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]
The thought of an enemy sowing weeds – typically, a particularly strain of weed whose early blossoms looked very much like wheat – into a farmer’s field was so real and so common that its punishment was codified into Roman law in Jesus’ day. This actually happened, an enemy sowing weeds among the wheat. There are three lessons we can draw from Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat.