Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 13:24-30 + Genesis 18:20-33 + Colossians 3:12-17
Because of how late Easter falls this year, we get to celebrate a Fifth Sunday after Epiphany and receive the Gospel of Jesus in His great Parable of the Weeds, Matthew 13. This parable doesn’t show up in the historic lectionary again until the year 2038, so as always, but maybe especially today, you’ll do well to listen carefully to what Jesus teaches you in this parable.
Jesus himself explains the meaning of it to his disciples a few verses later in Matthew chapter 13. The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. But unlike the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, in which the seed stands for the Word of God, the seed, in this case, stands for the “sons of the kingdom,” Jesus says, for believers, true Christians who aren’t just subjects of his eternal Kingdom, but sons – legal heirs of all that is his. The point here isn’t how people come to faith in Christ – which is through hearing his Word, but the fact that Christ is the one responsible for planting his believers throughout the field, which is the world.
The weeds are the “sons” – the legal heirs – “of the evil one,” and the devil is responsible for planting them in the field of the world – not off in a corner somewhere, but right alongside the wheat. The weeds are unbelievers, but this parable is focusing on a particular set of unbelievers – the ones who grow together right alongside the believers, the ones who look like real Christians, but are not; the ones who seem to have a part in Christ’s kingdom, but do not. We’re talking about the Church on earth and the heretics and the false Christians who grow up right alongside the true Christians – not just down the road from one another, but in the same church building – wheat and weeds growing side by side.
And for awhile, you can’t tell the difference. Notice, the parable said that it wasn’t until the weeds and the wheat matured and the wheat started producing its grain that the weeds were identified by the servants of the field owner. That’s how it will be, Jesus says, in the Church on earth. Everyone becomes an outward member of the Church in the same way – through baptism and confirmation. We all say we believe the same thing. We all say we hold to the apostolic doctrines. No heretic ever looks like a heretic. No false Christian is branded with a label on his forehead saying, “I’m actually a weed.”
But then the fruit starts to appear, fruits like the Apostle Paul talked about in the Epistle Lesson, the fruit that only a true Christian can produce: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, love, thankfulness. Bearing with each other, forgiving whatever grievances you may have against one another. And a sincere love for the Word of Christ and for the worship of Christ in the congregation of believers.
God’s holy people are sinners –every last one! – but they are sinners who mourn daily over their sinfulness and cling to Christ in faith, trusting in his merits for the forgiveness of sins. And God’s holy people will strive to put those things into practice that Paul encouraged – the things that are fitting for God’s holy people. God’s holy people, the wheat in the field, the sons of the Kingdom, will strive to live like this and as they do, they show themselves to be stalks of wheat, almost ready to be harvested.
But the weeds balk at the idea of bearing with one another and forgiving their fellow members. The weeds – even if they’re members in good standing in a Christian congregation, will get angry when reprimanded by a fellow member or by their pastor. They won’t waste their time showing self-abasing love and kindness and humility, and certainly not with the pure doctrine of the Word. They want the pastor to say words that make them feel good about themselves, words that will help them improve their life on earth, words that allow them to hold onto their self-made worship and beliefs and gods. The weeds may shift in their seats uncomfortably during the service, grow quickly bored with the service if they don’t find it stimulating or entertaining enough. They have little compassion on those sitting around them, and consider it a burden to practice gentleness and patience with a fellow member.
Even then, even then the owner of the field doesn’t want his servants to tear up the weeds and pluck them out of the world. “Let them grow together until the harvest,” he says. “Because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.”
It’s important to understand what kind of “weeding” the Lord does not want to happen yet. He’s not talking about church discipline. He’s not saying a pastor should never reprimand or a church should never excommunicate an impenitent sinner. “Expel the immoral brother from among you,” the Apostle Paul says. Jesus is talking about pulling weeds out of the field, that is, the world. He doesn’t want his Church ridding the world of heretics and false Christians. No holy wars against the infidels. No burning heretics at the stake. God has not given the sword to his Church. He’s given her his Word, and he expects her to use it: to apply the balm of absolution – forgiveness of sins for the penitent, and to apply the binding key of unforgiveness to the one who refuses to repent.
But wouldn’t it go better for the wheat if God allowed the weeds to be pulled now? Wouldn’t the Church on earth be a better place if there were no heretics to attack her, no sin to distract her, no schisms to rend her asunder, no scandals to devastate a congregation? Some of you have lived through scandals like that. Wouldn’t the sons of the Kingdom thrive and flourish without all those weeds to mess up the field? I would think, “Yes!” But God says, “No!”
“No! Because while you’re pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. A that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”
It’s all for the benefit of the wheat, the righteous, the sons of the Kingdom. Remember in the Old Testament reading how God assured Abraham that he would spare all the wicked – spare those wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – for the sake of just a few righteous people. He would rather spare all the wicked than destroy them and have the righteous swept away with them. So much the Son of Man loves his own.
He lets the weeds grow together with the wheat, first, because some who are now false Christians and heretics will repent and become true Christians, just as true Christians may fall away for a time and return in repentance. If God would pull the weeds out of this world ahead of time, then they would have no opportunity to repent, and God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. Imagine if he had pulled out the weed named Saul before he could be converted into the apostle named Paul! Imagine if he had pulled out the weed King David had become after his adultery and murder, without giving him time to repent at the word of the prophet Nathan. Imagine if he had struck you dead at any of those times when you turned your back on faith. It’s for the good of the wheat that God allows the weeds to grow alongside them.
Not only that, but God, in his unfathomable wisdom, God, who works out all things for the good of those who love him, knows that it’s good for the wheat to have the weeds growing alongside it. The evil one sowed the weeds to harm to wheat, but the Son of Man sees it and shakes his head in derision of the devil, because he knows, “Weeds all around are exactly what my wheat needs on this earth.” That’s totally contrary to all farming and gardening wisdom, but the wisdom of God works in so many ways contrary to the way things work on this earth.
The weeds – the heretics, the false Christians, those who cause scandals and factions and who add their bitterness and anger to the community of believers – the weeds force the wheat to be on guard – to be on guard against temptation and against all forms of pride. No church or church body can ever peer down its nose at the rest of the world and claim to be a pure, pristine haven of perfection. Instead, we are forced to admit that we are always a hair’s breadth away from falling, to admit that we are nothing and Christ is everything and all our hope rests in him, and that’s the way it must be.
The weeds force the wheat to send its roots down deeper, deeper into the Gospel of Christ. When factions and false teachings threaten the Church, then there’s no time to be lazy. It will not help you to say, “I already learned all that Bible stuff back in catechism class. Jesus loves me, this I know…and this is all I want to know. Don’t bother me with doctrine.” No, false teachers are everywhere, and false beliefs, too, so it’s absolutely essential to seek out the pure teaching of Christ. Unless that is your conscious purpose, you will always fall into error and be swept away, because your natural self is always more attracted to error than it is to the truth. Friends, we have that truth faithfully passed down to us in the Lutheran Confessions. Study them and see!
The weeds all around force the wheat to thirst for the Gospel that speaks peace to the soul, because all around, even in the Church, we see unrest and false teaching and false Christians. Because of the weeds, the wheat is forced to thirst for life-giving water, which we have in Christ’s baptismal promise that unites the baptized to his death and resurrection and gives daily comfort and strength. The wheat is forced to hunger and thirst for the Holy Supper, for the very body and blood of Jesus, because the weeds would sap the life out of the wheat, but for the body and blood of the Church’s Husband that sustain her week in and week out with all the nourishment she needs.
But this will not go on forever, this mingling of wheat and weeds in the field of the world. There is a real day coming, not far off now, when the harvest will be gathered. First the weeds – and the angels will have no trouble figuring out who they are. The Lord knows those who are his. The angels will cut them out of Christ’s kingdom and assign them their place in the burning hellfire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And then the wheat will be gathered into God’s eternal harvest-home and his people will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
That’s when the Church will be a neat and tidy place – not before. Until then, expect there to be weeds in the field. If you are one of them, repent before the harvest comes and believe the good news of forgiveness through faith in Christ Jesus. If you’re among the wheat, then hold on until the harvest when Christ is revealed at his final epiphany.
Even so, Lord, quickly come
To your final harvest-home;
Gather all your people in,
Free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified,
In your garner to abide.
Come with all your angels, come;
Raise the glorious harvest-home. (CW, 613:4)