A couple of weeks ago at our bi-weekly pub church gathering, New Wineskins, we were talking about Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds from Matthew 13.
In the story, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who planted good seed in his field, but an enemy sowed bad seed in the midst of it. And as the good seed grew into a crop of wheat, the bad seed grew into invasive weeds. But instead of having his workers cull out the weeds, the landowner says to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest, when the harvester would separate the wheat from the weeds.
Later, Jesus explains the parable to his followers: He is the sower, the enemy is the “devil,” the good crop is the sons and daughters of the kingdom of heaven, and the weeds are the followers of evil.
Except it’s not.
I know I am but what are you?
In nearly every context where I’ve studied this story or heard it taught or preached, the assumption is made that “we” (Christians) are the wheat, and “they” (non-Christians) are the weeds. We were planted by Jesus, and everyone else is a seed of Satan. We may have to grow beside each other in this world for a while, but eventually we’ll go to heaven, and they’ll burn in the fires of hell.
But what we fail to consider in that assumption is that nobody in Jesus’ original audience was a Christian. Jesus was preaching to first century Palestinian Jews who were deeply entrenched in their Jewish heritage.
And while a theology of resurrection had begun to take hold in Judaism by that time in history (although the Sadducees sect famously denied it), the dualistic question of who went to heaven and who went to hell when they died was really nowhere on their collective radars.
So why would Jesus tell a story about Christians going to heaven and non-Christians going to hell to a bunch of pre-Christian Jews in a culture that didn’t have a context for that kind of epistemology?
Let’s zoom out for a second and look at the bigger narrative picture.
The kingdom of heaven is like…
In Matthew 12 Jesus has been roundly criticizing the religious/political elite, who by the way have basically just called him the devil (Matt. 12:22-37). These leaders repeatedly criticize Jesus and his followers for being outside of Jewish law and tradition.
And so Jesus counterpunches in Matthew 13, where he launches into a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven. We know that’s what they were about because Jesus begins most of them by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like….”
But what we need to understand is that for first century Palestinian Jews, the “kingdom of heaven” was not understood to be someplace to which one’s disembodied soul took a postmortem luxury cruise. It was an expected state of reality within human history when God would set things right and God’s rule and reign would prevail.
Notwithstanding the fact that they largely believed in their context that the coming of the kingdom of heaven meant little more than the overthrow of the Roman Empire from Israel, they certainly would not have heard Jesus’ words to mean anything about reward in the afterlife.
Sympathy for the Devil
Similarly, we superimpose our visions of hell given to us by Dante and Milton (and not from the Bible) onto what Jesus says about the weeds being burned in the fire. Again, Jesus’ first audience would not have been thinking about eternal conscious torment, but would more likely have heard this as a reference to Gehenna, the trash dump outside of Jerusalem where fires burned constantly and where wild dogs would gnash their teeth as they competed for scraps.
So the point wasn’t about who’s soul would go where after they died. It was about who would get to participate in God’s will and reign when it was established on earth.
If anyone thought they were the wheat in the story, it would have been the Jewish leaders, who viewed themselves as the guardians of the Mosaic law. They were quite certain not only that they’d participate in the kingdom of heaven, but that they’d have positions of power and influence.
But Jesus seems to be flipping the script on them when he explains the parable to his followers in private afterward.
Because Jesus’ followers would have assumed that they were the weeds.
Everything they had heard from the establishment was that they were unworthy. Unwanted. Undeserving of God’s favor.
And Jesus is telling them not to believe that. Not to buy the lie of the powerful and privileged.
The meek shall inherit the earth.
What everyone thought were worthless weeds turned out to be valuable wheat. And what they thought was wheat was, in the end, fruitless and unproductive.
It’s another parable of purpose over privilege.
When we assume that our group is “right,” that we are the favored ones, that we have value that others inherently do not, we become fruitless and unproductive.
But when we see the worth and value of those who sit on the outside of privilege, and when we join them in living out God’s purpose for sowing love in the world, we are actively living out the kingdom of heaven.