When a problematic passage only appears in one gospel, it gives me pause. We don’t need to throw it out, but should practice the utmost care with it. It’s difficult to attribute a reading like this to the historical Jewish Jesus who is characterized in most of the gospels as an inclusive, prophet of the poor from Galilee. It is much easier to attribute the passage to the Galilean, Jesus-following community: it reflects the concerns of that young community in protecting its own purity. Concern for protecting community purity, calling people “weeds,” and looking forward to their destruction doesn’t sound like the Jesus we encounter in the rest of Matthew. It sounds more like the apocalyptic John the Baptist than Jesus.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
What this passage does do is reflect the worldview of the original audience of Matthew’s gospel. Apocalypticism divided our world between the seen and the unseen. The unseen world was composed of both good cosmic powers and evil comic powers, and that world was connected to our visible world. Good people were also connected to the good cosmic powers, while “evil” people were connected or even controlled by evil cosmic powers. We see this worldview expressed in passages such as this one from the book of Ephesians,
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
For the early, Jewish Jesus communities who subscribed to this worldview (not all did), Rome would have been the earthly, visible conduit of the destructive unseen cosmic powers of evil.
This way of looking at the world was somewhat pessimistic, as well. The world was what it was, controlled by whom or whatever. Nothing would change until the “end of the age” when there would be a great reversal and evil powers (and thus evil people) would be no more. Some of the early Jesus communities explained the world around them in these apocalyptic ways, where there wasn’t much one could do but patiently endure the present injustices of our world, holding on till the day of “harvest” when the “wheat” would be gathered up while the “weeds” would be destroyed.
Again, it is much easier to accept that this passage has its source in the Matthean community and was attributed to Jesus than that it came directly from Jesus but only the Mattheans community remembered it. Above all else, this way of looking at the world is deeply problematic and destructive. Let’s explore why.
First, we know from human history that when we forget that we are all connected and all part of one another, and we begin to define some among us as “evil,” or as “weeds” to use our parable’s language, it’s not long before those we deem to be weeds we then exclude, marginalize, scapegoat, and harm. Even if this parable says to leave “the weeds” alone, when we label someone as a weed and estimate them to be evil, we never make it our practice to let them be. We always set out at once to weed them out.
And there is a second reason, too. We’ll explore that next.
(Read Part 3)