READ : Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Where does evil come from? The problem of evil is age-old, and one of the biggest struggles for faith. Why is so much wrong in God’s good world? What should we do about it? Jesus answers both those questions by means of a parable – but his answers may provoke more questions for you.
If you ask atheists why they don’t believe in God, they will point to all the harm done in our world by misguided religious fanatics. Or they will talk about evolution and science and the progress of knowledge, and imply that believing in a Creator is like still believing that the earth is flat. But for most atheists the clinching argument against faith in God is always the same. It’s the problem of evil. If there is a God who is all-powerful and all-good, then how do you account for the existence of evil in the world? And why doesn’t God do something about it?
The Parable of the Wheat
Those are the questions that lie behind one of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom in Matthew chapter 13. It’s the parable of “The Wheat and the Weeds.”
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.…”
Have you ever seen a dirty field out in the country? That’s what farmers call a field where a good crop was planted but where the weeds have since sprung up and are threatening to overwhelm the grain. In this parable Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a dirty field. It’s a metaphor, first of all, for describing the state of the world. Later on, when his disciples came to him and asked Jesus what he meant by this parable, Jesus responded by explaining that his story is really an allegory, where the various elements stand for other things. And he began with the meaning of the sower and the field: “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world . . .” (Matthew 13:37f.). “The . . . good seed is the sons of the kingdom,” and “The weeds are the sons of the evil one” (v. 38).
So, according to Jesus, the world is a mixed bag. There are righteous and wicked people everywhere, and they’re all intermingled. The good guys aren’t all in one spot, and the bad guys in another. Nations, states, communities, neighborhoods—the mixture of good and evil goes right down the line. For that matter, the line between good and evil runs right down the middle of every human heart, as Solzhenitsyn reminded us. We are each of us a dirty field.
But the field in Jesus’ story is also the church. This is a parable, after all, about the kingdom, and the church is the sign of that kingdom, the community where Christ is acknowledged as Lord and where God’s rule is lived out. So when Jesus tells this parable he is also testifying to the existence of evil in the church. Don’t be surprised by that either, Jesus said. You expect to find evil in the world, but in the church? Weeds among the wheat? That is disturbing. It’s the main criticism, isn’t it, that outsiders level against the church? The church is full of hypocrites, they say; those Christians are no better than all the rest of us.
It’s also the number one problem for church members. We confess in our creeds that we believe in one holy catholic church. That’s the theory. The reality is that the churches we actually belong to are anything but holy. They are full of stumbling, falling, failing, arguing, fighting, gossiping, back-biting sinners. Of course, honesty compels me to admit that the roster of sinners in the church also includes me. I’ve got a few weeds growing among the wheat in my life too. But still, why is the church, which is supposed to be the pure and spotless bride of the Lord Jesus Christ, such a dirty field?
Questions and Answers
That’s what the disciples want to know. In the parable the servants come to the Master with a question; actually, with two questions. The first thing they want to know is how the weeds came to be growing among the wheat. It’s the age-old question. Where does evil come from? How did it get into the church? How did it get into the world in the first place?
And the Master answers the question. “He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.'” So the source of evil is the enemy, that is, the devil. The problem is not with the field, or the seed, and certainly not with the sower. The problem, as the parable explains, is that an enemy – a saboteur, a vandal – came by night and mixed bad seed in amongst the good.
As answers go, this one is of some help. It helps us understand clearly that God is never the source of evil. And Jesus’ answer puts us on our guard against a very real and terrible enemy. We should never be surprised to discover the devil hard at work, under the cover of darkness, in the middle of the church. Hasn’t Jesus warned us clearly that this is how and where he likes to operate?
But I must admit that Jesus’ answer does leave us with further questions, wanting more explanation. Where did the enemy come from? Why does God permit him such freedom to operate? Couldn’t he put a stop to the devil’s dirty work?
But Jesus doesn’t give any further answers. Elsewhere in the Bible we can find a hint or two, but we really don’t have a clear and comprehensive explanation of the problem of evil, which is why the apostle Paul talks about “the mystery of iniquity.” We can’t fully solve the problem of evil in this life. Its presence and power remain a mystery to us. But we can go on believing in the greater power and goodness of God.
But there’s a second question. The first one is theoretical, or, we might say, theological: where does evil come from? The second question is practical: what should we do about it? Alright, the servants say, the weeds have come from the enemy. Now, shouldn’t we go tear them all out? “No,” says the master, “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.”
And we think: wait a minute, does Jesus really mean that? Isn’t he going soft on sin? Are we supposed to just sit there and do nothing when we see evil all around us? Doesn’t he care about the purity of the church or the state of the world?
Well, yes, he does want us to stand against sin and to fight for righteousness. But Jesus also wants us to be every careful about how we deal with sinners. He warns the church against excessive zeal in weed-pulling, and he does it for two reasons. First, because we don’t know enough to do that job. We can’t always tell the wheat from the weeds, and it’s very easy for moral crusades to end up doing more harm than good. Second, because it’s too soon for total separation between the righteous and the wicked. That’s not going to happen until the final judgment. Jesus explains again:
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. . . . Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
So if you’re wondering why God doesn’t do something about the problem of evil, don’t worry. Just wait; he will, though some won’t enjoy it when he does.
So the parable of the Wheat and Weeds is a warning to us to be careful in our zeal for purity. I can see several “take-home” truths here. First, be wary of schemes to rid the world of all evil. That’s just not going to happen, at least until God does it in the fire of judgment. It’s no coincidence that the most brutal and bloodthirsty totalitarian regimes in history – Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China – all sprang from atheistic philosophies that promised a perfect society.
Second, be careful about how you go about rooting sin and error out of the church. This does not mean that the church does not have a responsibility to discipline itself properly, or that Christian leaders should be indifferent to false teaching or sinful behavior. But it does mean we will never use violence, in word or deed. (Just think how much evil would have been avoided if the church had paid attention to Jesus’ parable of the weeds during the Crusades, for example, or when it was burning heretics at the stake.)
It means we won’t become obsessed with purity, to the point where we engage in witch hunts or spend all our time sniffing around for the slightest whiff of heresy. And if you truly do want to address the problem of sin in the church, it’s always best to start with yourself.
Finally, here’s something positive we can do. Instead of focusing on the weeds, let’s plant more wheat. Let’s be busy sowing the good seed of the word, and watch what the Lord does in the church, and the world!