What if Explaining a Parable Is Fatal for It?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 16
July 23, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: When Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the tares, his disciples told him they didn't understand it, so they asked Jesus to explain it. He seemed to do just that in a direct way, but what if his explanation was theological "milk" because his followers weren't ready for theological "meat"?

The American writer E.B. White, who, among many other works, wrote the children's book Charlotte's Web, once offered this wise observation: "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process."1

Much the same thing is true of the many parables Jesus told. In fact, parables are a little like poetry or song lyrics in that there usually isn't just one worthwhile explanation of their meaning. Rather, they are meant to challenge each person who hears them to come up with his or her own interpretation. And it's no secret that these interpretations can vary widely and even wildly.

In fact, if you insist on just one interpretation, the parable may die in the process.

Reading or hearing parables is like reading the rest of scripture in that we bring to the Bible our current condition and situation so that as we read the Bible, the Bible also reads us. It speaks to us in ways that may be remarkably different from the way it speaks to other people because those other people aren't experiencing anything like what we're going through at the moment.

In musical terms, think of all the people who kept asking the great (and now late) songwriter Leonard Cohen exactly what the words in the many, many verses of his classic song "Hallelujah" meant, words like this: "Now I've heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord, but you don't really care for music, do ya?"2

Cohen avoided a simple or single explanation of that verse and any others. He trusted hearers to make their own meaning out of these and other rich lyrics. It's not that nobody knows what Cohen's words mean, it's that everybody knows what they mean. That's because each person has a different answer - even if the answer is a puzzlement.

The real purpose of parables

Parables, at least as Jesus used them, are meant to complicate our thinking. Generally, they are not meant to provide us with one single truth to be adopted by all hearers. They are much, much richer than that.

But that doesn't mean they're like Rorschach tests or clouds in which one person might see a horse and another might see the Eiffel Tower. Parables aren't that, well, loosey-goosey. So they don't exactly allow for absolutely any interpretation, no holds barred.

In the first part of our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, we have what is known as the parable of the weeds. Another name for weeds is tares. The tares and the wheat are growing together in the same field. Servants ask the landowner if they should pull out the tares, but the owner says no, it's better to wait until the wheat is ripe and then gather both the tares and the wheat at the same time - and only then separate them.

This is a smart - or at least an experienced - farmer who knows that in its early stage of development, this weed, also known as bearded darnel, closely resembles the wheat plant. In fact, as the plants start to grow, hardly anyone can tell the difference, including knowledgeable farmers. Beyond that, the roots of the tares and the roots of the wheat get intertwined as they grow, so if you try to pull out just the tares, you're likely to uproot the wheat, too, and thus lose almost your whole crop. That's why you wait to harvest both wheat and weeds together, saving the wheat while destroying the weeds.

But the followers of Jesus who heard him offer this parable were perplexed and asked him to explain what he meant. In some ways, it's too bad that E.B. White wasn't around to caution Jesus against offering a single and simple explanation. But he wasn't.

Was Jesus just giving them "milk"?

So Jesus provides an explanation that sounds as if it could be reduced to this single stark conclusion: Righteous people will be saved for residence in heaven while wicked people will go to hell. But the simplicity of that interpretation may be a good clue that Jesus is just giving his followers what the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3:2, calls "milk, not solid food" because Paul's hearers "were not ready for solid food."

And we know from countless examples in the gospels that the disciples of Jesus often didn't understand him. They weren't ready for solid food. So in Jesus' explanation of this parable, it may be fair to say that he was simply offering his hearers theological milk, not meat.

Before we agree that, in his explanation, Jesus reduced the parable to a two-dimensional story about heaven and hell, let's dig a little deeper and see if, perhaps, this parable is richer and more complicated than it might at first seem to be. (Here's a hint: Parables are always richer and more complicated than they at first seem.)

The great Reformer Martin Luther once preached a sermon on this parable and likened the weeds to false or misleading teaching that Christians sometimes hear. "... we should not," Luther said, "marvel nor be terrified if there spring up among us many different false teachings and false faiths."3

Nor, of course, should we marvel that Luther might turn this parable into a cautionary tale about "false teachings and false faiths" because he spent much of his life accusing the Catholic Church of offering exactly that. Perhaps because false teachings were in many ways his focus, he seemed to find them everywhere, not unlike the boy with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail.

It would be interesting to know if leaders of each side of the Great Schism of 1054, which divided the church into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, also preached on this parable and used it to accuse each other of false teachings and false faith. Let it be your homework assignment for this week to answer that question.

One conclusion that does seem safe to draw from this parable is that the world is full of weeds. In other words, there are people and powers who seem driven toward destructive ends, not unlike the weeds in the farmer's wheat field. How else do we explain so much of history, which the great French philosopher Voltaire once described as "hardly more than the history of crimes"?4

A conclusion to avoid drawing

Another idea worth drawing from this parable is that, like the weeds and wheat in their early stages, it's often hard to distinguish who is in a full and healthy relationship with God and who isn't. Put in terms of the heaven-hell dichotomy often drawn from this parable, it's hard to tell who's going to heaven and who's going to hell.

Not only that, but it's not our job to draw that conclusion. And if you start to make such eternal destiny assumptions about people, know that there are serious Christian theologians who maintain that there is no such thing as eternal damnation. One of them is the Christian Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who argues this in his 2019 book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation: "Nowhere (in the New Testament) is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan."5 Indeed, Hart says such an idea is "morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational and essentially wicked."6

Is Hart swimming against the stream of traditional Christian theology? Absolutely. But even so, such voices should give us pause when we imagine we know what the afterlife looks like in detail and what parables mean to others.

What Jesus, by contrast, wants us to know through this parable is simply that we are responsible for our actions and thoughts and that at some point we'll have to explain ourselves to God. Our job, Jesus insists, is to open ourselves up to receive the grace of God so that, as he says, we may "shine like the sun in the kingdom of (our) Father."

Besides recounting some actual history, the Bible contains poetry, allegory, metaphor and beautiful, challenging stories that are to help guide our lives today. It's why Jesus insisted at the very beginning of his ministry that the kingdom of God has drawn near and that we can live in that kingdom today, even as we recognize that it hasn't yet come in full flower.

But we'll miss a lot of the beauty and challenge in the parables of Jesus and his many other teachings if we insist that there's only one way to understand them. Friends, the word of God is deep and rich and worthy of our time. It's full of truth and beauty for you and for the people sitting near you this morning. And we'd do well to find out how others hear these same parables.

Finally, let me say that if I explained this sermon to you, you might understand it better, but the sermon would die in the process. Amen.


COVID-19 and Proclaim Sermons: We are very aware of the innovations pastors are making to bring their preaching directly into homes. We want to help in every way we can. Please feel free to use Proclaim Sermons in any way you need to in your efforts. This includes copying it into emails, using it in video broadcasts or on your website ... frankly, please use it however you think will best serve your congregation.