THE WHEAT AND THE TARES; THE MUSTARD SEED; THE LEAVEN IN THE MEAL: Matthew 13: 24–33
I have combined 3 Parables of the Kingdom as they evidently form a connected teaching in the eyes of the evangelist even if they may have been uttered by Jesus more than once and in different settings, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. This does not however affect their sense of unity and connection.
All the parables contain a level of warning against contamination or cross-fertilization from other religions or philosophies.
In the wheat and the tares (vv 24 – 30) this is explicit, for Jesus makes a clear distinction between the good seed of the wheat sown by the farmer and the tares or weeds introduced by a rival or enemy. They look like the real seed but they are not.
Yet the purpose of this parable is a warning against two things: (1) against false beliefs and lifestyles; false hopes and expectations; false methods and motivations and attitudes; (2) against the rush to judgment by the church in seeking to uproot and destroy what is false but which is likely to prove to be excessive and destructive.
Jesus accepts that the truth of His life and work, His teaching, miracles and disputes would indeed be told by the church in teaching its people and in its proclamation to the wider world. And He seems to have understood – but not accepted – that in so doing there could indeed be distortions or misunderstandings, together with attempts to undermine and devalue or trivialize His word. And so He made it clear that He would be the judge of what had been done and proclaimed truly and what had been false, rather than risk the innocent or weaker plants in an explosion of righteous but perhaps unbalanced rectitude.
Question: it is very easy to find fault in another person’s life and teaching, but far more difficult to correct it in a way that is both loving and effective. How much of our understanding of what is true or false is derived from what is social convention and how can we tell?
In the mustard seed, (31 – 32) Jesus gives us the picture of the smallest, the least significant of seeds and yet one which grows into the mightiest of trees. In a way this is a very satisfying parable which seems to justify and indeed endorse the might of established forms of church life and structure.
There is however a question within the parable, for Jesus not only refers to the rigid but mighty tree that the grain grows into but the roosting birds that take refuge there. The problem is that these are scavenging birds – unclean and unwelcome. But they find a home in the mighty but rigid structure. The growth of the tree has taken on a form far-distanced from the frailty and dependence of the small seed, and has established its own space, independent and self-supporting. Even self-sustaining.
Here also is a warning, that care is needed that in allowing a structure to so outgrow its own strength that it can be taken with rot or disease and become fragile and liable to collapse. Where the structure or tree has given space to unclean birds or inconsistent doctrines or practices then it has moved away from what Jesus had intended.
Question: The parable of the wheat and the tares contains a warning against over-zealousness in securing sound life and teaching. So how are we to identify the scavenging birds within the structure – and how are we to respond?
In the measure of meal leavened by the yeast, we have even more complications – at least, I do. First of all, leaven was also a symbol of evil and the Old Testament practice was to ensure that there was no leaven within the house during the lead up to Passover. In this sense it was something to be avoided, even though it allowed bread to be baked and beer to be brewed.
But Jesus then reverses the imagery by saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is like that leaven – not the meal – which enables the whole of the measure of meal to rise and be prepared for baking. This is getting confusing.
It may be that freshly baked bread is a pleasure to smell and to eat, but if not consumed quickly then it will either go stale or it will go off. A comparison with the Kingdom of Heaven may suggest that the Kingdom is to be received as it is presented and not kept for a later day. Like bread it is to be known, lived and enjoyed with family and friends and not kept hidden in a dark place for later investigation and consumption. The gospel message is for here and now and not for later. It is a celebration for all who enter and receive – not just a spectator sport enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own heart, isolated and unshared.
Question: does this make sense? How else may it be seen?