I was in a graveyard on the Day of the Dead in Torreon, Mexico, making animal balloons. The line stretched as far as I could see. We had gone to the graveyard as part of a mission trip in the area, and we had the hope of sharing the gospel with the folks on this unusual holiday. I couldn’t speak Spanish, so I did what I could to help gather a crowd. I pulled out the balloons and moments later a crowd surrounded us. So many people were pressing in for a balloon that the men with me had to learn how to blow up and make animal balloons on the spot.
When I was in high school and college, I performed magic shows and made animals balloons for extra money. As soon as I started making animal balloons, I could almost guarantee a crowd would form within a matter of minutes. Once Kelly and my brother helped me at the Knoxville Zoo, and we made balloons non-stop for several hours. We made balloons for about four or five hours straight. At the end, we could hardly stand up; we were absolutely exhausted.
As I remember those days, I think about Jesus engaging the crowds. All through Gospels, we see crowds following Jesus around. They are pressing in, wanting to touch him, hoping for his healing power, longing to hear his words of life. They were astonished when He spoke. They were both afraid and praising God when He healed the lame. They marveled when He cast out a demon saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33). Day after day, they came. I think about how exhausted Jesus and the disciples would feel. His response? Compassion.
When Jesus sees the crowds, “he has compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36–37). This word for compassion refers to entrails, to the depths of his bowels, the deepest part of him. It is both physical and emotional. It touches him to the core.
The crowds press in around him with the sick, blind, crippled, mute, and more. Jesus feels their longing deep inside and responds by healing them and loving them. He teaches His disciples to serve through compassion as well. He asks them to pray for the people, to proclaim the coming kingdom, to welcome them. When they follow him late into the day, Jesus tells the disciples to feed them. “We only have five loaves and two fish.” “Bring it here,” He says. Then he blesses it and gives it back to the disciples who now have an abundance of food for the hungry crowds.
Later, he welcomes their children and blesses and honors them. These crowds are not a nuisance. Jesus loves them. He knows that they suffer physically but they also suffer from oppressive political rulers, controlling religious rulers, and demeaning wealthy residents. The crowds suffer on every turn. Jesus has come to reveal the kingdom to them.
He addresses the woman at the well who has had multiple husbands with healing grace. He touches the blind man and gives him sight. He protects the woman caught in adultery. He eats with the sinners. He has come that they might have life and have it abundantly.
When I read today’s parable and all the parables in Matthew 13, I must read it in light of this story of Jesus who loves the crowds, has compassion on the crowds, and is continually seeking to bless them with in word and deed. ““For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16–17).
He has come to love, heal, and redeem people who are wandering without a shepherd. They have sought for hope in failed relationships, in arcane arguments like “which mountain is holy Sinai or Zion,” in the acquisition of money even through compromise, in the pursuit of healing or power through synchronistic rituals. These ancient people don’t look too different from the multitudes of today, searching for love in the all the wrong places, trying to find meaning in all sorts of self-expression, hoping for some kind of personal or group healing through various pursuits. So many people limping through life with addictions, sickness, loss, and blindness to their own desperate need for a Savior.
In today’s Gospel, The crowds have followed him to the shore. He gets in a boat, sits down and begins telling them stories, parables. These stories reveal the kingdom even as they cloak the kingdom. In fact, these stories sound similar to the kinds of stories the prophets tell. The stories open up into a greater truth that impacts listener.
Today we reflect on his parable of the wheat and weeds. A king plants a field of wheat and his enemy sows weeds in the same field. The wheat and the weeds grow up together, but the master tells his servants to let them continue to grow. At harvest time, he will separate them.
In this short and simple story, Jesus acknowledges evil in our world, and while good and evil both seem to flourish now, he says that a harvest is coming when evil will be removed and the true glory of the good will be revealed.
Now think about the audience. Disciples and the multitudes of people. Many of these people have suffered wrongs from the authorities, from religious leaders, and others. Jesus acknowledges this evil as evil. Not as some illusion, not some mindset. The Evil One seeks to kill, steal and destroy, and these people have experienced some aspect of this terror first hand. Jesus doesn’t brush aside their cries for justice but recognizes these wrongs. At the same time, these people who have suffered wrongs have also committed wrongs. Those who heard him deliver the Sermon on the Mount should be very aware of the ways they have behaved that violates the law of God.
He compares the evil to weeds. Some weeds will threaten the desired plants by taking much needs nutrients from the soil, some weeds disrupt the ecosystem and alter the landscape, some weeds even draw nutrients direct from host plants and eventually kill the host plant. This image of an evil weed gives us an image of evil that sucks life, poisons the world or environment, and continues to multiply. In literature, this weed might be called a vampire or a zombie. A creature that sucks life from other lives.
Evil may look like a man in a black cloak, but then again it might look like a parent, a teenager, a manager, or a leader that uses people for self-fulfillment. Throughout Scripture, we see various lists of weed-like behavior. Romans 1:29-31 lists: all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Revelation 21:8 lists: the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars.
At first, some of these might seem odd. Coveting is listing alongside murder. Cowardice is listed beside sexual deviancy. Some of these behaviors don’t seem quite so malignant. Is gossip really as dangerous as murder? Like weeds, these behaviors grow and reproduce play a role in the disordering of all things. One behavior can lead to another behavior, and soon all the world has become a place of death and destruction: an empty howling wilderness of darkness. Think of Cain who begins with jealousy but ends up murdering his brother and then raises up a civilization that is rooted in destruction and violence.
Scripture tells the story of the evil one influencing people, tempting people to act in evil ways. The people become enslaved to these patterns of death and destruction. The story of the Hebrews in Egypt gives us a picture of God’s people enslaved to serve a wicked ruler. Paul uses this picture in Romans to tell the story of Jesus Christ rescuing us and reconciling us when we were still enemies of God when we were enslaved. The mystery of this story is the wonder of a weed becoming a stalk of wheat, or the story of a slave of the wicked one becoming a child of the King.
The temptation of the servants in the story and the servants today is to try and separate the wheat and weeds too soon. The Lord of the Harvest will separate in his perfect timing. Yes, there is judgment for those who reject the grace of God, but there is also great redemption for those who have called on the name of the Lord. Any attempt to separate the two or even to point out who is wheat and whose is weed will do harm. When we look at the multitudes or even at the rulers of the land, we may be tempted to call out wheat and weed. Our call instead is to lift up Jesus Christ and to make known His good news.
When I was a child, we used to sing,
One door and only one
And yet the sides are two,
I’m on the inside,
On which side are you?
A song like this has the potential to reinforce this tendency to separate, to determine who is in and who is out. When speaking to those Jewish leaders who were confident that they were the elect, the insiders, Jesus often raised questions and told stories that made it look like the assumed position of insiders was in question.
Israel used racial categories to declare who was out and who was in. While we might use racial categories, we might divide people as an insider and an outsider or elect and non-elect on the basis of income, status, education, worship style, theology and more. While we might not be damning people who we perceive as outside, we might tend to exalt ourselves above them. The disciples did this when they tried to prevent the little children from coming to Jesus, or when James and John wanted to call thunder down on a town.
Actually, we need to pray for this compassion of Jesus. I pray that we all might see the people around us through the eyes of Jesus. This may require silencing out prejudices of the other, of facing and listening to those around us. It may drive us to prayer to ask the Father to grant us this heart of compassion for the multitudes. That we might behold His beloved sheep who may be hurting, struggling, sometimes confused, sometimes trapped in sin and error but always in need of His grace. May we have the feet of peace that walk toward those in need. May we have hands extended with blessing and kindness, may we have ears that listen to their stories, eyes that focus that behold others as God’s good creation, and a may that speaks the way of life and peace.
In the story, Jesus reminds us that the Evil One’s malevolence will fail. Jesus ends with a promise so bright we almost need to cover our eyes. He says, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43). Or as Paul writes in Romans, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Ro 8:18–19).
As Christ look out at the multitudes, He sees the coming Harvest, the glory of a people and a creation than shines out like the noonday sun. He sees the woman caught in adultery who will be transformed into the Beloved. He see the cowardly who will become the courageous sons and daughters who will follow Him into martyrdom. He sees a glorious family.
He sees and hears “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”— Re 19:6–8.