Matthew 13:24-30: He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 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?’ 28 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?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 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.” ’ ”
Open almost any biography of an influential Christian from the past – which intends to be honest about the life of its subject and not merely to exalt someone as a ‘saint’ – and you will find both good qualities to be commended alongside troubling stories revealing less-than-Christian behavior. Take, as an example, George Whitefield (1714-1770), the Church of England evangelist whose preaching helped to stimulate the Great Awakening in Britain and the American Colonies. Whitefield was a dedicated and effective preacher of the gospel. However, as the book George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father by Thomas S. Kidd explores, Whitefield was also a slave-owner and was “likely the most influential advocate pushing the Georgia trustees to legalize the institution of slavery” (Kidd).
Similarly, study of any era of Christian history will likely reveal awful and tragic events happening almost immediately alongside of spiritual transformations and kingdom victories. According to a review at the Gospel Coalition website (thegospelcoalition.org), the 2018 book Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World by Katherine Gerbner, “debunks a common myth: that early 18th century Protestant missionaries to the New World laid the foundations for later abolitionism. The dark reality is that many of them helped form a pro-slavery ideology that for decades would be used to defend the compatibility of Christianity and slaveholding.”
What is this history in the lives of individual Christians and whole Christian movements? Gospel preaching and slaveholding together? How can this be?
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds the enemy of the landowner came by night and secretly “sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.” The enemy’s purpose in planting the weeds was to damage the farmer’s wheat crop. According to many commentators the weeds in this story were darnel, “a poisonous weed organically related to wheat and difficult to distinguish from wheat in the early stages of its growth” (Craig Keener). By the time the darnel could be distinguished from the true wheat it was often too late – their roots were already entangled with one another.
In his explanation of the parable Jesus said, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.” (Matthew 13:37-39a)
So, the devil is the active opponent of the Son of Man, just as the ‘enemy’ was the active opponent of the farmer in the parable. Just as the enemy planted dangerous weeds to damage the wheat of the farmer, so the devil plants ‘the sons of the evil one’ right alongside ‘the sons of the kingdom’ in order to sabotage the health and growth of God’s kingdom.
Does this mean that George Whitefield, and the other Protestant missionaries of the 18th century, were weeds (sons of the evil one) rather than wheat (sons of the kingdom)? No, the conclusion is not so straightforward as that.
Jesus’ parable is, I think, meant to explain the persistence of evil right next to good under the rule of God. Notice that Jesus said in verse 41, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers…”
Satan is crafty enough to know that evil – if left distant from the people of God, and dark and ominous looking – will never create the havoc he wants to create for the cause of God’s kingdom in human history. Satan knows that evil needs to be planted ‘within’ God’s rule; it needs to look like what is good, to grow up next to it, to be almost indistinguishable from it, so that evil can intertwine its roots with good and threaten its very life.
For some reason many, many devout Christians in the colonial era could not see slavery for the awful sin and evil that it was. George Whitefield thought he was doing something good in advocating for the legalization of slavery in Georgia – he wanted to use a plantation manned by slaves to fund an orphanage he had established to care for children! Talk about the wheat and weeds growing together!
We may look back on such stories with incredulity. How could our spiritual forebears have been so blind? But such a judgment begs an uncomfortable question: When our spiritual descendants one hundred years from now look back at our lives, and the way Christianity was practiced in our age, what awful and destructive weeds will they see growing in our fields that we have somehow failed to notice?
Jesus said that, in God’s sovereignty, the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one will be allowed to grow together until the end of the age. That is, evil will not be finally and forever separated from good until the final judgment (Mt. 13:41-43).
The overall message of the parable is that the judgment of evil belongs to God and not to us. We have no business attempting to call down fire from heaven on those we perceive to be our enemies (Luke 9:49-56). What this parable does not offer us, however, is a justification for spiritual laziness and moral compromise. We can’t look at a sin in our personal lives or in our church family and say, “Jesus said that the weeds will remain with the wheat until the end. So, it’s okay, we don’t need to do anything about this sin. It can remain just as it is.” An attitude such as this will put us perilously close to being weeds that will be gathered and burned instead of wheat that will be brought into the presence of the Master.
On the contrary Jesus taught us to be diligent about dealing with the presence of sin in our lives:
Matthew 5:29-30: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
A way forward in this diligence is to look for the weeds disguised as wheat in our lives. What are the evil habits in our lives that we actually think are good? We may not be able to recognize these spiritual blind spots on our own, for the sinful human heart is very deceptive: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). What hope do we then have? Much hope, actually. First, we can go to God: “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer. 17:10).
The Lord knows our hearts. He sees the evil in us to which we are blind. Therefore, we can pray with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23-24). We can pray this prayer with the confidence that God will answer, because the Holy Spirit lives in us, and it is his work to convict us of sin and lead us into all truth (John 16:1-15).
Second, we can go to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can ask them if they see any weeds in our lives which need to be dealt with. Speaking the truth in love to each other will help us all to recognize and tear out the spiritual blind spots which hinder our Christian faithfulness and witness. The book of Hebrews says,
Hebrews 3:12-14: Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
Finally, let me suggest that we go to our critics and listen to them. Defending Christianity against its detractors is a necessary enterprise. But there may also be some benefit in listening to and learning from them. Perhaps, at least some of the time, our critics have eyes to see the weeds which we are incapable of recognizing. The Hebrew prophets were, for the most part, outsiders to the political and religious establishment, and they brought the thundering critique of God’s word to bear on spiritually and morally compromised people. Jesus stood in that same tradition. He was not a member of the cultural and religious elite, and he fiercely criticized those who were for their blindness and hypocrisy (Matthew 23). Today’s critics of Christianity are not modern equivalents of Isaiah or Jesus, but I believe we would do well to be humble enough to “heed reproof” (Pr. 13:18) with the wise, rather than to ‘stiffen our necks” (Prov. 29:1) with the foolish, even if that reproof comes from those who disagree with us.
Take time now to seek God. This prayer can help you get started, “Oh God, search my heart. Test my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me. Lord, I do not want to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Make me aware of that to which I am blind. Help me to see the “weeds” in my life for the evil things they are. Lead me in repentance. Lead me in the way everlasting. Give me humility, that I might welcome and learn from the criticism of others. Keep me from being stubborn in my sin. Purify me, that I might share in your holiness, and that others might see You in me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”