We read, “Jesus put before them another parable…” Yet another parable… I can imagine some people in Jesus’ crowds holding their heads and saying under their breath, “Oh dear, another parable…” We know from the Gospel record that Jesus’ reception was mixed: some people followed him, some turned away, some turned him in. I wonder if some of Jesus’ mixed reception was because of his steady stream of parables. Parables are not straight talk. Parables take a lot of work because they must be interpreted by the hearer. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, almost all of Jesus’ teaching is in the form of parables – more than 40 parables – and Jesus’ listeners, then and now, have to ask themselves about each of these parables, “What is this about? What is Jesus’ point?”[i]
The English word “parable” comes from a Greek word which literally means “that which is tossed alongside,” which implies that a parable is a comparison, or an analogy, or an illustration that comes from creation or from occurrences in everyday life. Jesus teaches endlessly by telling parables inspired by very familiar things: a lighted lamp; a sower and soil; wheat and tares; mustard seeds and grains of wheat; fig trees and new wine; sparrows and eagles and mother hens; sheep and shepherds; a wicked judge and a poor widow; an old cloth and a festive garment; a lost coin and a buried treasure; a wedding feast and an impending funeral… On and on they go. Parables were Jesus’ way. Jesus’ parables literally cover a lot of ground. The point of a parable, or, I’ll say, the pinch of a parable, is that what the parable means is not obvious. A parable is rather elusive. It must be personally recognized, and interpreted, and appropriated by the hearers. We are the hearers, and we have to do the work.[ii]
What gives proof to the power of Jesus’ parables is that we here are not in first-century Palestine. Even so, we still read Jesus’ parables as if they have meaning for us today, which they do. Parables give us a kind of timeless identification with what Jesus was talking about, but they take a lot of work. We must personally interpret them.
This parable we hear today picks up on a repeated theme in Jesus’ parables: the sowing of seeds. Here someone sows some good grain-of-wheat seed into their field; while they sleep, an enemy comes and sows weeds among wheat. In Jesus’ day, there was a particular weed whose early blossoms looked very much like young wheat. An enemy’s sowing these weeds into a young wheat field was a familiar form of sabotage, used so frequently that the punishment of convicted offenders was codified in Roman law. This actually happened. But the curious point of Jesus’ parable is not about punishment but about patience. Are the weeds to be pulled from the get-go? No. Because you risk uprooting the young wheat along with the weeds. Wait. Let the wheat and the weeds grow together. At harvest time the difference between the wheat and the weeds will be obvious.
How do you interpret Jesus’ parable about weeds among the wheat? I’ll just point to several possible themes. What grabs your soul’s attention.
- Let’s say you are not a farmer or even a backyard gardener, do you have any idea what Jesus is talking about in this parable? Where do you experience weeds being sown among vulnerable seeds, and by whom? I can relate to this symbolically. I have an idea… and it’s not literally in a garden but in the “terrain” of human life. It’s about someone sabotaging “political discourse.” If that tack grabs your attention, what do you do with the saboteur and when? How do you relate to Jesus’ parable about sabotage?
- If for you the point of Jesus’ parable is about patience, not punishment, how do you be actively patient with some person or some people whom you find nefarious? It’s no good for you to be a victim. So if patience is called for, what else do you need besides patience? Do you need strength, or wisdom, or protection, or the good advice of a soulmate or therapist or sponsor? What does your practice of patience look like? When and how do you make your move?
- If the pinch of Jesus’ parable is about not making a precipitous judgment about this other person or these people, this “enemy,” what does that mean? By nature, we are very judgmental people. We are making “judgment calls” about people and life circumstances all the day long, and necessarily so. Do we trust a person and, if so, how and with what do we trust them? Whether you are a parent, or a teacher, or a professional, or simply a friend, you must use your judgmental faculties and wisely all the day long. Jesus’ point about our not judging is about not damning someone to hell, not writing someone off or deliciously imagining all kinds of bad things happening to them, about not acting on revenge. Jesus’ caution is about our not presuming a kind of omniscience about someone’s eternal trajectory.
I have this recurring, humbling experience of learning more about someone whom I had already sized up and in a condemning way. And then I learn something more about this person – the circumstances of their life, the humiliation or the discrimination, or the suffering they have experienced in life. And suddenly, rather than wanting to stone them I rather want to reverence them. What had seemed to me an indelible stain on their character is actually a scar well won in the battle of life.[iii] They are not a mistake; they are a miracle. Does this parable invite humility in your proclivity to judge ill in people?
- Does this parable speak to you quite literally about what we plant in the earth? For you, is this parable about ruinous seeds in our farm fields? Are the “weeds” which the enemy is sowing genetically-modified seeds which will take over? Is Jesus’ parable speaking to you about the sustainability and stewardship of God’s earth, and the timing of your response?
- Is this parable to you about spiritual evil, the enemy of our soul that is real in this world, and whose intent is to sow havoc and destruction into our lives. There is a battle going on between good and evil in this world, the invisible forces that determine human existence. Does this parable awaken your awareness of where you need to pray – for yourself and for vulnerable other people – for the intervention of Jesus’ power and protection from the enemy of human nature that sows discord into our lives?
- Do you read this parable backwards? Jesus says that “all evildoers will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[iv] Is that a picture of where it all ends? I don’t think so. There is a final chapter to the story which is remembered in the Apostles Creed: Jesus descends into hell. Icons that depict Jesus’ descent show Jesus yanking people out of hell, beginning with Adam and Eve and then down through the lineup of human history. This is the ultimate sign of God’s judgment, and it is a judgment of love. Do you need to pray through this parable to where it all ends?
I suspect if, say, 10 of us gathered together and I asked each of you, “What does this parable mean,” we would hear 10 different answers. Parables do not give us a single answer; parables present us with multiple questions. A parable is a comparison, or an analogy, or an illustration that comes from creation or from occurrences in everyday life. So if you were to ask me, what does this particular parable of Jesus mean, I would respond, “You tell me.” Behind each of Jesus’ parables is the presumption that God desires a personal relationship with each of us, and that God’s Spirit will lead us to truth.[v] Pay attention to what grabs your attention in Jesus’ parables, this parable and others. They are timeless treasures to unpack.
Solemnity or Major Feast Day: Pentecost VIII
[i] There are no parables in the Gospel according to John, where prefers to speak using “figurative speech,” e.g., John l0:6; 16:25, 29.
[ii] Amos Wilder, sometime professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, in The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric, examined the forms and function of the parable and called for the preservation of the form of a parable as essential to what it does as well as says, and therefore adequate interpretation will attend to what parables do in the minds and hearts of listeners. After all, if a single sentence will state the meaning, why the parable?
[iii] This is a riff on the words of Adelaide Procter (1825-1864):
Judge not; the workings of his brain
And of his heart thou cans’t not see;
What looks to thy dim eyes as stain,
In God’s pure light may only be
A scar, brought from some well-won field,
Where thou woulds’t only faint and yield.
[iv] Matthew 13:41-42.
[v] John 15:26, 16:13-15; 1 John 4:6, 5:6.
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