Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 13:24-30

The Parable of the Weeds

     24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of God is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

     27“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

     28“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

     “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

     29“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

As far as many people are concerned, one of the most pressing questions in the life of faith is the question of why there is evil in the world. “Why doesn’t God just get rid of evil?” people ask. And although some folks might speculate, their speculations have all the theological weight of the ones offered by Job’s four friends – which is to say, none.

There is a field of theological study and reflection called ‘theodicy’ that’s all about trying to explain why God allows evil to exist. But the explanations that come out of that field aren’t that much less speculative than you would get in the average Sunday School class.

The plain fact is that we will not know the answer to that question on this side of the great divide between this world and the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people of faith from wanting something done about the existence of evil. We want those we consider evil to be locked up or killed. And lots of us, if we’re honest, would really prefer having them killed. Gotten out of the gene pool. And since we believe in ‘God and country,’ we think our country’s armies are more-or-less instruments of God in exterminating evil.

But this parable challenges us to think twice about our urges in the matter of destroying evil.

In older versions of the Bible, this story was called “The Parable of the Tares.” That’s because the Greek word translated “weeds” in our NIV Bible actually refers to a specific type of plant that used to be called “tares.” Today, botanists call that plant “bearded darnel.” And the fact that we miss by having the word just translated “weeds” is that bearded darnel is actually toxic. So in the story, it’s not just that some random weeds got into the wheat field – the point is that someone intentionally planted poison plants among the wheat.

And by the way, whoever planted the poison plants doesn’t seem to have had anything in mind other than causing trouble. There’s no other obvious way for a person to benefit by poisoning someone else’s crop. So it seems that the first point of the parable is that there is real evil in the world. Not just misguided people making mistakes, but actual evil being perpetrated by people who know exactly what they’re doing.

If Jesus intended the landowner in the parable to represent God – which seems logical since he started the parable with “the Kingdom of God is like” – then it follows that God must instantly recognize evil in the world for what it is: the intentional work of his enemies. (And whether you understand this to be the result of one literal ‘Satan’ who gets people to do evil or of individuals doing evil on their own doesn’t seem to me to make much difference in understanding the parable. Evil is evil.)

The landowner’s servants are apparently committed to advancing the interests of their master, so they offer to go into the field and pull up the weeds. But the landowner says ‘no.’ He points out to the servants that they can’t destroy the weeds without killing some of the good wheat, too. Without “collateral damage.”

We live in a world where evil is a reality. Drug cartels intentionally cause people to become addicted for their own profit. Corrupt politicians use gangs and paramilitaries to murder their critics. Journalists around the world are murdered for exposing corruption. African militias kidnap children, turn them into child soldiers and force them to commit grisly crimes. People promise jobs to young women in poor countries and then traffic them into sexual slavery. (Many of them, it seems, passing through Ohio.) People intentionally do things they know are evil.

We see these things on the news, and we want to do exactly what the landowner’s servants suggest – we want to uproot the evil and destroy it.

Often our first instinct is to demand that the government throw its weight behind destroying the world’s evil. But experience proves the point Jesus is making here – that striking at evil inevitably creates collateral damage. Hospitals and wedding parties get bombed along with terrorists. Innocent people get swept up in police crackdowns – and usually it’s poor and vulnerable people who do. Shootouts with bad guys catch civilians in the crossfire.

So it seems to me this parable calls those of us who follow Jesus to be voices for caution when it comes to responding to evil in the world. It’s not our first reaction, of course – revenge is really satisfying on a visceral level. But demanding revenge is almost certainly not the response Jesus would bless. Don’t forget, he commanded us to pray for our enemies and bless those who curse us.

I suppose the reason this parable doesn’t get taught much in kids’ Sunday School classes is that the ‘so what’ of it isn’t black-and-white. In fact, it takes a lot of prayerful reflection to figure out how to apply it in most situations. But it’s important that followers of Jesus do that prayerful reflection. After all, kids grow up in a world with evil in it, and they need to realize that there’s a reason God doesn’t turn us loose to destroy it. And those of us who consider ourselves grown-ups need to remind ourselves that God really cares about those who are victims of collateral damage.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray for your protection from evil, but we also pray that you would guard our hearts against a craving for revenge against those who do evil. Help us to trust that in the fulness of your time, when your kingdom comes to fulfillment, you will destroy evil once and for all. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!


(The other readings for today are Psalms 40 and 84; Nehemiah 2:1-20; and Revelation 6:12 – 7:4.)