In Matt 13:24-30, 36-43, Jesus tells a parable in which weeds are sown by an enemy in a field which the owner has sown good seed. The servants notice the problem and suggest they pull out the weeds, but the owner of the field rejects the suggestion on the basis that doing so would also harm the wheat. The
disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable, so he does:
37“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.
So, the weeds are the “children of the evil one.” They will be collected when the Son of Man comes, and thrown into the furnace of fire.
So how do modern interpreters identify the weeds?
The “Jesus Seminar” scholars call this the parable of the “Sabotage of the Weeds” and give it a rating of next to certain that it is not authentically from Jesus on the basis that it
“reflects the concern of a young Christian community attempting to define itself over get against an evil world, a concern not characteristic of Jesus.” (The five Gospels: what did Jesus really say?” p. 194)
On this reading, the weeds are people, and the people are those “in an evil world” but it is quite hard to know how a young Christian community would have struggled with the temptation to “gather them” in the sense of “uprooting,” that is, eliminating those people.
Hagner (Matthew, Word Biblical Commentary [vol. 33A, p. 395]) identifies the weeds as
“those [people] guilty of lawlessness—the people who belong to the evil one—coexist with the righteous…”
– but again, how could the kingdom people be tempted to uproot them?
Harrington (The Gospel of Matthew, in Sacra Pagina vol. 1, p. 208) says that the setting is the time of Jesus in which some Jews accepted but others rejected Jesus’ message of the kingdom. The answer for believers is patience in the light of final judgment. But again, the question is, what were the believers tempted to do with about the rejectors? In what sense was there a temptation, or even an opportunity to uproot them prior to the eschaton? Patience is hardly needed advice for people who have no other option.
Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 156) ends his discussion taking the weeds as metaphors for
“whatever is in the world, or in us, that poisons our humanity and breaks our relationship with God…”
which, the parable says, God will eventually deal with. But on this reading, how could the original question in the parable: “should we uproot them?” with the answer “let them grow” makes any sense as moral advice.
This is a key problem. If the “weed” people are doing evil things, how is the advice to “let them be as they are” appropriate? Does this apply to the times of slavery? If so, the abolitionists were wrong. The American Civil rights movement? If so, black people should have just been patient. Apartheid? Same.
Similarly, Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins, p 294) identifies the evil weeds as “all causes of sin” saying,
“these causes include anything that diverts or destroys disciples.”
So all of these evils, the parable teaches, should be ignored in the light of future judgment.
1. Any interpretation of the weeds that identifies them with evil itself or causes of evil suffers from the problem that this parable then teaches dubious morality. If you see evil, ignore it, because God will judge it in the end. This is a quietism that no one believes in. We even want to stop people from being cruel to animals, and how much more motivated should we be to confront evil in every way we can?
2. Any interpretation which makes the weeds non-human suffers from ignoring Jesus’ explanation. The weeds are people. Jesus says, “the weeds are the children of the evil one.” Yes, Jesus then says that the angels, who uproot these people, will also “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers” but the weeds are specifically people. But the “all causes of sin” is simply an addition to the people, the “children of the evil one.”
3. To uproot them is to eliminate them. Any interpretation has to say what it would mean for anyone to be tempted to do something to other people that would look like uprooting them. How and when would either Jesus’ followers or the Christians in Matthew’s community be in a position to even consider such uprooting actions against others?
It all makes sense if this is a warning against joint the armed revolt against Rome. The revolutionary option was alive and embraced by many before, during and after the generation Jesus lived in. On this reading, the parable says do not join the armed resistance, because doing so would endanger everybody. The householder says, “29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” In other words Leave it to God to settle the score with the Romans.
N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) seems to support this in principle saying,
“Jesus’ warnings fit also quite naturally into the wider context of the first century, where Rome, provoked before, remained a threatening brooding presence….Pilate’s administration was given to sporadic bloody repression; it did not take much political wisdom to extrapolate forwards and to suggest that, if Israel continue to provoke the giant, giant would eventually awake from slumber and smasher to pieces.” p. 324 And, “Jesus had offered the Galilean towns the way of peace. By following him, they would find the God– given golden thread to guide them through the dark labyrinth of the current political aspirations and machinations, and onto vindication is the true people of the Creator and covenant God. If they refused, they were choosing the way that led, inevitably to confrontation with Rome, and so too unavoidable ruin.” p. 330
Jesus was clearly quite concerned about what Wright calls Israel’s “idolatrous nationalism” and its potential to bring down Roman swords on everyone (p. 331).
“Jesus, knowing that Israel has now finally rejected the one road of peace, knows also that within the next generation she will find herself embroiled in a war she cannot but lose, and lose horribly. It two lestai [criminals] crucified with him are simply a foretaste of the thousands of lestai – brigands, revolutionaries– who will suffer the same fate by the time the next generation is through. Israel’s noble the tragic story is fast becoming a nightmare.” p. 332
In Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 Wright specifically offers the possibility that the weed-pullers were the Jews of his day who wanted to fight the bad guys.
“Did Jesus, perhaps, have an eye here on the revolutionary groups of his day, only too ready to step into God’s field and pull up what looked like weeds? There were many groups, including some of the Pharisees, who were eager to fight against pagans on the one hand and against compromised Jews on the other.”
People may argue about whether or not Jesus was a complete pacifist, but it is certainly clear that he opposed the violent opposition to Rome that was brewing in his day. He turned out to be right. In the revolt of 66, estimates are that hundreds of thousands of Jews died. Josephus claims that well over one million perished, including those who died of starvation during the siege of Jerusalem. When they attempted to pull out the weeds, a lot of wheat was lost.