06. February 2011
Matthew 13:24-30 (36-43)
“But the righteous in Christ, will shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father.”
This is my first time preaching this parable of the Wheat and the Tares. This is not surprising since Sunday hasn’t occurred in our lectionary since 2000. We won’t have a fifth Sunday of Epiphany again until 2038 and then not until 2095. This is due to the late date of Easter. As you know, Easter is based on the lunar calendar and moves each year. April 24th is about as late as it can be. All the church calendar back to Epiphany is back-dated from Easter. Thus, a late Easter means a long season of Epiphany. Since I’ll likely have only two shots at preaching this text in my entire pastorate, we best make the most of it.
First, there is some confusion as to the meaning of the text. Since our Lord begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared…” some assume that Jesus is here teaching about the Christian church. Some assume that Jesus is teaching us to tolerate the scandalous and lawless in the church and in the world. Thankfully, his disciples were also confused and sought clarification. Just six verses later, St. Matthew records the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, where he gives a detailed explanation.
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
In this parable, our Lord teaches us about the spiritual state of affairs. We ought not be offended and indeed suffer false Christians in this world., not the church. Why is this? The holy Christian church of the Creed is dependent not merely on the outward proclamation of the Word or the reception of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It must be appropriated and believed. The holy Church trusts in this saving Word and lives according to it. The holy Church despairs of any thoughts of pride in their services or their own pious life. Instead, true believers forget about their silly acts of righteousness and trust in the Lord’s complete righteousness, imputed to them through his shed blood. The true Church visibly known by preaching and sacrament but must also be present in the heart in faith.
Therein lies the problem. If the church is both visible and invisible, can one distinguish between true Christians and impostors? No, we cannot. Lutherans have confessed with the Scriptures that no one can know the heart but the Lord. True Christians and those who are imitations may be indistinguishable. The outward marks of the church and even pious living may be present despite the heart being empty of faith.
Thus, confusion has arisen from this parable. It is one of the few times Jesus explains the parable’s correspondence directly. Jesus teaches us that the world is full of true believers of the Gospel, whom he sowed of his own gracious will. Amongst those godly seed in the world are those sown of Satan, evil seed cast upon the same soil of the world.
Its quite the malicious affair. Satan doesn’t sow openly hedonistic seed, whose identity is obvious to us. He’s far more crafty. He sows special seed, called weeds in the ESV and tares in the Authorized Version. What sort of seed is this? The Greek is zizania, or darnel, lolium temulentum. This is a pesky, parasitic weed that looks like wheat when it sprouts, maintains this appearance until the ear appears. Its grain is dark in appearance compared to the light-colored seed. True wheat will droop from the weight of its grain, while this darnel, an impostor, will remain upright. Thus, one cannot determine what is the true crop from the weed until the time of the harvest.
Not knowing whether true faith is present in these outwardly pious and practicing Christians is a challenge. It means we must dwell in the world with those acting as impostors, imitators. From our perspective, we must assume they are believers. Where true faith is present, the outward marks are of necessity visible. A good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. We are not to go about weeding the world of unbelievers. We aren’t jihadists, killing those who we determine are unbelievers.
It is when those who profess to be Christians act openly in hypocrisy or heresy that we can safely judge. Those who hold fast to false teaching and teachers need to be reproved and so return to an orthodox fellowship. Those who live outwardly in conflict with the Holy Scriptures, are admonished and called to repentance. And finally, those who refuse to hear, mark, and live according to the Word declare themselves outside the Christian fellowship.
This may seem a conflict. How can we say, on the one hand, that true Christians are known only to God, and then, on the other hand, practice discipline within the congregation based on outward marks – whether the faithful reception of the Word and Sacrament or even a godly life? It is in part this purpose that Christ had in mind when he taught this parable of the Wheat and the Tares.
Jesus teaches us there are two types of unbeliever. One openly rejects Christ and His gifts of Word and Sacrament. They refuse to confess their sins, plead for forgiveness, humbly turn back to godly virtue. Instead, they live in hypocrisy, shame, and ungodliness. For these, the office of the keys was instituted by Christ and given to his Apostles and thus the church. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:23). This binding and loosing key is given to release repentant sinners from the guilt of the Law but to fix guilt upon those who refuse to repent, until they turn back to Christ, confess their sin, and seek the guidance of his Word and Spirit to amend their life. This sinner is not the subject of this parable.
Instead, Christ here in the parable of the Weeds wants us to consider the other type of unbeliever. This one may even be in our midst. From every external sign, we assume they hold to the true Christian faith. Yet, only Christ knows that inwardly they are zizania, darnel, an impostor. We do not have the knowledge of their heart. Even upon examination, their every word and deed seems right and true. He knows our predilection to judge each other like books and their covers. From the parable, inwardly unbelieving tares cannot be known and must be left until the last day. Only obvious weeds, quite unlike wheat can be known before the final harvest.
Christ our Lord knows that we would like to put our trust in these outward signs at the neglect of faith in God’s Word. Consider the parable of the weeds. Christ himself sows good grain with the Gospel into the field of the world. The enemy sows inward hypocrites as his tares onto the same soil. The cunningly deceive many with their outward life but inwardly oppose God. Even if we suspect their unbelief, it is not given to us to weed them out. The wheat and the weeds must remain until the harvest, least the wheat be uprooted with the weeds. Only at the harvest will true faith be revealed, when the fruits of faith come into full grain. Only on the last day, will the inward unbelievers be revealed for what they are, weeds with black, poisonous grains.
Each of us ought to examine our hearts for faith that trusts in the Word of God. His Word is not given for mere morals but also to test our faith. When we learn what is godly and righteous from the Holy Scriptures, we learn that the difference between being wheat and being tares is small. A tare strives to live according to God but inwardly trusts in their works to gain favor. A tare practices the Law but only to keep up appearances.
I was taught as a child, “they will know they are Christians by our love.” We are taught to confess our faith with our lips and with our hands. Our lives are a confession of the hope that is in us. When husbands love their wife as Christ loves the church, faith is confessed. Well, not quite. Without knowledge of God’s Holy Word written in Galatians 5, your wife would not know that your love is meant by God as a type of the love of his son for the church. You’d merely be another husband among many, not a Christian one.
Our world is full of “good Samaritans.” Many go out of their way to support those in need, just like the Samaritan in the parable helped the man in the ditch. Yet, without God’s Word, we would not know that the Samaritan is principally meant to illustrate Christ’s own love for miserable, beaten, and bloodied sinners in the ditch. Without the knowledge of the narrative plot of Scripture, that is, God’s sacrificial love in Jesus, we would not understand that our love for the needed is meant to confess Christ’s own love for us.
Outward acts of love or charity are not indicators of faith unless they are joined to an inward confession of the heart, born out of knowledge and trust in God’s holy Law and Gospel. It is far to easy to look at a loving couple, living together in monogamy, and just assume they are Christians. It is too easy to look at the good Samaritans of this world and assume that their actions are born out of God’s own love for them. Such assumptions miss an important truth. Outward marks alone may or may not reveal the faith of the heart.
Wheat are different. You are different. You live according to the Law but recognize that you have not kept it to God’s standard. You recognize their own latent unbelief. You are compelled to confess and repent. This is the fruit of God’s own planting. Wheat grow into a godly grain not because of their will but of the will of God. He has planted in you the good seed of faith. This faith despairs of your own merit, outward piety, and acts of charity. Instead, it kneels before the Lord, boldly confessing unworthiness and pleading for mercy.
Then, in utter grace, our Lord bestows the gift of the Gospel, releasing you from your guilt. From the whole of Scripture, you know the next chapter in the parable. You know that many zizania, tares are transformed by the Gospel into true wheat. The black, poisonous fruit is carved out of the young seedling and a new, fresh, and healthy grain is born again. Your heart is made new. This is the beginning of a new growth, not self but godly germination. We are born again, not as tares but as wheat, holy and righteous in God’s sight. Just as the gardener invests himself into his plants, so our Lord has invested himself in you. He has redeemed you from the evil sower, the devil, and re-sown you as his own. New life sprouts forth, growing and maturing into a lush plant and bountiful harvest for the Lord on the last day.
Can we tell the difference between the wheat and the tares? No. Today, we can only assume to know those who live outwardly as Christians to be Christian, both hearing the Word and leading a godly life according to it. Still, rest assured. The Son of Man will send his angels to gather the harvest. At the end of the age, the tares, that is, all the impenitent law-breakers, who will be bound and cast into the fiery furnace. But you, the righteous in Christ, will shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father.
In Name the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church