Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 is a tough passage to preach on unless you’re a Calvinist because basically it says that some people will always be weeds who have been planted by the devil that God leaves alone until the end of time when He throws them all into hell. Now a lot of preachers cheat when they get stuck with this passage by trying to make the weeds into bad “attitudes” or “feelings” in a community rather than actual people, but that doesn’t square with the explanation of the parable that Jesus shares in verses 36-43. I decided not to cheat, but to really wrestle with this text when I had to preach on it a week ago. And my wrestling yielded some fruit. I wanted to share some Greek words and phrases in Jesus’ explanation of the parable that offer a helpful explanation of who God weeds out of His kingdom and why.
Diabolos and poneros
Jesus says that the weeds in his parable are the huioi tou ponerou (“sons of evil”) that are sown by the devil (vv. 38-39). Now the word poneros means “evil,” but it also has the connotation of “harassment” or “annoyance,” which is interesting. The Greek word for devil, diabolos, is a compound word that combines ballo (to throw) with dia (across). Instead of transliterating diabolos into “devil” through 2000 years of linguistic evolution via Latin and German, we can translate it as “bomb-thrower.” So, if we put diabolos and huioi tou ponerou together with the full evocative meaning they had in Greek, the connection makes even more sense. The bomb-thrower plants the seeds of harassment. Or said differently, people who love to create annoying drama are doing the devil’s work.
Panta ta skandala and tous poientous ten anomian
Jesus says in verse 41 that the “angels of the Son of Man” will uproot two things from the kingdom of heaven: panta ta skandala and tous poientous ten anomian. The NIV and NRSV both translate these as “causes of sin” and “evil-doers,” but I think these translations are grossly inadequate. A skandalon is a trap that’s used to catch animals. It’s used figuratively to mean anything that causes someone to stumble. Even though skandala are often associated in Jesus’ speech with causing sin (“Whoever causes a little one to stumble…” etc), I don’t see any reason to translate it reductionistically as merely “causes of sin.” This creates the false impression that the word for sin, hamartia, has been used in this passage, which it hasn’t. So I would rather translate panta ta skandala as “every kind of trap.” Jesus is saying that anything or anyone that sets traps for other people will be uprooted from the kingdom of heaven.
The verb poieo is the etymological root of our word poetry. It means to make or create something. Nomos means “law,” but it can also mean “habitual practice,” or “melody” when used in the context of music, which suggests to me that it has the connotation of harmony and order. So nomos is not merely a rule or set of rules, but the stability and harmony that rules are supposed to create. Anomia is the antithesis of nomos, which I see as not merely “rule-breaking” in a technical sense, but chaos and social upheaval. Thus, a poientos ten anomian is not merely someone who makes mistakes, but someone who is an “architect of discord.” As a high school teacher, I remember that certain kids were the lynchpins of all the chaos in my classroom. If I could send them out of the room, then all of the other kids they set off would settle down and do their work. And I think that’s what Jesus is saying the angels of the Son of Man will do to the poientous ten anomian for the sake of social stability in the kingdom of heaven.
So who does God weed out and what does this mean?
Obviously this is only one parable that has to be held in tension with all the other parables and references to heaven and hell in the Bible. But according to the terms of this parable, God weeds out from His kingdom the people and things that destroy community: “every kind of trap” and “the architects of discord.” God doesn’t weed out people simply for making mistakes or being imperfect without having said a magic prayer or made a magic decision that gives them amnesty from some sort of infinite sanctimony that God has no choice but to uphold. God’s judgment has to do with pragmatism rather than perfectionism. It also reflects God’s love for His creatures and their ability to be safe from the skandala and anomia that oppress them. Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 and the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46 similarly tie God’s judgment to the welfare of His creatures. I realize this parable is not the only reference Jesus makes to our eternal destiny, but it must be allowed to have its voice as a harmonic within the symphony of the canon.
Now even if this parable were the only thing the Bible had to say about our eternal destiny, the interpretation I’ve offered doesn’t mean that we don’t need Jesus’ cross. It’s just that Jesus’ cross doesn’t serve the purpose of protecting us from His Father’s perfectionism. It’s rather God’s way of liberating us from the skandala and anomia that destroy human community. When we “follow the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air… gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Ephesians 2:2-3), it doesn’t take much to provoke us into being architects of discord. Architects of discord are generally people whose life circumstances have filled their hearts with rage or vengeance that isn’t held in check by the humility and gratitude for God’s mercy that results from putting our trust in Jesus’ eternal sacrifice.
Of course, when I look around me, particularly during an election season, I see quite a few Christians who are bomb-throwing diaboloi that take pleasure in creating skandala and anomia. So I’m not sure the angels of the Son of Man aren’t going to be plucking out a lot of self-identifying Christians and throwing them into the lake of fire, regardless of whether they’ve said a sinner’s prayer or not (c.f. Matthew 7:21). The cross profits us nothing if it has not liberated us from the prison of self-justification that keeps us eternally separated from God. As long as we’re stuck in the epistemological state in which our mind spins everything that we encounter into an affirmation of our absolutely flawless awesomeness, then we will be the insufferable diaboloi creating anomia and skandala in every social circle we’re a part of. And if that’s the case, then for the sake of those who are harassed and belabored by our presence (our ponerokrateomai), God will weed us out of His kingdom.