Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew

Notes on Matthew 13 24-33

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 10 is Matthew 13:24-33, which is Jesus’ parables of the “weeds and the wheat” (or, as I learned the title as a child, “the wheat and the tares”), the mustard seed, and the leaven in the flour (or, as I learned it as a child, “the yeast in the dough”). This might just go to show that sometimes we need to question what we learned as children, and sometimes we need to question what we learned as grown-ups. Here are my notes on this text:

Background and Context

We’re still in the gospel of Matthew, a bit further on in time from where we were last week. We’ve moved on to the next of Jesus’ “teaching moments” in Matthew, this time Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ parables. Our passage skips the parable of the sower, and Jesus’ explanation of why he tells everything in parables to the crowds of people who come to listen to him (“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” Matthew 13:11), starts right in with the parable of good seed sown in a field, and skips Jesus’ own exposition of that parable (see vv36-43), which may or may not be convenient, depending on how we want to read this parable.

These parables are extremely familiar. Weeds and wheat comes around in the lectionary every three years and is a popular preaching topic, so regular church-goers are likely to have heard it in church more than once. Luke also tells the parable of the mustard seed and the baker (Luke 18:13-21), and Mark tells the parable of the mustard seed (4:30-32), and maybe a version of the seed-sowing parable (4:26-29 – although it leaves out the tares), and those texts are in the lectionary, too, so people might have heard that one annually. That’s just to say that our familiarity with them makes it easy to feel like we’ve already heard them and know what they mean without even reading or thinking about them.

When it comes to the parable of the wheat and the tares, in particular, it always brings back for me one particular Thanksgiving – I always remember it as the one from 2nd grade, which would have made sense, because my brother would have been an infant, and showing off my infant brother could have been the explanation for why we were making a rare pilgrimage to Salinas, California to see an old friend of my mother’s who knew both my parents and my late grandfather, and why we would have been on the road on a Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving night. While my dad was driving along in the dark, my mom carefully went through the meaning of all the lyrics of the hymn our class had been assigned to sing at assembly that day: “Come, Ye Thankful People Come.” What are “tares”? They “weeds.” So “together sown” would mean they were planted all together. But the “tares” are bad, so they are “unto sorrow grown.” We do not want to be like that. We want to be the “wholesome grain and pure.” We have to pray we are that. And try hard to be that. She was a Sunday school teacher and she hated it when people made little children sing grown-up words that they didn’t really understand. I love that hymn. (Just a little “reader response” criticism to add to the mix.)

What the nouns mean is probably not that clear to us: that is, “weeds” and “mustard seed” and “leaven.” I stayed up too late last night browsing the friendly internet finding things out about these nouns and what they might have meant to Jesus and the crowds of people on the beach in the early 1st century of Roman Judea, and found out that:

weeds are probably a plant called “darnel” or “cockle,” that is a well-known weed-seed contaminant, that is poisonous to humans and animals, that in smaller doses can cause symptoms of intoxication – not so much on its own, but because of its hospitality to ergot, a psychotropic fungus, and that has pretty much been eradicated in the modern world thanks to herbicides. Apparently the best way to control it is not to plant it – but the seeds are very similar to wheat seeds. Hence, presumably, the emphasis on planting “good seed” in the parable. The plants are visibly different when mature. But just imagine going through and weeding out the tares before harvesting the field …

mustard seed, according to the Biblical biologist I found, probably the plant brassica nigra, rather than some other candidates. Not the “mustard bush” – which does look like it would easily support birds. But when I found a picture of black mustard seed growing, it looked a lot like the giant growth of honeysuckle we have colonizing our back fence, and given the interest our cats take in that plant, we are pretty sure birds find it attractive. We didn’t sow it, of course, and we have asked the gentleman who mows our lawn to do something about cutting it back.

close up of black mustard plant growing
Black mustard, Brassica nigra

That may be how first century people felt about brassica nigra in their herb gardens, too. That plant does have small seeds, though not as small as, say, poppy seeds; the seed is used for making mustard in our world, and I have seen it in recipes for Indian food, too. So, it is something people plant on purpose; it is something that has a use; it starts small and grows a lot larger; it is an invasive plant, and one that suppresses the growth of its neighbors by messing with their friendly neighboring root fungi – that is, if I understand it, it gets at the roots of other plants – at least when it’s brought in from outside. (Here is the scientific article “The Invasive Plant, Brassica nigra, degrades local mycorrhizas across a wide geographical landscape” I found on that.)

leaven, according to the Chicago Tribune, is definitely not Fleischmann’s active dry yeast, but would instead have been more like a lump of sourdough starter. Three measures of flour is A LOT of flour – enough to make a bake sale’s worth of bread, or bread for the whole village, as another exegete pointed out. Of course, it contains yeast – another fungus – but it’s not entirely that simple, according to another scientific article I found on yeast – it’s more of a symbiotic relationship.

Jesus’ audience wouldn’t have had ninth grade biology, since that hadn’t been invented in the early first century. They would never have been taught how to look under a microscope (also not invented yet), or to do experiments on microbial fungal symbiosis (not really even thought of yet), although those ancient Greeks did give us the word symbiosis. Therefore, noticing that the kingdom of heaven has some relationship to microbial fungal symbiosis is probably not what Jesus expected his listeners to get from these parables. Nevertheless, it does appear that the role of microbial fungal symbioses is at least ONE common feature of these parables. Albeit a kind of hidden one.

Closer Reading

There is another common feature of these parables, and one tip off to it is the verb used to describe the behavior of the woman with the leaven. She hides it in the massive amount of flour. She doesn’t knead it – there is another Greek word for that activity, which Jesus probably would have used if he had had that activity in mind. The parable never takes us into the world of actual bread making. Jesus does not say “the dough rises” – which would be very obvious. He says the flour is all leavened – which would not necessarily be obvious right away, but would become obvious when someone actually DID try to make bread with it. After that hidden leaven has done its microbial symbiotic work, we modern readers might think.

Or perhaps we do need to think of bread rising, and how big or how much massively expanded fermented wheat stuff we would have on our hands once that rising is all done. Something that starts out secretly and invisibly yields something big and obvious.

That is what happens in the case of the mustard seed, too. Someone sows it in a field (buries something tiny in something very big), and then in the space of one growing season it becomes very big and obvious. Even to birds. (Small ones, anyway, maybe like purple finches. Who might like those little black mustard seeds.)

And what happens in the case of the weeds is that the someone’s enemy comes “when people are sleeping” and sows those darnel seeds secretly, in the field, and then leaves. The servants somehow recognize the problem – although it must be difficult for them, because at an early stage the wheat and the false wheat look a lot alike. Hiddenness is in all these stories. But the difference in the plants yielded by the different kinds of seed will be obvious when time has elapsed and growth has taken place and “it’s time.”

Jesus’ direct interpretation of the parable in vv24-30 is not necessarily comforting (see vv36-43), unless we feel very sure of our status as good seeds, and don’t care too much about what happens to evildoers. “The good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one” (v38), and there is a “furnace of fire” where people will weep and gnash their teeth (v42) – since they are “unto sorrow grown.” How we ourselves feel about this might depend on who we come up with as examples of evildoers, and what we come up with as our examples of the evil they have done. That exercise can go several ways. I always end up hoping that the people who think I’m not tare-like enough to be a tare will turn out to be right about that, and that the people who think I’ve shown blatant signs of tare-ness all along will turn out to have been mistaken, if it finally goes down that way. I try not to think too much about what will happen to all of those opinion-holders.

Because from the perspective of the plants, which seems to be who the children of the kingdom are in Jesus’ allegorical explanation, we don’t seem to have much choice. The plants in this story are just growing into who and what they are. Their identities were established by the seed from which they sprang. The action is all on the part of the Son of Man and the angels. This doesn’t seem to be a story about good behavior or repentance, despite Jesus’ comments about why he tells the crowds things in parable form (Matthew 13:10-17). It’s more like a story about original and ultimate identity. It might also be a story about hanging in there and shaking off the ergot, assuming we are safe to think of ourselves as good and wholesome plants, as the disciples may have done.

If there is any comfort in the story of the hidden kingdom of heaven, it may be that all that massive amount of flour finally gets leavened. (More reader response criticism. There’s my bias showing.)

Somehow, all of this hiddenness, and this cultivating both kinds of seeds and this gathering up of all kinds of fish and this sorting things out at the very end, not in the middle of the story, leads up to Jesus’ final point: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder (literally, in Greek, a house-despot) who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). And that point is capped off by the refusal of his friends and neighbors in his hometown to listen to him because where the heck did he get all this from (Matthew 13:53-58).

I don’t think I understand these parables very well.

I just come back to “Lord of harvest, grant that we, wholesome grain and pure may be.”

Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew

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