What is a parable? How is a parable a part of the Good News of the Gospels? Jesus wanted his stories to say very important things to people—and he wanted them to remember these stories and keep thinking about them for a long time. Even more than that, he wanted them to enter into these stories as they kept thinking.
Jesus’ teaching method was to lure people into participating in the stories—in the same way that many good stories get us to participate in them. We remember it and we carry it home with us, still thinking about that story. We hear Jesus talking about a Sower and we wonder: Who is this Sower? Why did he cast the seed in this way? Imagine if you were among the people who heard these parables for the first time from Jesus. In the Bible we read today, the Gospel writers usually try to neatly explain the meaning after each parable, but Jesus used these participatory stories to leave people hanging as they went away.
Perhaps, Jesus taught by making up these parables, these stories. Were the people and details in these parables what we would call non-fiction? I think the parables were fiction. But they were very important. Can we have parables about real persons in a Gospel? These are the kinds of questions I am raising.
A parable makes us hesitate for a moment in the way we think about the absolutes we assume are true. It takes our absolute political, economic, religious and social assumptions and tells us a story in the opposite direction that forces us to think.
I wonder why is it that we assume the Sower to be a man. Why can’t the Sower be a woman?
I wonder what it was like in Galilee’s rural areas around the time of Jesus. What we know at the moment suggests that small farm owners were losing their land to big city farmers. This meant:
• mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy,
deepening the crisis of debt and dispossession
• farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line, and
• a new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.
The atmosphere was potentially explosive. You had a mix of peasant, landless farmers; unemployed day labourers; city farmers (landowners); Roman officials; temple or priestly authorities.
Into this setting, and often as a result of some challenge to his way of being or re-imagining, Jesus the sage overhears and shares in the everyday conversations and mealtime chats. He begins to weave his stories and sayings. And as they listened to and pictured the story characters some of the audience would react with disdain. Sometimes their reaction would be sympathetic. Many knew all too well how much effort need to be expended just to be able to scratch out an existence.
B Brandon Scott, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, and a scholar of the study of the parables, says: ‘The parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living, of being in the world. They are not just religious, not just about God, although they are that too… they are multifaceted re-imaginings of life, of the possibilities of life’. (Scott 2001:6)
For me that’s what makes the parables so interesting.
So, today’s parable: a man (or woman) sowed good seed.
The wheat grows. But so too does another crop. Weeds. Or darnel, to be exact. A species of rye-grass which looks almost exactly the same as wheat in its early stages o growth. It’s described as tares in the King James Bible and this passage is often called the Parable of the Tares.
Immediately the sower suspects the work of sabotage. An enemy. A decision needs to be made. Pull up the weeds (seen as worthless) or let both the darnel and the wheat (seen as having worth), grow together.
That’s our story told by Matthew.
How can we hear and re-imagine this parable? Perhaps I can offer some suggestions we can ponder together.
So, what is Matthew’s circumstance? Possibly the division in the Syrian synagogue between those Jews who seek to follow the ‘way’ of Jesus and those who don’t. And what is Matthew’s so-called ‘point’ of the story? Is it: “Don’t weed! Deal inclusively.” Perhaps that is one way we can hear this parable and re-imagine a world where compassion and understanding rather than fear and suspicion shape our experiences. That would certainly be a telling modern twist!
On the other hand, it also needs to be noted that some within Christianity have used this story to condemn those who think differently to them. If we look back to the fourth century of the Common Era for instance, implications were already being drawn that ‘difference’ (usually called ‘heresy’), was the work of an evil one. While ‘sameness’ or ‘orthodoxy’ was the fruit of the good seed. Weed out! Eradicate!
Returning to the parable itself, there is every chance that Jesus’ audience of peasant farmers and unemployed day labourers would have really enjoyed this story. Their sympathies would have been with the labourers who planted the crop. Not with the ‘city farmer’ who owned the land. Because he was foolish. Because he didn’t know the first thing about farming. Because he was greedy to the core. The first thing about farming, as everyone knows, is you remove the weeds as soon as they appear. That way their roots don’t get intertwined with the wheat, and compete with the wheat for space, soil, nutrients, moisture and light.
New Testament theologian Bill Loader’s comment is telling: ‘A sense that there is an enemy marks many societies, religious and otherwise. It is almost as though we need an enemy, another, against whom to define ourselves. This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival… There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’. This is the stuff of prejudice. Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’. (William Loader/web site, 2008).
So, I wonder who is the “enemy”—called such by the landowner as a “disturber” of his profit-seeking?
Or perhaps, it is darnel itself, sowing itself, against the grain of settled agriculture’s intention to enslave and exploit. The darnel though toxic to human and cow, is food to doves and other winged folk. Is this what the kingdom is like—not industrial cultivation, hell-bent on mono-crop and mono-culture and even mono-theism, but a community garden. inviting opossum and fox, crow and deer, maybe even daisy and dandelions once again to co-habit with us? And discovering God resides in stones and birds, mould and weed, and seed of every kind? Welcome to the good news of weeds!
The landowner’s servants asked if they should go in and pull out the tares. He told them no:
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of the harvest, I will say to the reapers, gather ye together first the tares [weeds], and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
In other words, the inability to distinguish the good from the bad made it too damaging to separate them until the plants matured and were ready to be harvested.
I was pondering on the image of good and bad. I received a text stating that my credit card has been compromised. The text seems genuine with all the right terms. I could have fallen for the scam. Mortgages, home loans, buy now pay later scheme – are mixed in with bad loans, packaging that make it hard to distinguish the good from the bad.
But who mixed the bad seeds in with the good ones, and why? How did mortgages to bad credit risks become so common? Property values were rising, the risks of putting people in houses they couldn’t afford remained dormant.
Or take the invasion of Ukraine. The sale of arms, sending troops. Who benefits? The daily news takes hope away and tries to convince us that human cleverness…spying on the enemy, having the smartest weapons, living in constant suspicion of strangers, can save us.
Jesus created his parables within the context of village realities. He critiques the expectations and assumptions and conclusions of the city farmer, as well as those of the peasant farmer and day labourer. No one escapes the challenge – the surprise – of this story.
The realm of God, Jesus seems to say, is always…is always more than you can imagine. It contradicts our normal notions of who belongs and who does not, of who is worthy and who is not. Its contradiction is given expression by the way we live – that is, open to being changed by the ‘worth’ rather than the perceived ‘worthlessness’ of the other.
To accept the invitation to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that we can be. Jesus turns our world, our expectations, our assumptions, our conclusions, upside down.
So how is our world, our conclusions turned upside down in this parable? By acknowledging that in the kingdom or realm of God, failure and miracle and normality are present.
“In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of God’s activity”. (Scott 1989:362).
The realm of God does not require moral perfection or only ‘effective’ and ‘efficient’ actions. And those considered outsiders, are in. That’s the surprise, the twist in the tail of this parable. That’s the re-imagining rather than the point of this parable. And that’s good news for us.
Perhaps God is reckless Sower, letting the weeds to grows aggressively. Yes, let justice, hope, peace, and love grow aggressively as the weeds.
Welcome to the parable of the weeds.
- The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus Paperback –by John Dominic Crossan(Author)
- Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
- Binkley, C. G. & J. M. McKeel.Jesus and his Kingdom of Equals. An International Curriculum on the Life and Teaching of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
- http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/Rex A E Hunt