24 Another parable he put before them; he said: The dominion of the heavens was compared to a person who sows beautiful seeds in his field. 25 While the people were sleeping, this enemy came he sowed poisonous weeds in the midst of the grain and went away. 26 When the grass sprouted and made fruit, then appeared also the poisonous weeds. 27 When the slaves of the master of the house came they said to him: haShem, didn’t you sow beautiful seed in your field? Where did it get poisonous weeds from? 28 He said to them: An enemy, a person did this. The slaves are saying to him: So, do you want us to go out and gather them? 29 He said: No lest in gathering the poisonous weeds you should uproot with them the grain. 30 Let both grow together up until the harvest: in the time of the harvest I will say to the harvesters: Gather first the poisonous weeds; bind them into bundles to burn them up. The grain gather into my barn. 36 Then leaving the crowds, he came into his house. They came to him, the disciples did, they said: Make quite clear to us the parable of the poisonous weeds of the field. 37 He answered; he said: The one who sowed the beautiful seed is the son of adam. 38 The field is the beautiful world. The beautiful seed, these are the sons of the dominion. The poisonous weeds are the sons of the worthless one. 39 The enemy, the enemy who sowed them is the prosecutor. The harvest is the completion of the aeon. The harvesters are messengers. 40 So just as the poisonous weeds are gathered and in fire burnt up, thus it will be in the completion of the aeon: 41 the son of adam will send out his messengers; they will gather out of his dominion all scandals and those undermining Torah; 42 they will throw them into the fiery furnace. There there will be wailing and the gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the strictly observant will shine like the sun in the dominion of their father. The one who has ears should hear.
Jesus was a storyteller. That’s not too surprising: Jesus is Jewish, and the Jewish faith has its roots sunk deep in the stories that make up Scripture. We call them parables, which sounds somehow religious, but they are stories. In some important ways, all stories are parables. They are always up to something, something more than you might first think.
Joachim Jeremias, the finest parables scholar of his generation, listened hard to the parables. Jeremias took seriously the durability of stories: he knew that for all of the ways we put our individual stamp on the stories we tell (or the jokes), still the structure of the original story persists. This mattered for Jeremias because he was not listening just to a little anecdote with a religious message. Jeremias was listening to a story that had its origin in the mouth of Jesus. He expected to hear the ipsissima vox Jesu, the actual living voice of Jesus still telling these old, lovely stories. Scholars are a little less optimistic about “original forms” or original voices, but it’s still worth reflecting: when you listen to one of these stories that Jesus told, you are being drawn into a narrative web that he first spun.
Adolf Jülicher, a half-century earlier, also listened closely to these old stories. He was also the finest parable scholar of his generation, and his listening is fascinating because, in some ways, he listens the way narrative scholars listen these days. Jülicher listened to the way the story opened itself to its hearers, the way it worked on people who listened to it.
Traditional scholarship read the parables as allegories, as extended coded similes. That handed interpreters the task of linking each element of the little story with elements in the world of the audience, whether ancient or contemporary, depending on the interpreter. You can see why: that process starts already in the gospels themselves, which present Jesus as the first allegorizer. “The one who sowed the beautiful seed is the son of adam,” he says, and we are off to the allegorical races.
Jülicher listened just to the stories themselves and let them shape how he heard them. He argued that stories have a single, central impact on their audiences. They have ONE point, not a whole roster of allegorical applications.
I find this way of listening to the stories endlessly productive. Jülicher (and most interpreters, truth be told) may imagine that the ONE point of a parable is forever the same, once it is found. I don’t think that. I find the moment that I hear a story to generate the ONE point fully as much as the story itself. WHEN you hear is as powerful as WHAT you hear.
And so I listen to this story about wheat and poisonous weeds again this time. I appreciate all the ways I have heard this story in past moments of listening. And this year I find myself struck by the idea that there are people in the world who are poisonous weeds. I could name some if you asked me. I could probably name quite a few.
But I find myself struck by the way the end of Matthew’s gospel undercuts this divisive assumption. At the end of the parable, the weed-people are separated out and burned. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, there are people who see Jesus raised from the dead, but still doubt (a weedy behavior in Matthew’s story up to that point). But at the end of Matthew’s gospel the weed-people who doubt are not gathered and burned, they are sent out to baptize and teach.
What if this little story has among its collection of SINGLE points the effect of calling out our love of being the GOOD SEED among all the weeds? What if the effect of the story is to call us on our tendency to imagine that problems could be solved if only we could burn the weed-people who cause us so much trouble? What if the weedy problem that needs solving is our willingness to identify those who ought to be burned?
That’d be awkward.
I do not imagine that every idea is as good as every other one, nor every ideology, nor every person. But what if ONE point of the parable is that we are stuck with each other until a point outside of any imaginable time. There will never be a congregation without people who are certain that we are wrong (even as we return that favor). There will never be a workplace that does not require us to work toward a shared goal in the company of people with whom we share nothing else. We will never have the option of first selecting the perfect partners, the perfect congregants, the perfect candidate or boss or set of friends.
We are stuck with each other. And we share the same set of problems that must be solved, even if we understand those problems differently. It’s time we got on with solving those problems, I think.