though, is a homiletical one. Is there a way that we can emulate the same sense of mystery and tension that must have been profound among the parables’ first hearers? David Schmitt provides some insights (along with Jeff Gibbs and Ron Rall) in the video podcast of preaching Matthew at ConcordiaTheology.org, particularly in part 2 of that discussion.
But perhaps we’re not all that different from the disciples. They find the parabolic ambiguity between sign and meaning unbearable. So they ask for a straightforward interpretation. If this pattern between story and interpretation echoes the Hebrew mashal-nimshal, then we find ourselves caught in the same age-old tension. In that sense, what might it look like to preach the sermon in between the first half of the reading (the parable) and the second (its interpretation)? The sermon’s placement itself could heighten the tension, the suspense, between the parable and its meaning.
Of course, when the disciples ask the question, Jesus obliges with a straightforward answer. Just like last week, the analogies between the sower, the field, the seed, the weeds, et al, fit. We can make sense of that.
And indeed, this parable is an apropos follow up to the parable of the sower. Matter of fact, in the parlance of Hollywood, we might call it its sequel. Just because the seed has fallen on good soil doesn’t now mean life is all good. This makes for a poignant metaphorical theodicy, one that perhaps any farmer or gardener can relate to. The evil things of this earth can be so intertwined with the good things of this earth that to uproot one would uproot the other. Thus, we endure hardship, letting “both of them grow together until the harvest” (v. 30). Anticipating this harvest of the Son of Man is what fuels our sense of justice in the face of evil here and now.
This makes the metaphorical theodicy eschatological. The reign of God is pushing us forward to the harvest of reckoning and justice at the end of time. In this sense, Jesus seems to point us to the conclusion that any theodicy must at some point also be eschatology.
But that doesn’t make the question of how to live now as fruit-bearing wheat in a weed-infested world any easier to answer. We persevere. But perhaps our deepest comfort is in knowing that the farmer never sows seed one at a time. The Son of Man sows a whole field of wheat, so that each individual stalk can lean on another when the weeds bear down. We persevere alongside others who are persevering alongside us. And the Son of Man waters us in baptismal grace each and every day. We persevere in baptismal community, together bearing witness to little harvests of justice that anticipate the great harvest, when we will all shine like the sun.
1 W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 8–18, vol. 2, International Critical Commentary (New York: T&T Clark, 1991), 374.