The Parable of the Weeds compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sown with both wheat and weeds. No one can tell the difference between Jesus’s true disciples until the coming judgment.
The Parable (13:24-30)
The parable of the weeds compares the kingdom of heaven to a man sowing good seed in his field. Although the farmer sowed good seed, an enemy sowed bad seed into his field (13:24b-26).
The weed is darnel (ζιζάνιον, sometimes translated as “tares”), a slightly poisonous grass which looks very much like wheat. Keener says Lolium temulentum is referred to as “false wheat” (Keener, Matthew, 387). Eating the weed can cause a drunken nausea, the Latin temulentus means “drunk.” Sowing a wheat field with this type of weed would cause a great deal of trouble at the harvest since it would need to be carefully sorted from the wheat.
When the workers see the wheat and weeds growing together, they ask if they wonder whether weed the field (13:27). The owner of the field suggests they wait until the harvest and then separate the good wheat from the bad weeds (13:28-30) The good wheat into the barn and the bad weeds are thrown on to the fire.
The Interpretation (13:36-43)
Like the parable of the Sower, the disciples ask about the meaning of the parable of the weeds. On the interpretation of the parable, Klyne Snodgrass comments “The differences between the parable and its interpretation in Matthew make this one of the more difficult parables” (Stories with Intent, Second Edition, 191).
- The one who sows good seed is the Son of Man (13:37). As is typical of the parables either God or Jesus is the main character of the story and there are two contrasting characters, the (good) wheat and the (bad) weeds.
- The field is the world (13:38). In 9:35-38 Jesus used the metaphor of a field for the place where ministry of the Gospel happens.
- The good seed is the “sons of the kingdom” (13:38). This refers to the disciples, those who have responded properly to Jesus’s preaching of the kingdom of heaven.
- The weeds are the “sons of the evil one” and the enemy is the devil (13:39a). How does the devil “sow weeds” in Jesus’s ministry?
The harvest is the “end of the age” (13:39b; 40). When the harvest comes, the wheat is harvested and brought into the barn (where it belongs) and the weeds are destroyed in the fire. The noun συντέλεια and the related verb (used in Mark 13:4 in the introduction to the Olivet Discourse) point to the fulfillment of the prophecies of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, the “end of the age” refers to the end of the present age when Jesus spoke, not necessarily the end of the church age. This is the culmination of Jewish expectations for the coming of the Son of Man who will rule over the nations (Dan 7:14).
The image of a harvest for the end of the age appears in other parables. In addition to Matthew 9:37-38 (the fields are plentiful), the parable of the wicked tenants (21:34-41). In Matthew 3:12 John the Baptist said the one who is coming has his winnowing fork in his hand and he will gather the wheat into the barn and put the chaff on an unquenchable fire.
The metaphor of a harvest for a final judgment on the day of the Lord appears in the Old Testament. In Joel 3:13, for example, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great.” A similar image is used in Revelation 14:14-20 (cf. 4 Ezra 4:28-32; 2 Baruch 70:2).
1 Enoch 42:11 Happy is he who sows right seed, for he shall harvest sevenfold!
4 Ezra 4:28-32 For the evil about which you ask me has been sown, but the harvest of it has not yet come. 29 If therefore that which has been sown is not reaped, and if the place where the evil has been sown does not pass away, the field where the good has been sown will not come. 30 For a grain of evil seed was sown in Adam’s heart from the beginning, and how much ungodliness it has produced until now, and will produce until the time of threshing comes! 31 Consider now for yourself how much fruit of ungodliness a grain of evil seed has produced. 32 When heads of grain without number are sown, how great a threshing floor they will fill!”
2 Baruch 70.2 Behold, the days are coming and it will happen when the time of the world has ripened and the harvest of the seed of the evil ones and the good ones has come that the Mighty One will cause to come over the earth and its inhabitants and its rulers confusion of the spirit and amazement of the heart.
Where there is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
This parable ends with the apocalyptic judgment at the end of the age (13:40b-43). The Son of Man sends his angels to weed out anything which causes sin and evil from the kingdom. In Matthew 15:12-14, in response to offending the Pharisees, Jesus says “every plant my heavenly father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.”
The weeds will be cast tin a blazing furnace, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This phrase appears in several similar contexts in Matthew. In Matthew 8:12, many who will come from the east and west and enter into the banquet, but the “sons of the kingdom” will be outside in the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In 13:50 the evil fish will be cast into a fiery furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 22:13 the man who was not prepared for the wedding banquet is bound foot and hand and cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 24:51 the foolish servant is cut to pieces and put int eh place of the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 25:11-12, the foolish virgins do not enter the wedding banquet and are left outside in the darkness. In Matthew 25:30 the worthless servant is cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Matthew 25:31-46 the Son of Man returns with all his holy ones and separates the sheep from the goats. These goats are sent away to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41); in 25:46 this is called “eternal punishment.”
The Meaning of the Parable of the Weeds in Matthew
The parable is directly applicable to the ministry of Jesus, and as we observed with the parable of the sower, there are two contrasting “seeds” – the wheat and the weeds.
Among the community of disciples following Jesus, there are some disciples that are weeds. At this point in the ministry of Jesus the weeds cannot be detected, but they will be “picked and burned” at the judgment. The obvious example is Judas, but all of the disciples fall away at the time of the arrest of Jesus. In Acts Ananias and Sapphira are people who appear to be true believers until their actions prove otherwise. Paul mentions several coworkers who abandoned him and were “shipwrecked in their faith.”
It is possible Matthew included the parable because there was a real conflict in his church. If there were false teachers causing a schism in the church, then they are the weeds and the true disciples need to be on their guard against them. The judgment of the weeds is saved for the end when Christ returns and renders final judgment. Until then, the true disciple must be aware of the dangers posed by people masquerading as true believers. The true disciples must contend with the bad until the day of judgment, knowing that there will always be the possibility of false discipleship.
What is the application of the parable “for today”? The weeds still exist and it is still trying to choke out the wheat. In the parable, it was difficult to tell the difference between the wheat and the weeds because the enemy chose to make the damaging weeds look similar to the wheat. Most Christians are not tempted to start cooking meth or join a satanic murder cult. That looks so different from the truth it is easy to see and avoid. Satan’s tactics must be very subtle, making the weeds look like the wheat. There are many examples of people who appear to be good family value televangelist who are later discovered to be cheating on their wives or preying on young girls or boys. There are plenty of politicians who claim to be solid Christians to get elected but have no relationship with Christ outside of the image they want to put forward to the voters.
It is God who judges the weeds, not the disciples. We ought to be aware of and avoid bad seed. We must teach the truth in contrast to the weeds who try to choke out the true believers.