Robert Capon – Parable of the Weeds, pt.1

This week we are discussing the Parable of the Weeds and its explanation in Matthew 13:24-30, 34-43. Please read chapters 8 and 10 of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book  Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on these two chapters is here.

Personal Privilege:

This is my absolute favorite parable of Jesus. For me, it perfectly describes our human condition and God’s salvific response. We are a field of both good and bad seed. We are both created in the image and likeness of God, and yet we have also sinned and fallen short. There is nothing that we did to create our condition (it is the good man and the evil one who sow their respective seeds) and there is nothing that we can do to escape our present condition. Pulling out the evil, only serves to also pull out the good. It is only God, in the end, who will burn off the evil within us, and thus eternally preserve the good. For me, it is the Gospel in a nutshell. Now to the parable and to Capon.

The Parable:

In Matthew’s gospel, immediately following the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells another parable involving the sowing of seeds. But whereas the Sower speaks of the proper soil conditions for the growing of plants, the Parable of the Weeds revolves around two kinds of seeds: those that produce nourishing grain (wheat) and those that produce poisonous weeds (darnel: Lolium temulentum).

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ Matt. 13:24b-30

As we read through the parable, keep in mind the themes of Catholicity, Mystery, Actuality, and Hostility and Response.

Agricultural Malpractice:

Before hitting the meat of the parable, Capon makes the observation that the hero of Jesus’ story is advocating agricultural malpractice. The practice of not pulling out weeds until harvest time is no way to run a farm. All that such neglect insures is two undesirable results. First, it contributes to the choking out of the good plants that Jesus deplored in the Sower; second, it guarantees a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds to plague the next season’s planting. p.83.

As we continue to work through the parables, of course, Jesus will have the main character of the parable perform in ways that a rational and just actor would never perform. These main characters (usually representative of God) will sow seeds on a hard pathway, pay all field laborers the same wage regardless of the time worked, or welcome home the rebellious and wayward son without consequence. What Jesus’ audience wanted (from Galilean peasants to us) is a God and a Messiah who acts rightly and justly and smites our enemies for us. In Jesus and his parables, we usually and ultimately find something and someone at odds with our wants and expectations. An overall point of this parable is to upset our understanding of who God is.

The Setting:

The scene in the parable is Catholic. The man has a field and throughout that field, he sows the good seed. The enemy also sows the bad seed throughout that same field. As in the parable of the Sower, the entire area of the parable is sown. Nowhere is the Kingdom of Heaven absent. As Capon writes: By speaking only of one man’s field, and by avoiding any hint of a partial sowing of that field, he clearly indicates that there are no places – and by extension, no times and no people – in which the kingdom is not already at work. p.85

The Seed:

Just as in the Sower, the focus of the parable is on the seed. The seed of the Kingdom of Heaven is sown, and the seed grows. In the parable of the Sower, the operative power of the seeds is not dependent upon the cooperation of the soil. Here, the operative power of the seeds cannot be interrupted or retrained by the presence of the weeds. The actuality of the unstoppable power of the Kingdom of Heaven to grow and to produce fruit from the foundation of this parable as well.

In the Parable of the Sower, the noun “seed” is not used by Jesus, only the verb “to sow a seed.” In this parable, the noun “seed” is used. The Greek word sperma is used 43 times in the New Testament. However, only in this parable and the Parable of the Mustard Seed, does this word mean the seed of a plant. In the other 39 instances, the word means children or descendants such as the Pharisees’ statement that they are the seed (descendants) of Abraham (John 8:33). As so it is that the seeds of the Kingdom of Heaven are personal.

The Weeds:

The weeds that are sown are darnels (L. temulentum). This plant grows in the same area as wheat and looks the same as a blade of wheat until the ear appears. The similarities between the two plants are such that darnel is also known as false wheat. And like evil itself, the ingestion of darnel can lead to intoxication, hallucination, and death. As we saw in our study of Revelation, particularly in chapters 13 and 17, evil can look a lot like the good and draw our worship and attention towards it. But, as Capon points out, evil is a counterfeit reality, not reality itself. p.87

But from whence do the weeds come? The householder’s slaves want to know. This question goes back to the very beginning of recorded human thought (most succinctly stated in Epicurus’ trilemma) and only raises more questions than it answers. The question of where evil comes from or why God allows evil to exist does not have a good succinct answer. Although the parable raises the question, the only answer it gives is that the enemy is afoot. Where the enemy comes from or why God permits him to sow the bad seed is left unanswered. It simply is a given reality.

Although the parable does not answer the question of where evil comes from, it does imply that no one is responsible for the evil itself. The slaves of the householder do not plant the evil seeds, either intentionally or negligently. The evil one comes unexpectedly and at night while the slaves were sleeping. They were doing what they were supposed to be doing (sleeping) when the evil was sown. There is no indication in the parable that the slaves have any blame for the condition of the field. And there is no indication that the field itself is to blame. The field did not have darnels present within it when the good seed was sown. The evil came from the outside.

The intellectual problem of the origin of evil goes unresolved because this is not the real operative question. And, because neither the slaves nor the field itself are not to blame for the condition of the field, there is no question of how the slaves are to be forgiven or how the field should be improved. The only question in the parable and the only issue that the parable is concerned with, is how is the evil removed and who does the removing.

Our Response to Hostility:

The slaves’ reaction to the evil they confront is to root it out. They want to go into the field and pull up all of the weeds. This is usually our natural reaction to evil as well. And this is the reaction that Jesus’ audience would have expected from their Messiah. There is evil in the world and we must go after it and we must destroy it. Evil must be confronted by a strong right-handed response.

But this is not what the owner of the field says. Rather, he instructs his slaves to leave the weeds alone. As Capon points out, the evil one anticipates a right-handed response to his action, which is why the evil one leaves the field after planting the bad seeds. As the parable develops its point, though, the enemy turns out not to need anything more than negative power. He has to act only minimally on his own to wreak havoc in the world; mostly, he depends on the forces of goodness, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work. That is precisely why the enemy goes away after sowing the weeds: he has no need whatsoever to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway—having no real power to muck up the operation—he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him. Goodness itself, in other words, if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind.

Think about how much evil is done and how much good is destroyed in our desire to root out evil. Most of Paul’s letters were written to congregations in turmoil because certain members of the congregation were always eager to pull out the weeds of perceived immorality or heresy. See, Rom 14. In more modern times, we have the Salem witch trials that were carried out by godly men seeking to pull out the weeds in their community. But even when the weeds are fairly obvious, like in WWII, a lot of wheat dies in order to rid the field of the weeds. Jesus knew that we humans both have a very difficult time discerning the wheat from the weeds and lack the precision to remove only the weeds.

Jesus commands our appropriate response to the presence of the weeds.

Jesus’ Command:

The owner commands his slaves to do nothing and to allow the wheat and the weeds to grow up together so that the separation occurs only at the final harvest. The Greek word used for this command is aphete from the root aphiemi meaning “to permit.” A secondary meaning of this word, however, is translated as “forgive.” Jesus uses this same root word in the Lord’s Prayer when he tells us to forgive (aphes) our trespassers and when he further instructs us that if we forgive (aphete) our trespassers so then God will forgive (aphesei) ours. Therefore, the man’s instructions to his slaves can be translated as do nothing and forgive the wheat and the weeds to grow up together. As Capon notes, On hearing, therefore, that the farmer’s answer to the malice of the enemy was yet another aphete, they might well have grasped the Holy Spirit’s exalted pun immediately: the malice, the evil, the badness that is manifest in the real world and in the lives of real people is not to be dealt with by attacking or abolishing the things or persons in whom it dwells; rather, it is to be dealt with only by an aphesis, by a letting be that is a forgiveness, that is a suffering – that is even a permission – all rolled into one. p.91. As Capon goes on to point out, in the Greek of the gospels, there is no difference between the words for “permission” and “foregiveness” for they are the same word.

But, of course, this has always been Jesus’ command to us. We are not to resist one that is evil. Matt. 5:39. But instead we are required to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Matt. 5:44. We are not to be the judge of evil. Matt. 7:1. And, of course, it was Jesus himself who demonstrated this command by permitting Pilate to order his crucifixion (John 19:11) and his forgiving those who crucified him (Luke 23:34).

The great mystery of this parable is that we are not to engage in right-handed power when confronted with evil. As we studied in Revelation, particularly in chapters 1 and 19, the only sword that Christ and the martyrs carried into battle was the sword that issued from their mouths – i.e. their testimony. Capon does directly address how this teaching would work in the world itself. He states: If you are worrying that this exposition might form the basis of a case for pacifism, you should continue to worry. But you should also make a distinction. The parable, it seems to me, does not say that resistance to evil is morally wrong, only that it is salvifically ineffective. You may, therefore, make out as many cases as you like for just wars, capital punishment, or any other sensible, right-handed solution to the presence of malefactors on earth; but you must not assume that such solutions will necessarily make the world a better place. You may, in short, take the sword, but you should also remember that those who do so inevitably perish by the sword . . . God himself is a pacifist. You don’t have to be one, therefore; but pro the only tem you have, you might find the company quite good. pp. 87-88

The End:

The very last part of the last sentence of the parable concerns the harvest and the burning away of the weeds. Having spent the last four months in Revelation, I think we have this part of the parable covered.

Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is baked potato bar. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

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