Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the story Jesus tells about the wheat and the weeds recorded in Matthew 13:24–30. Maybe it’s because I’ve been pulling a lot of weeds this spring, or maybe it’s because I’m exasperated by the presence of metaphorical weeds in other areas of my life. Whatever the reason, I keep turning Jesus’s story over and over again like I’m holding something I know is important, but I just don’t know what to do with it.
It starts simply enough. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a farmer who sows good seed into a field of good soil. But at night an enemy comes and fills the field with weeds. When the farmhands see all the weeds sprouting up alongside the good wheat, they are confused. And then this is where the real curveball comes in. Despite the fact that the landowner knows exactly what they are and how they got there, he advises the farmhands to let the weeds grow alongside the good crop until the harvest. If they try to pull all the weeds out, he says, they’ll surely uproot the wheat along with it.
I will admit, I have trouble appreciating this advice. Maybe it’s because I grew up watching Sesame Street and was an early expert at “one of these things is not like the other/one of these things does not belong”—but this whole concept of letting bad weeds grow alongside the good crop feels anathema to me. I don’t even like it when a spoon winds up with the forks in the silverware drawer! I can only imagine the horror of looking at a disorderly mess of tangled weeds ruining what should be a pristine field of neat rows of wheat blowing in the wind.
I take solace in the fact that this story was as confounding for the twelve disciples as it is for me. I am forever grateful for the brave soul who voiced asked Jesus to explain himself a little bit more after they left the crowds (Matthew 13:36). Jesus’s explanation outlines some fundamental truths that have previously escaped my notice.
But Jesus seems to suggest that my expectations of working in an unsullied field of pure, pristine wheat are more than a bit unrealistic.
The first startling truth is that weeds should be expected. Jesus tells a story about the kingdom of God in which weeds show up not as a fleeting obstacle but as a fixture (at least until the harvest, but we’ll get to that soon). Whenever I encounter things that don’t belong and make my work harder—my weeds—I am upset, surprised, and maybe even offended to find them there. But Jesus seems to suggest that my expectations of working in an unsullied field of pure, pristine wheat are more than a bit unrealistic.
Yet Jesus doesn’t spend time worrying about whether the presence of the weeds is good or bad. He says with certainty that an enemy is to blame for this and that the intention of that enemy was to do harm. Without batting an eye, Jesus names the enemy as someone unseen who works in cover of darkness, sowing confusion and creating difficulty and chaos. This frankness from Jesus also upends my habit of assigning blame for the presence of weeds in my life and ministry, which is almost always some variation of “those people”—those hypocrites, those sinners, those bad theologians, those power mongers who threaten my position.
But Jesus isn’t finished just yet. In addition to proving that we humans have unrealistic expectations of our working conditions and don’t always get cause-and-effect relationships right, he then says we cannot be trusted to separate the two. This could mean we don’t always know the difference between the weeds and the wheat. It could also mean that they are so intertwined, and growing so closely together, that separating them wouldn’t be possible even if we did know the difference and even if we tried to be careful. If the fieldhands try to de-weed the field, Jesus explains, they will most certainly end up pulling wheat out too.
If I’m honest, this is where I feel my self-defense mechanisms coming into place. I want to think myself an expert in this area. After all, I’m a minister of the gospel! Shouldn’t I be equipped for the task of separating the wheat from the weeds? But no. Jesus seems to underline, italicize, and bold this point. It would be one thing if the fieldhands are told to wait until harvest to sort out weeds and what. But he says in verse 30 that separation will be a job for the harvesters, and when he explains the story to the disciples later, he says in verse 41 that the harvesters are the angels. It’s not the humans’ job at all—ever.
So this isn’t just about waiting until the right time, nor is it about ensuring quality control. It’s actually about knowing what is ours to do, and what is not. Someone will sort out what is wheat and what is not during the harvest, Jesus assures us. But it’s not us. We are not given the job of harvesting or sorting. Nor are we given the job of throwing anything into the fire (satisfying though that may be.)
Someone will sort out what is wheat and what is not during the harvest, Jesus assures us. But it’s not us.
So what do we do with this? As these things have rolled over in my heart and mind, I’ve felt the familiar process of conviction deep within me. While weeds are troublesome and do in fact make my work harder, I am actually disobedient when I spend time trying to pull them all out. Not only is it a waste of precious time and resources that should be spent tending the good crop, but Jesus also says I am actually doing harm to the good crop!
This startling conviction has led to an even more sobering truth as I’ve traced my desire for weed-pulling back to its origin. It’s not that I am a person bent on destruction. My temptation to pull weeds comes from a good and holy desire to see the church be the embodied kingdom of God—pure, perfect, and holy, without blemish or wrinkle. I recognize within myself this desire to defend and purify the church of all that threatens to make her less than this. And I don’t think these desires in and of themselves are wrong. The problem comes when I try to defend or purify the church myself—because, according to Jesus, that’s not my job.
As those who are committed to working in the field of God’s kingdom, our work is not to destroy what we think doesn’tbelong. Instead, Jesus says, our work is to continue nurturing what does belong. We are to tend the soil and cultivate the good fruit. We are to be people who work for something, not people who work against something. We are the ones who join Jesus in the Father’s business, doing justice and loving mercy, loving neighbor and proclaiming good news to the poor. And while we are troubled by and lament the forces that work against us, we trust that God will do God’s work faithfully, just as God has asked us to do ours. We must receive our instructions from the landowner who oversees the fields and their harvesting. We must remember our place, and ask with humility: “What is mine to do?” The field is not our own.