What is one to do when an enemy who has been the mastermind behind thousands of deaths is discovered hiding within the territory of a friendly nation? What to do when weeds are discovered sprouting among the good grain? Do you pull out the destructive intruders or let them grow? How did they get there?
Who or what were the “weeds” in the minds of Matthew’s Christians? Were they Gentiles who were infiltrating with their corrosive influences, like pesky, pungent mustard that violated the set boundaries and spread uncontrollably into well-defined Jewish fields? Were they evildoers in general or persecutors of the followers of Jesus, who in the minds of the latter should have been already permanently defeated now that the Messiah had come? Why is the evil one still exercising power?
Today’s Gospel opens myriad questions and gives helpful directions toward finding answers. The householder who sowed the good seed first acknowledges that the weeds are the work of an enemy and takes the onus off the worried slaves who might have been blamed for not tending the field well or for sowing inferior seed. The parable focuses more on what to do next than on explaining how it happened.
One line of response proposed by the slaves is to pull up all the weeds immediately. The landowner decides against this course of action. Pulling up the weeds might uproot the wheat along with them. The separation can happen later, at harvest time.
Is this a wise decision? Are the ones who actually work the land thinking that this absentee landlord does not know anything about farming? Will his approach be shown to be unrealistic when his wheat has been choked out by the weeds and when it proves impossible to sort out darnel from wheat by winnowing?
Authoritative voices in the early church agreed with the householder and urged forbearance toward sinners. St. Augustine, for example, used this parable to argue that heretics or the lapsed should not be cut off from the church, contrary to the position of the Donatists. According to Hippolytus (Haer. 9.12.22), Bishop Callistus of Rome likewise interpreted “Let the tares grow along with the wheat” as “Let sinners remain in the church.”
If the parable proper (vv. 24-30) reflects struggles of the early Christians to include as full participants Gentiles and other “sinners,” the allegorical explanation (vv. 36-43) points outside the Christian community to “the world” (v. 38) as the ground of conflict. In these verses, the patient forbearance of the householder is gone as the end-time reapers throw all the evildoers into a fiery furnace. There is a distinct difference from the situation in vv. 24-30. Now it is harvest time, a metaphor for end-time judgment, and the action is carried out by God’s angels, not human beings. There is an implicit warning to us not to impetuously assume the role of the divine judge, who alone sorts out good from evil.
The nonretaliatory reproach of the householder who has been humiliated by his enemy can seem weak. When read with the parable of the leaven, it speaks instead of the womanly strength of God, whose transformative work is hidden in the agitating action of kneading the bread. With the first reading from Wisdom, it points to divine justice and might manifest itself in leniency, clemency and kindness. It is this paradoxical approach to rooting out evil, exemplified in Jesus’ boundless forgiveness and inclusive table practices, to which we are invited.