Matthew 13 contains more of Jesus’ parables than any other chapter in the New Testament. The Greek word for “parable” is parabole, from two smaller words: the preposition para, meaning “alongside,” and bole, which is related to the verb ballo, meaning “to throw or cast.” So a parable is a story Jesus told using the common things of his day which he “threw alongside” a spiritual truth to illustrate that truth for those who wanted to understand.
All eight parables in Matthew 13 are kingdom parables, teaching about the nature of God’s kingdom, which means his ruling over his people. This kingdom or rule has two aspects: a present spiritual aspect in which God rules over those who become subjects of the kingdom in this age, and a future aspect in which God’s people enter the visible eternal kingdom on the Last Day at the end of this age.
The first farmer parable in Matthew 13, The Parable of the Sower (13:3-8, 18-23), deals with the present spiritual aspect of God’s kingdom in which God’s Word creates saving faith in the hearts of some of those who hear the Word. The second farmer parable in Matthew 13, the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (13:24-30, 36-43), mainly focuses on the future—the visible Last Day aspect of the kingdom. It points specifically to the judgment, purging out the goats from the sheep and the tares from the wheat, separating those who are not subjects of the King from those who belong to God’s kingdom.
In the Parable of the Sower all the seed was good seed, while the kinds of soil differed. But the Parable of the Wheat and Tares describes different kinds of seed, some good (the wheat seed) and some harmful (the tares). The tares described here were most likely a kind of darnel weed, whose scientific name is Lolium temulentum. Until these respective plants mature and the ears of the plants become visible, they look so similar that some have referred to the darnel weed as “false wheat.”
The landowner’s servants in the parable might have expected a few weeds to grow among the wheat, but they were alarmed at the huge quantity of weeds that appeared to be growing among the wheat (13:27). The more experienced landowner recognized this phenomenon as no accident but as deliberate agricultural and economic sabotage by an enemy (13:28). In fact, this kind of sabotage was prevalent enough in the ancient world that the Roman Empire actually considered it a crime and specifically prohibited the practice in Roman Law.
While most of Jesus’ parables have a single main point and are often “overinterpreted” by some teachers who try to find a specific meaning for every detail, there are a few parables in which Jesus himself provides the meaning for most of the details, and this is one of those parables. In 13:36-43, our Lord interprets and applies the Parable of the Wheat and Tares. The landowner’s servants in the parable were eager to tear out the weeds immediately (13:28b), just as Jesus’ own disciples elsewhere wanted immediate judgment upon those who opposed them and their Rabbi (Luke 9:54). But the wise and patient landowner wanted his servants to leave the weeds alone and let them grow alongside the wheat until the final harvest. Believers and non-believers may look similar, and according to Jesus’ interpretation, God and the angels are the ones who can tell the difference. The angels will weed out the tares on the Day of Judgment.
“The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels” (Matthew 13:37-39).
No religious entities—neither the agents of the medieval Church’s Crusades or Inquisition, nor the followers of the so-called Islamic State—have the right to determine who deserves to live or die based on belief or lifestyle. God’s own messengers, his angels, will be the actors at the Final Judgment: They will gather “everything that causes sin,” that causes people to stumble. They will also gather those who do harm, “all who do evil” (13:40-42). The angels will cast all of these into “the blazing furnace,” the equivalent of the “lake of fire” in Revelation 19:20, 20:10, and 21:8. This will result in “weeping” (suggesting grief and loss) and “gnashing of teeth” (suggesting physical pain) for the lost.
In stark contrast, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (13:43). “Righteous” must refer to those who are righteous by faith, trusting in God’s anointed Messiah Jesus, since in ourselves no one is righteous (Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1; Romans 3:10). Paul emphasizes that righteousness before God is the righteousness of faith, not from human good deeds. “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
None of us by nature is the good seed! Pastor and author John McArthur writes:
“All good seeds were once tares; all the sons of the kingdom were once sons of the evil one. To go beyond the scope of this parable, while still using some of its figures, it could be said that the primary purpose of the ‘good seeds’ in the world is to make converts of ‘tares,’ that they might also become sons of the kingdom” (Commentary on Matthew).
As God makes our hearts spiritually alive through the good news of Jesus’ redeeming love, we can share the gospel, through which the Spirit of God creates saving faith in the hearts of those who listen, converting them from tares to wheat. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the Explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, in which Martin Luther writes, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith…” (Small Catechism, 1529).
Chaplain, Colonel Michael H. Heuer, USAF (Retired), M.A., M.Ed., Ph.D., is the Director of Ministry to the Armed Forces for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.