Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43
Who among us when looking at a young person is able to discern if that young person is going to grow up into a faithful and mature disciple of Christ, or into a disciple of the devil?
We will come back to this question in a while, after we have looked at some history.
Around 300 years after Jesus was the time of the Great Persecution, the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. In Africa the Christians found themselves under a soft and lenient governor who asked only that Christians repudiate their loyalty to Jesus by handing over to the Romans their Scriptures. When the persecution ended under the rule of Constantine, there were two groups of Christians. One group comprised the Christians who had compromised with the Romans and handed over the holy things. The other group comprised those Christians who had never comprised with the Romans. Each side saw themselves as the only true church of real believers in Africa.
The side that kept the faith were called Donatists and they insisted the church must be a church of ‘saints’ (not ‘sinners’), and any baptisms or holy communions performed by the other side were invalid. The side that handed over the holy things were called traditors – “those who handed (the holy things) over” – by the Donatists.
And so there was a church split with the Donatists insisting they were the only true church. This is not unlike the situation in other parts of the world where one group of Christians has cooperated in some way with an occupier or enemy force. Can you imagine which one you would have been if you had lived in Africa 1,800 years ago?
This discord continued for a few hundred years without resolution.
The early church father and theologian Augustine, who was from Hippo in Africa, joined in the efforts the end the stand-off. He was against the Donatists, who were declared heretics by the rest of the church. Augustine said it was impossible to tell who would and who wouldn’t grow into true faith, and he cited the passage in Matthew we have just read. He said that as a result of Jesus’ teaching nobody should be excluded from the church. He also joined the majority opinion that a sacrament was from God, not from the pastor or bishop, and so a sinner could administer a valid sacrament. Augustine said serious sin didn’t permanently disqualify a man from church leadership.
This type of debate and dispute continues today, and if you think you might be a Donatist you wouldn’t be alone.
Some people accused the early reformers John Wycliffe and Jan Hus of being Donatists.
And even today Anabaptists and Conservative Lutherans are sometimes called Donatists by their opponents.
Let’s look at the parable in Matthew 13. Jesus tells the parable in verses 24 to 30, and then he explains it to his disciples in verses 36 to 43.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field.”
When we read that “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer” we must understand how parables work. Jesus is using the traditional form of a parable and so he isn’t saying that if we study farmers we will learn all there is to know about the Kingdom of Heaven. It means that the whole story is about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus explains to the disciples that he is the farmer, he is the one who is planting good seed.
Then he tells them that the field he is planting the seed in is actually ‘the world’. A small minority of people have taken this to mean that Jesus isn’t planting his seed in the church, and so the views of Augustine do not apply. In Christian circles we often use the word world to mean the non-believers and their society, in contrast with the church.
The word that is translated here as world is ‘cosmos’, which as you all know means universe. In everyday English, using the word cosmos rather than the word universe implies viewing the universe as a complex and orderly system or entity; the opposite of chaos.
My Bible dictionary explains that although this is the meaning sometimes used in the New Testament, for example when Jesus says it is of no profit to gain the whole world, there is a more usual meaning. Because human beings are the most important part of the universe, the word cosmos is often used in a more limited sense to mean human beings, or the inhabitants of the planet earth. The cosmos naturally comes to mean the human race as under sin, and as the object of Christ’s redeeming and reconciling works.
Obviously there wasn’t a church at the time when Jesus told this parable, and nobody thought that Jesus had come to start a new religion. The planting that the Messiah is doing is among all the people of the world, in the church and outside the church.
We must expect to find believers and unbelievers, converted and unconverted, the children of the kingdom and the children of the wicked one, all mingled together in every congregation of baptized people.
Wheat was as common in the West as rice in the East, and as essential to life. Alongside wheat it was normal to find darnel growing. It is generally agreed that the weeds in the parable were darnel, which looks just like wheat but is poisonous.
Jesus says, “The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one.” The good seed represents all of the people who belong to Jesus. There are only these two kinds of people, and no others, and you cannot tell which is which while they are immature.
Augustine made another point about these people who belong to the devil, the evil one.
Augustine pointed out that at any time before the harvest they can change, and give their lives to Jesus and be saved. Darnel can be transformed into wheat by the power of Jesus sacrifice.
Some people reject God because there is evil in the world. And some because there is evil in the church. Jesus says faith in God and the existence of evil aren’t conflicting ideas, but are what the kingdom of God is like at present. There are good and bad people; good and bad actions are carried out; people have worthy and unworthy motives. Jesus says, accept it as a fact. This is the way the world is, but that doesn’t mean that God is not loving.
If you suspect a brother or a sister is darnel rather than wheat, what does Jesus ask of you? He asks you to do nothing, because anything you might try to do to get rid of the darnel will “uproot the wheat” (verse 29).
If we look at the example of Jesus own life, the life we as disciples seek to emulate, we will see that our lord and master ate with sinners. Jesus spent a great deal of his time with those who were rejected by society or looked down upon by the religious establishment.
We who follow the example of Jesus are called upon to love all of our fellow men without any discrimination, because we cannot tell which ones are weeds and which ones are wheat. We are to love everyone equally without any favour.
Whatever sorting out needs to be done between people who belong to Jesus and people who belong to the evil one will be done “at the end of the world.”
At that time it still won’t be up to us to decide who is a weed and who is wheat. It will be the angels belonging to the Son of Man who do the sorting out of weeds and wheat.
If you ever feel tempted to point to a brother or sister in the church as less than Christian; if you ever feel tempted to call them a weed, or tare, beware. In so doing you are in danger of pulling out wheat. It seems to me that pulling out wheat is a terrible thing, like bringing down spiritual death on the head of a brother or sister.
Doesn’t it seem strange that we fall so easily into trying to distinguish the true church from the false church and true believers from false believers, when what Jesus has told us to do is grow up ourselves and make disciples of all people.
Let’s put as far away from ourselves as possible the temptation to lord it over others with our own interpretations of Scripture to such a degree that we declare them weeds – our religious enemies. Let us focus rather on ripening as wheat, so that we become faithful and loving disciples of Jesus who are ready for the harvest.