Jesus often used parables to teach about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God (kingdom of heaven) was a central emphasis in Jesus’ teaching ministry (and this continues into the ministry of the apostles as well). It was a controversial topic though, since many in his audience already had strong opinions about the kingdom of God.
Jesus taught in parables in order to subtly but effectively challenge people’s views about the kingdom of God. In order to interpret the parables well, we need a good overall grasp of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom as a starting point (for instance, that the kingdom of God describes the implementation of God’s abundant, just, and righteous reign over the world, and that through Jesus this reign is already being inaugurated but is not yet fully realized).
For interpreting a specific kingdom parable, then, I recommend following three steps:
1) Identify the flawed or incomplete view of the kingdom that Jesus was challenging (being keen especially to the original setting and misguided views of the kingdom that were prevalent in Jesus’ day).
2) Understand the main point Jesus proposes about the kingdom – a truth that replaces the erroneous view.
3) Determine what response Jesus calls for from his hearers (then and now) as a result.
How does this work for interpreting the kingdom of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43)?
1) The dialogue in the parable – confusion about why there are weeds growing up in the field the master planted and why the master is not acting immediately to deal with those weeds – gives us a hint about the faulty view Jesus opposes. Inherent to the Jews’ kingdom expectation at the time of Jesus was the idea that God as king would defeat his enemies and judge evil once and for all in this world when his kingdom comes. The roots of this idea are found in the Old Testament itself. As the Jews heard Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God, they probably wondered why Jesus wasn’t doing more to deal with the enemies of God and the evil in the world. After all, the kingdom of God means victory, triumph, gaining the upper hand against all of our foes! (Note, as Jesus later makes clear in the explanation of the parable, that the field is the world as a whole, and not just “the church” that would emerge after Jesus’ death and resurrection).
2) To redirect people’s thoughts about the kingdom, the parable explains that there is a reason why this decisive judgment has not yet taken place: the harvest is not yet ripe (and at this stage the wheat and weeds are hard to distinguish from one another). But God has a perfect plan, and when the time is right, he will bring the judgment that accompanies his glorious reign. At that time evil will be defeated, and God’s enemies will be judged.
3) What response did Jesus pursue with this parable? The seed of the kingdom has been sowed, but judgment is still in the future. Now is the time to determine allegiances, to be disciples of Jesus on the path to the kingdom. That decision to trust and follow Jesus will not be vindicated in a visible way immediately. There will not be immediate judgment on those who refuse Jesus and immediate blessing for those who receive him. But we can trust that God will make all things right in his perfect timing. When his kingdom comes in full force, God will bring salvation for his own children and protect them from the judgment upon a world system under the dominion of his enemy (the devil – Matthew 13:39).
It is a good thing to desire the arrival of God’s kingdom and justice. But Jesus calls us to follow him faithfully in the meantime and trust in God’s timing for the completion of his perfect plans for us and our world. The eternal result is beautiful: “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).