Harvests and Holocausts
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 13: 24-43
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying:
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.
The slaves of the householder came to him and said,
'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where have the weeds come from?'
He answered, 'An enemy has done this.'
His slaves said to him,
'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'
He replied, 'No, if you pull up the weeds
you might uproot the wheat along with them.
“Let them grow together until harvest;
then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,
"First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning;
but gather the wheat into my barn."'"
He proposed another parable to them.
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that a person took and sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.
It becomes a large bush,
and the 'birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'"
He spoke to them another parable.
"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour
until the whole batch was leavened."
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables.
He spoke to them only in parables,
to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation
of the world.
Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house.
His disciples approached him and said,
"Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field."
He said in reply, "He who sows good seed is the Son of Man,
the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom.
The weeds are the children of the evil one,
and the enemy who sows them is the devil.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire,
so will it be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom
all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear."
No pun intended, but there are plenty of seeds for thought here, particularly considering last weekend’s Gospel of the Sower. This is a very subtle sequence from Matthew 13, and it is important to sort out the nuances in each unit in order that this segment comes together as the apocalyptic vision it was intended to be.
The opening paragraph begins with Jesus proposing another parable. I am using the NABRE translation, and the verb “propose” is not the best of all choices available to the translators. France points out that the Greek verb paratithemi means “to set forth,” and while the verb is used occasionally in the LXX or Septuagint Greek translation for presenting teaching or laws, it is more typically used for “serving a meal.” (p. 525) As France puts it, “Might it (paratithemi) be used here to suggest that parables are ‘set before’ people for them to tackle as best they can in order to get the full nourishment, but that they are not spoon-fed?” Such a reading is validated by the July 30 Gospel, where striving for the Kingdom becomes an all-consuming passion; “When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”
This parable at hand is quite different from last week’s, where the villain, so to speak, is bad terrain. This week the problem is not the soil, nor the sower’s grain, but the introduction of bad seed. Roman law dealt specifically with “agricultural sabotage” by an enemy who introduces darnel into a landowner’s seed bin or, as the case here, sows a planted field with this unwanted invader. Darnel was, to put it bluntly, nasty. It bears a close resemblance to new wheat until both are well settled, matured, and intertwined; it reaches a height of three feet, and the coup de grace, it is poisonous, even deadly, when consumed by humans. (Note the feeding theme again.)
My first instinct is the “who done it?” aspect, but this is not addressed here, and the slaves have the good sense not to pry too deeply into the master’s network of friends and enemies. Rather, knowing the danger of darnel—and considering the probability that this wheat would go into their bread—the slaves offer to pull up the weeds immediately, conveniently ignoring the master’s loss of much of his crop. (“If you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”) The master’s decision to let them grow side by side makes sense overall, as the two plants would be more recognizable. Then the harvesters—evidently a different work pool—will come and make the final determination of what to save and what to burn; there is more than a hint of apocalyptic meaning, which will be clarified later in the passage.
The next two parables have common themes. In both passages, a tiny seed and a pinch of leaven produce remarkable transformations, and they do so naturally, inevitably. Matthew conveys the inevitability of the spectacular success of the Kingdom of God from its humble beginnings, specifically the mixed results of Jesus’ preaching in Galilee recounted in Chapter 12. The “birds of the sky” taking refuge in the massive mustard tree is an Old Testament reference to Daniel 4, which to a Jewish listener of the time would have invited a comparison between the powerful but short-lived Kingdom of Babylon and the far greater and more permanent kingdom of heaven. (p. 527)
The final paragraph of Sunday’s reading returns to the opening one, establishing for the disciples, Jesus’ intimate followers, what France calls equivalences. The sower, unidentified last week and this week, is now defined as the Son of Man, the name Jesus most often applies to himself. Jesus did not invent the term; it is used extensively in Ezekiel and Daniel, works with significant apocalyptic overtones, to identify a future figure whose coming will mark the end of time and God’s punishment. The field is the world [see the last paragraph of the post regarding the universal reach of this Gospel]. The good seed represents children of the kingdom [of heaven.]
The weeds are “the children of the evil one.” The fact that the text identifies the devil makes this a highly personalized and continuing struggle between Jesus and the Tempter who has attacked him before in the desert temptation event and is continuing to do so through the kingdom Jesus has left behind. The devil is the enemy that ravaged the Son of Man’s wheat field in an underhanded way; France calls him a spoiler, “not a constructive authority in his own right.” (p. 535) The harvest is identified as the end of the age and the harvesters, as we suspected earlier, are the angels, the sorters.
Having laid out the terms, Jesus can now proceed to the ultimate meaning of this parable: it is an apocalypse, a glimpse of the end times, and in this case a “glimpse” goes a long way. The contrasts are extreme—sufferings for evildoers and, interestingly, “all who cause others to sin” (bad leaven?); and an eternal radiance in the kingdom of their Father. While Matthew 13 has a timeless invitation and warning, its composition would have been of help to a persecuted church which perhaps was understandably wondering about its effectiveness and future in its time of suffering.
In this context, I need to address a particular insight from France, who observes that throughout history the parable of the wheat and the weeds had been excessively interpreted as addressing problems within the church—i.e., that good members and bad members are allowed to coexist without a dramatic intervention from God. France argues that the scope of this parable is the entire world, beyond religious boundaries. St. John, of course, elaborates this thinking in his famous remark to Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world.” The Kingdom of heaven is here and now, despite the fact that much of the world goes on unchanged. There is, he argues, an element of patience necessary for the believer. The mustard tree will bloom, the bread will rise, but all in God’s good time and in proportion to our growth as seeds in the universal vineyard, for as Sunday’s Gospel makes clear, “the good seed [is] the children of the kingdom.”
My next Sunday Gospel post will be August 15, as I am taking some down time. I will post links to alternate Gospel commentaries during the interim.
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