This has got to stop! Why doesn’t somebody do something about this? The refrains are heard from family kitchens to rec rooms of religious communities (perhaps more frequently). Jesus’ followers were no different. Jesus compares God’s kingdom to the work of a sower, who sows good seed expecting a fine harvest. But an enemy comes and sows weeds with the wheat. The farmworkers quite naturally urge him to root out the weeds immediatelysurprisingly, since in the previous parable, the weeds choke the growth but Jesus tells them to let them both grow together, because you might uproot the wheat along with them. There will be time enough at the harvest to be sure of the difference. Matthew’s allegorical application of this parable to his community (verses 36-43) clearly identifies the wheat with the righteous and the weeds with evildoers and with those who cause others to sin.
Despite the desire of the disciples to know right now who are good and who evildoers, Jesus says, Just wait! The community as it moves through history is composed of good and bad people, but it cannot always be sure who is who. Precipitous separation may destroy the good (the wheat) while trying to uproot the weeds.
This parable anticipates the following ones (about the mustard seed and the leaven), in which things are not always as they seem. The mustard seed is not only small; it can be a terrific nuisance, since it produces a hearty bush that takes over where it is not wanted. Jesus says that God’s reigning is this way: it may seem small and insignificant, but the birds of the sky nest in it. The bush with swarms of nesting birds is a sardonic allusion to Dan. 4:7-9, 17-19, where the people of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom nest in the huge and mighty tree of his rule. No, for Jesus small seeds and mustard bushes are enough.
In the final parable for this Sunday, Jesus turns from the world of farming to the woman’s work of preparing bread for the family. Similar motifs characterize both parables: hidden growth, the contrast between insignificant beginnings (mustard seed, leaven) and astonishing results (enough bread for 100 people). The choice of leaven for the action of God is surprising, since in the Bible, yeast is almost always a symbol of corruption or evil action (e.g., Mt. 16:5-7; 1 Cor. 5:7-8).
These short but powerful parables tell us that God’s ways are not our ways. We often would like God’s reign to unfold in particular ways, perhaps by rooting out the weeds, hoping that it might be more powerful and visible, not some troublesome bush, anxious for visible signs of success, suspicious of corrupting influences. An older Jesuit once told me that his father said to him when he was a little boy, Harry, God is at times a mighty unpredictable fellow. How shocking to Jesus’ followers, then and now.