We’ve discussed before how Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations in large part determined his teachings on violence. In light of the wrath coming upon Jerusalem (Mark 13/Luke 24, Matthew 21:1-14) and upon Greco-Roman Paganism (Matthew 25:31-36, Revelation 18, Acts 17:31, 1 Cor 2:6), Jesus considered retribution and self-defense to be acts of disbelief. God was about to effect justice in the world. The righteous man need only wait with patience. Or in the words of Psalm 37:
Refrain from anger and abandon wrath; do not fret—it can only bring harm. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. Psalm 37:8-11
Another place we see Jesus’ ethical program joined together with his apocalyptic expectations is the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. According to the parable and its subsequent explanation, God’s reign can be compared to a field that has not yet been harvested. The owner of the field has been sabotaged by his enemy. And just as there are evildoers and righteous people in the world, so there are now weeds sown among the farmer’s wheat. But at the harvest, that is, at the end of the age, the farmer will separate the wheat from the weeds just as the Son of Man will separate the righteous from the wicked. This narrative backdrop sets the stage for the parable’s practical instruction found in the exchange between the farmer and his servants.
The slaves said to [their master], “Then do you want us to go and gather [the weeds]?” But [the master] replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”
One popular reading interprets this in reference to the church. Since God will one day judge the church body, separating the good people from the bad people, Christians ought not to judge each other. This reading is unlikely as Jesus compares the field to “the world,” not to the church. But beyond this, in Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus commands the church to judge its members and to even excommunicate those who are unrepentant. So it is in fact the church’s responsibility to uproot its own weeds according to the Gospel of Matthew.
What then is the field? Whether we understand it as first century Israel or as the greater Pagan world is not particularly important. What matters is that Jesus here teaches his disciples to wait upon the the Son of Man for judgement. The disciples must not attempt to destroy the evildoers in the world. For it is through retaliation that believers will draw upon themselves the unstoppable wrath of the wicked and idolatrous authorities. The Jewish rebellions of the 1st and 2nd centuries prove the point. According to Jesus’ apocalyptic schema, the demonic political powers that oppose the people of God are indelible (cf. Revelation 13 and 17, Luke 13:1-5, Matthew 11:12, 26:52). They can only be defeated by God. To oppose them violently is to destroy the church. To uproot the weeds is to uproot the wheat.
As I have argued elsewhere, this parable and others await not the end of the world but monumental political-historical changes. History has vindicated the claims of the early Christians: the Jewish generation that Jesus condemned has been judged. The Pagan empire has given way to Christ’s rule over the nations through his church. The evil age Jesus spoke of has come and gone. The story the parable tells then has run its course—the field has been harvested.