Historical Cultural Context
Enemies And Retaliation
Experts describe Mediterranean society as agonistic, that is, hostile and conflict-oriented. Today’s opening parable is an illustration of this feature.
An enemy has sowed weeds among the wheat. The fact is mentioned without comment. Jesus’ audience understood this perfectly. Birth into a family means not only inheriting that family’s honor status and its friends but also inheriting its enemies.
There are many reasons why families become enemies in the ancient world, but the consequences are always the same. A state of feuding develops and persists over a long period of time. One never knows but must always suspect that a feuding enemy is seeking to shame one’s family.
In this story, the shame is planted soon after the wheat seeds are sown, but it does not become full-blown shame until the weeds have matured to the point where they are clearly distinguishable from the wheat. Now the entire village discovers the shame along with the landowner, and they begin to laugh.
The laughter grows even louder when the landowner instructs his servants to allow the weeds to grow alongside the wheat until harvest. The peasants expect retaliation and revenge. Instead, the landowner appears helpless and bested by his enemies. Before the invention of electricity and television, such feuds provided entertainment for the village.
But appearances are deceiving. The landowner is shrewd as well as being a savvy farmer. He knows that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation. After the harvest, the landowner will not only have grain for his barns, but extra, unanticipated fuel for his needs. Instead of shaming this landowner, the weed strategy has backfired and shamed the enemy. The landowner and his servants have the last laugh. The enemy bent on shaming others is shamed instead!
There is an interesting lesson here. Once again, Jesus’ peasant audience recognized that this was not a lesson in agriculture. It may have been a lesson about cultural values. The “something other” or “something more” of this parable may well be the landowner’s refusal to retaliate, to get even with the enemy. In a society dedicated to revenge, the landowner’s victory by seeming to do nothing is a powerful lesson.
The confidence of the landowner that his wheat will survive the effect of the weeds is worth pondering. A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness could be a powerful weapon against rampant, senseless violence. It has worked before in history, and could work again if given a chance.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University