He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matt. 13:24–30).
We must not think the point of this story is the devil has secretly planted people in our churches. There isn’t a worse construction you could put on someone than “the seed of Satan.” If that is the point we walk away with, it will make us skeptical of all our neighbors. We will judge them ruthlessly. We will look for reasons to reject them as brothers and sisters. We need no aid in this work. We do this by default. We are naturally and sinfully bent toward putting the worst construction on everything and everyone. A focus on the devil will always result in weed identifying and gathering. Jesus is not trying to bolster any of that.
Being devil centered will also get us busy with the work of trying to look like wheat. If we’re on the lookout for weeds, we think others are too. We’ll feel an overwhelming pressure to prove to them that we should not be gathered up and tossed out. We will try to walk like wheat and talk like wheat. We will become obsessed with our goodness and everyone else’s badness. Our rightness and their wrongness. And we’re sure to confuse our rightness with righteousness every time.
When we hear there are weeds among the wheat, we have a terrible habit of looking for the sinners. The problem is, everywhere we look, all we see is sinners. It turns out sinners are all that there are. Sinners on the left and wretches on the right.
Some people have heard the good news that Christ was born to take the sins of the world upon himself. That he lived a perfect life in our place and then went to the cross to die in our place. Then after being dead for three days, he rose again. They have heard that they are freely justified before God because of Christ and Christ alone. And they believe it. That is what makes a Christian. And all those who confess this are still sinners. The difference between the sinner who believes and the sinner who doesn’t is in the believing not in the sinning. This is what Martin Luther called being Simul Justus et Peccator (Simultaneously Justified and Sinner). Believe me, I know some outwardly righteous pagans and some really dirty Christians. So this outward examination of weeds and wheat won’t provide the distinctions we’re looking for.
The difference between the sinner who believes and the sinner who doesn’t is in the believing not in the sinning.
The shocking truth is, Jesus doesn’t say weeds who look like wheat are the primary problem. This isn’t why he tells the servants not to gather them up. Jesus doesn’t share our fear of having unbelievers sitting in pews next to believers. Read it again. The reason he gives is this: we cannot be trusted not to throw out rough-looking wheat along with the weeds. Jesus knows wheat can look a whole lot like weeds when we are judging it before his final harvest.
Our obsession with keeping the church pure and clean is an outright denial of how very weed-like we all look at times. We’ve all had days, months, years, or even decades where we are swiftly cut down by zealous “servants” on a mission to purge the field. Countless splits and schisms in the body of Christ find their roots in this self-righteousness and false purity. Every new church tries to figure out a way to be purer than the church before it. A way to have less weeds and more wheat. A church with less substance abuse, porn addiction, adultery, divorce, and every other easily identifiable grossly “unchristian” weed-like behavior. But what we end up with is a congregation of people lying to themselves. An assembly of the self-deceived.
Farewell to those who want an entirely pure and purified church. This is plainly wanting no church at all. -Martin Luther
It’s important to note that the weeds were sown in the field while the master’s men slept, not the master. This catches them by surprise, but not him. Nothing surprises God. He was not alarmed, nor was he unwilling to have it happen. It happens while the servants are asleep by his design. God doesn’t wish for this to be stopped. Both history and experience show we would most certainly try to stop it. While we slumber, God allows the devil to do this, and by doing so, the devil has unwittingly been used by God.
One reason people don’t pull up weeds before the harvest is that plants sharing the same soil will have their roots so intertwined that if you uproot one, you may pull up others with it. Could it be that Jesus wants our roots and lives that intimately intertwined? Yes. For now, God wants both wheat and weeds growing up together. He wants us rubbing up against what we’d rather not be close to. He wants us pulling them in, not pushing them out—to be intimately involved in the lives of faithless people, to the point where if they were taken from us, it would pull at the very depths of our souls. It would tug at our roots.
This is a grace not only to them and maybe not even primarily to them. It’s a grace to us. It’s the ever-present opportunity to exercise the freedom to love and extend mercy to people Christ cares for deeply. What may one day be burned up must in the here and now be seen as objects of mercy.
We cannot clean ourselves up by removing everything dirty from our presence. God doesn’t want us that deceived. Here is someone to love; they’re not a Christian. They’re not very clean and don’t seem to care. Love them. Let your life become intertwined with theirs. Let it cost you something. This is a grace that will not let you stray too far from sinners, lest you start to believe you are no longer one.