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Stopping at the tollbooth of life

February 23, 2003 -

Topic Scripture: Matthew 13:24-30

Thesis: Those who serve the Kingdom will be rewarded; those who oppose it will be punished

This week’s parable will teach us two lessons about judgment and the Kingdom of God. Here’s the first lesson: it’s always too soon to judge others. No matter what you think you know about them.

Abraham Lincoln’s elementary school teacher said of him, “He is very good with his studies, but he is a daydreamer and asks foolish questions.” A teacher commented about Woodrow Wilson: “He is ten years old and is just beginning to read and write. He shows signs of improving, but you must not set your sights too high for him.”

One of Amelia Earhart’s teachers was worried about her “interest in bugs and other crawling things and her dare-devil projects,” and hoped “we could channel her curiosity into a safe hobby.” And a teacher said of young Albert Einstein, “Albert is a very poor student. He is mentally slow, unsociable, and is always daydreaming. He is spoiling it for the rest of the class. It would be in the best interests of all if he were removed from school at once.” It’s always too soon to judge another person.

Here’s the second lesson: it’s never too soon to prepare to be judged by God. No matter what you think you know about yourself and your world.

A preacher was trying his best to impress upon his listeners the reality of God’s judgment. “People of this congregation, every one of you will one day die and face the judgment!” he shouted. A man sitting at the front of the church began to laugh. Surprised and angered, the preacher asked the man, “What’s so funny?” The man replied, “I’m not a member of this congregation.” But we all are.

Edward Bennett Williams was a trial lawyer known as the “ultimate insider” and “the man to see” in Washington. As he lay dying, someone was teasing him about all his power and influence. He said, “Power? I’m about to meet real power.” So will we all.

Comic Robert Orben was right: “The problem with living life in the fast lane—you get to the toll booth quicker.” What will we owe when we arrive? And to whom?

Expect to see weeds

Our text begins: “Jesus told them another parable” (v. 24). “Told them” translates the Greek phrase for “set before them.” The Greek means to place alongside, to put next to a person (Rienecker 39). This verb is also found in Luke 9.16, “he gave [fish and bread] to the disciples to set before the people” (cf. Robertson 107); in Acts 16.34, “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; and in 1 Corinthians 10.27, “eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.” Jesus gave the crowd this story as a chef might give a feast to the hungry. These words would feed their souls.

He gave them “another parable,” following the story of the sower and the seed (see lesson two). And so Jesus continues his agricultural theme. He is teaching in a farming area, alongside the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The fields all around remind him, and them, of the events contained in this parable of the kingdom and its judgment.

The theme of the parable comes first: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (v. 24). This is a parable of the “kingdom of heaven,” like the others we are studying. But unlike others, this parable relates the kingdom not just to the man but to his situation (Carson 316). France translates: “This is what it is like when God is at work . . .” (225).

In our parable we find a “man who sowed,” literally a “man sowing.” This man is the Lord: “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man” (v. 37). Jesus sowed the seed with these very words, this very parable. The “good seed” represents “sons of the kingdom” (v. 38). “Good” means that this seed was genuine, without mixture of other seeds, pure, able to do what it was intended to do (cf. Bruce 199). He sows in “his field,” which Jesus later interpreted as “the world” (v. 38).

Meanwhile, “while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away” (v. 25). The “enemy” is “the devil” (v. 39). He always prefers to work under cover of darkness, in disguise (cf. 2 Corinthians 11.14-15: “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness”). We’ll learn more of his disguise as the story unfolds.

This enemy “sowed weeds among the wheat” (v. 25). “Sowed” means that the weeds were given thorough distribution across the field (Carson 316). There is no place where they are not to be found. The “weeds” were the “bearded darnel,” lolium temulentum. This plant is common in Palestine, and looks like wheat except that its grain is black. It must be separated from the good wheat, or it poisons the food it touches, causing dizziness and worse if eaten (Broadus 295).

This part of the story depicts a very real problem in Jesus’ day. Sowing darnel among wheat was a common act of revenge, so much so that Roman law prescribed specific punishments for it (France 225).

Now “the wheat sprouted and formed heads” (v. 26), for all healthy things grow and produce the fruit which is their intended result (cf. Galatians 5.22-23). The “heads” contain the grain, and would show the character of the plant (Broadus 295). And with it, “the weeds also appeared.” At the end of the day, the plants showed what they really were.

Jesus’ parable teaches us to expect spiritual weeds wherever we plant spiritual seed. He assumes a very real enemy, with a very real strategy. No corner of the field is immune from his infestation. No pesticide can prevent it. There will never be a time on this fallen planet when the enemy will not sow his weeds. They are growing at your side, right now.

Leave the harvest to the Lord

What do we do about them? “Sir” (translating the word for “lord,” here a common term of respect), “didn’t you sow good seed in your field?” (v. 27). The syntax expects a positive answer (Rienecker 39), for they know the fault does not lie with the owner of the field. “Where then did the weeds come from?” There are far too many weeds for their existence to be explained naturally (Bruce 200). In the same way, there is far more evil in the world than can be accounted for by natural circumstances or human nature.

The owner has the answer: “An enemy did this” (v. 28). “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” the servants ask next. The owner’s reply is emphatic in the Greek: “No!” (v. 29; Bruce 200). Why not? “While you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.” This is why the Lord delays his return and judgment: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3.9).

So what are we to do? “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (v. 30). There will come a spiritual harvest, at which time Jesus “will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3.12).

Next Jesus gave the crowd two more parables, stories of the mustard seed and the leaven (vs. 31-35). Then he “left the crowd and went into the house” (v. 36). This was most probably the home of Peter at Capernaum, the same house mentioned in Matthew 13.1: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake” (Broadus 299).

Here his disciples said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” Of the four parables Jesus taught from his boat, this is the one they most wanted help in understanding. They asked him to “make thoroughly clear, right now” (Rienecker 40). The Greek tense betrays a sense of urgency to their question (Robertson 109). The disciples understood what we must as well: this is a crucial issue, one we must understand now.

So Jesus explained: “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man” (v. 37). “Son of man” was his favorite self-designation, found 81 times in the gospels. At one time scholars thought Jesus meant by this a reference to himself as the Messiah. Now most interpreters believe that he used it to emphasize his humanness, his humility. He “sowed” (present tense), as he sows still today.

“The field is the world” (v. 38). It is “extremely important” (Robertson 109) that we understand this fact: the field in which the weeds grow is the world, not the church. Nowhere did Jesus make the “kingdom” synonymous with the “church” (Carson 316). His point is not that spiritual weeds, false believers, will always be found in the church. Rather it is that they will always be found in the world (Maclaren 237-8). While we will find such “problem people” in the church as well (cf. Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5.1-11), they are symptomatic of a larger problem in the larger world.

These weeds are “sons of the evil one.” “Sons” is a legal term for one who is related to his father by rights and inheritance (Lenski 536). Those who are not the children of God are the children of the devil. There is no third category.

“The harvest” is the “end of the age” (v. 39), a typical Jewish phrase for the consummation of history (Broadus 301). And “the harvesters are angels.” Revelation pictures angels as instruments of divine judgment: “He who was seated on the cloud [Christ] swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.’ The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia” (Revelation 14.16-20).

At this “end of the age,” “the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire” (v. 40). First-century farmers would cut their crop with sharp sickles. Wheat and weeds would be cut together, then the reapers would separate them as they lay on the ground. The weeds were tied into bundles for burning as fuel (Beare 306).

In the very same way, “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (v. 41). The parable does not teach that these “weeds” are actually members of the kingdom—they are merely mixed in the world with the children of God until the separation comes (Robertson 110). The “weeds” are those who “cause sin.” This is the Greek word for the bait stick in a trap. When the animal takes the bait, the stick to which it is attached springs shut and traps its victim (Rienecker 40).

God alone knows who these “bait stick” people are. You and I cannot judge, for we have no way to see the heart. Jesus warned us: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7.1-2). Augustine was right: God has some the church hasn’t, and the church has some God hasn’t. We cannot know who is truly a child of God, and who is truly not. We’ll likely be surprised in heaven at who is there, and who is not.

It has been wisely said: comparisons are unhealthy because we compare our insides with their outsides. We judge their behavior, but our intentions. We excuse our sins and failures, because we know what we “meant to do.” But we refuse others the benefit we grant ourselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was deeply insightful when he observed, “Whoever regards a man with contempt will never be able to make anything out of him. Nothing for which we feel contempt in others is completely lacking in us.”

So we should share the good news of God’s love with as many as we can, and leave the results to the Spirit. You and I cannot convict a single person of a single sin. We cannot change a single life, or save a single soul. Only the Spirit can transform the human heart. Sow the seed, and leave the harvest with God.

Be ready when the harvest comes

All those who are used by the enemy will be thrown “into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 42). The darnel was used in this way in Jesus’ day as fuel. The spiritual darnel will face the same fate: “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21.8). Jesus called this eternal destination the lake where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9.48) and “everlasting fire” (Matthew 25.41; Luke 16.24).

Here there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Five other times Jesus used this phrase to describe the eternal destiny of the damned. Some will not be prepared for the “wedding” (the return of Christ): “the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'” (Matthew 22.13).

Some will trust their religious background but do not know Christ personally: “The subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8.12).

Some will live in sin, refusing to prepare for the return of the Lord: “Suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24.49-51).

Others will refuse to give their lives to Christ and use their opportunities for him: “Take the talent from him [the man who buried it] and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25.28-30).

And still others will trust in their good works as their salvation: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Luke 13.24-30).

So be prepared for the harvest to come. Be ready for Jesus to return today by committing your life personally to him as Lord. Do not trust your religious background or achievements to save you. Confess your sins and use your opportunities for the glory of God. If the Lord Jesus were to return before you finished reading this lesson, would you be ready to see him? If not, put these words aside and turn your heart to him. Submit to him as Lord. Draw a spiritual circle around yourself and pray until everything inside that circle is right with your Father. And live each day ready for it to be your last.

With this promise: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v. 43). “Shine” translates a Greek phrase which suggests the sun emerging from behind a cloud (Rienecker 41; Bruce 203). The angel of the Lord assured Daniel, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12.3).

The apostle John explained further: “Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3.2-3). One day we will shine with the radiance which reflects the glory of the Lord. And that will be glory indeed (cf. Malachi 4.1-2).

One of my favorite stories is the true account of a missionary couple returning to America after a lifetime spent on a foreign field. It so happened that they booked passage on the ship which also brought President Theodore Roosevelt and his entourage home from an overseas safari. For the entire journey, the passengers paid homage to the president; not a soul noticed the faithful missionaries. But they comforted each other: “We’re not home yet.”

When the ship pulled into dock, the press was there. A gala celebration awaited the president. Not a single person was waiting for the missionaries. No one from their home church; no one from their mission agency. They carried their luggage off the ship with no place to go. Surprised, hurt, and discouraged, they found a cheap hotel room for the night.

The husband was enraged. “All our lives we served faithfully, and not a single person has come to welcome us home!” He ranted and fumed, until his longsuffering wife had enough. She sent him out of the room to take a walk and calm down.

He returned an hour later, a different man. His heart was calm, his spirit at peace. “What happened?” she wanted to know. He explained: “I told the Lord how hurt I was. How angry and upset—we came home and there was no one to meet us. Home, with no one to care for us. Home, with no one at all. And he quietly whispered to me: You’re not home yet.”

Neither are you. But one day you will be. Are you prepared?

Jesus’ story makes two facts plain: it’s always too soon to judge others; and it’s never too soon to prepare for judgment ourselves. There’s a toll booth on the road you’re traveling today. Maybe around the next turn. Get ready to stop.

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