This parable of weeds and wheat, a parable unique to Matthew’s gospel, has a long history of interpretation from the pulpit in American religion. Much of it is overtly self-congratulatory, encouraging faith leaders and congregations to uncritically self-identify as faithful stalks of wheat – to say, in the words of Jeremiah, “We are safe!” The course of action in the Christian life then becomes simply to wait for the harvest, but in a way that presumes to know how the story will end. In the meantime, presuming to identify all the weeds in the neighborhood seems to become a common pastime. In this country, it is hard to overestimate the damage such interpretation of the Gospel is causing between Christians and atheists in particular. Indeed, many people my age or younger who identify with no faith tradition and who know little about Christianity are unlikely to take an interest if they perceive Christians to be self-righteously, obsessively concerned with the behavior of others. If you’ve already been identified as a weed – or have close friends who are weeds – is joining the “wheat” really all that appealing?
Another strand of preaching on this parable encourages outright fear and uncertainty about one’s own status as a stalk of wheat or a condemned weed. While this may discourage Christian self-congratulation, it tends to inflict a particular form of psychological trauma, especially upon children. The question of whether one was one of the “elect” or one of the “reprobate” frightened Puritan New Englanders to no end. It is a common experience in some Evangelical traditions today. Certainty about being “saved” can become a high priority, but just what to do afterwards can be less clear.
The writer of Matthew provides an interpretation of this parable from the mouth of Jesus later in chapter thirteen, in response to the disciple’s private request, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” The original parable is, like most of the parables, multivalent, poetic, and somewhat ambiguous, requiring a patient and sustained engagement from the heart before its mysteries sift to the surface of consciousness. The allegory Matthew supplies later, which identifies the good seed with the “children of the kingdom” and the weeds with the “children of the evil one” strikes my ears as problematic in its simplicity.
As I struggle with this passage, I try to forget every interpretive scrap and lens I have accumulated, everything I think I know about it, and every clamoring and competing claim the Church has laid upon it. My heart is drawn most clearly, most magnetically, to the words of the Master: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” The servants are eager to please the field-owner and anxious to apply their own solution, born of their own logic and their own capacity to interpret the evidence at hand. The Master seems more patient, more tolerant of ambiguity, more willing to suspend judgment. This reading from the heart leaves me with few answers, and many questions: What if the field is not only the world or the Church, but the individual human heart? What if the good and bad seed are the mixed motives, the good intentions and less good impulses to which we are all subject? What if the collecting, binding, and burning of weeds is not, as I have heard it said, the consigning of evil souls to eternal hellfire, but something else? What if an encounter with the heat and light of God’s infinite, unconditional love were to wither all the weeds I have known and suffered, all the hell that has grown up alongside all the heaven in me? What if all the good grain in me waiting for that final ingathering had no weeds to grow alongside it? Would that grain be as good or as ready for the Master’s barn?
Before I knew the Bible, or encountered this parable or any of its many interpretations, I knew a collection of stories handed down to me by my father: The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Fellowship of the Ring, there is an interchange between Gandalf, a wise and patient wizard and the epic’s protagonist, a lowly but courageous hobbit named Frodo. They converse about the tragic and mysterious creature Gollum, who was once a Hobbit too, but whose motives and desires have been consumed by the power of a magic ring. Gandalf says of Gollum, “He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself. He will never be rid of his need for it.” Frodo replies, “It’s a pity that my uncle Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had a chance!” Gandalf wisely counsels: “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.”[i]
[i]The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien. p. 145.
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