Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 16:30 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes we make a mistake about why Jesus tells parables. We think that Jesus tells parables so that people will better understand the difficult theological language that He uses when He speaks plainly. He tells these stories because it’s too hard to understand plain words. He tells parables that connect those theological concepts to every-day life. The parables make Jesus’ words more relevant and understandable. (As if Jesus’ words were not relevant when He doesn’t speak in parables!) So we would expect people to say, “Oh, Jesus, I couldn’t really understand what You were saying. But now that You’ve told this nice, homely story, I see what You were saying.”
But that’s not what happens. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one time when people immediately “get” the import of the parable, and that’s when the Pharisees “perceived that he was speaking about them” (Matthew 21:45). Otherwise, neither the crowds nor the disciples understand at first what He’s saying when He speaks in parables. Twice here in chapter 13, Jesus has to take His disciples aside by themselves to explain the parables. And it is Jesus’ explanation that leads to their understanding when He is done speaking in parables.
It’s Jesus’ explanation that opens our ears to hear and believe what is happening when Jesus comes into this world, reigning over God’s Kingdom, both now and forever—both when we can’t see, and when we will see.
Jesus tells this parable, as with the others, to the crowds gathered on the shore of the sea, but He explains them to His disciples. And when He tells the parable, it has a different emphasis than it does when He explains it to His disciples. Listen closely: in the parable, the emphasis is on the way it is in the world. Last week, we heard how it is in the world with the Word that Jesus scatters like seed. Here Jesus tells how it is in the world with that good seed in good soil, that bears fruit. Even where the Word has taken root and grows, even there the Enemy is still at work. He doesn’t stop when the Word takes root; he comes along and plants his own seeds right on top of the good seed. And that’s how it is, even in the field of the Master. That’s how it will be until the end of this age, until the end of this world as it is, subject to sin and death.
And isn’t this strange: the slaves of the Household know that there are weeds. They hear from the Master that an enemy has done this. This is not a result of what He has done. Well, if an enemy has done this, shouldn’t we pull up those weeds and get rid of them? Strangely, the Master says, “No.” He knows the enemy did it. He knows that it’s bad that they’re there. But He says not to remove them.
I’m not an agricultural expert. But from what I’ve read, the word that Jesus uses for weeds here is for a particular kind of weed. It’s not the same as the thorny weeds that we heard about last week. This is a word for something that looks very much like wheat. In fact, sometimes it was sown with wheat. Sometimes it was harvested with the wheat. Sometimes it was baked or brewed along with wheat. But it is also apparently a little poisonous. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, it was baked or brewed and gave the bread or beer a little extra “kick.” But it’s not good for you. Here the point is that it is hard to tell from regular, good wheat. It grows right with the other wheat, sometimes entangled, difficult to make sure that you don’t also pull up wheat.
So without an explanation to satisfy our questioning into the mystery of God’s will, He says that this is how it is going to be in this world until the last day. And it is for the sake of His mercy, that no stalk of wheat be pulled up. This is what He emphasizes to the crowds. But when He explains the parable to His disciples, He focuses on something else: that it will not always be this way.
In the explanation, Jesus gives a bullet-point explanation of the parable: The one who sows is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed is the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one; the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the completion of the age; the harvesters are angels. But the day is coming when all causes of sin and falling away from Jesus, and all lawless ones will be removed from the field of this world.
We, like the slaves of the Household, look around at the world, and at the churches of Jesus Christ that exist in this world, and we might be tempted to try and get rid of the causes of sin and the lawless ones now. But the desire of sinful humans for purity, though it will come in the new creation, is harmful and dangerous to people now. We try to find the perfect church, the church without conflict, the church where everyone loves one another the way Christ has loved us, and we will always be frustrated. There is no such thing. Our churches exist in this world, and in this world the wheat and the weeds always grow right next to each other. Wherever there are the sons of the Kingdom, the sons of the evil one are right next to them. Wherever Jesus is doing His work, the devil will be doing his work in the same place.
Besides that, we can’t see into hearts to know who falls where. We see sin and evil in others, and we want to see a world and a Church free of both, but we can easily forget the sin and evil in our own hearts. A desire for absolute purity, free from sin and evil, in this world will only lead to empty churches. Don’t try to do Jesus’ work for Him! Don’t try to do the work of the angels, whom He will send to carry out the harvest. Don’t try to make the last day come before the last day.
But while this world and the Church will never be pure, there is one thing that must remain pure: the Word and Sacraments given to us by Jesus. Because Jesus is the only one who will be able to keep the wheat until that day. This world as it is cannot be otherwise; but the day is coming when this world will be otherwise than it is. The harvest is coming. The righteous will be kept by Christ, and they will shine like the sun—good, fruitful wheat shining and golden in the entirety of the remade creation. “In these last days of great distress, grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness that we keep pure till life is spent Your holy Word and Sacrament” (LSB 585:2).
In between the parable of the field and its explanation, Jesus tells two other parables, about a mustard plant that does something totally unexpected, and a huge amount of dough leavened by a small amount of yeast. In both situations, what they will be and what will be produced is hidden. The working of the Word of God in the world is hidden from us until that day when the harvest is complete. And the explanation of the parable that Jesus gives is to encourage and assure His open-eared believers that the hope in which we were saved will indeed be brought to its completion. Hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees? It’s no longer hoped-for, because it is present. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Patience and hope, for the righteous in the midst of this world, until this world is recreated as the place where only righteousness dwells.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/18/20