In the early 1950s Helmut Thielicke preached a series of sermons at St. Michael’s Church in Hamburg on the parables of Jesus. They have been collected in this book and I recommend them to you in the strongest possible terms.

One of the most powerful of the sermons is on the parable of the wheat and the tares — and before I go any further I want to note that the great unspoken context of this sermon (and indeed the whole series) is the de-Nazification of Germany in the postwar years and the desire to start over from scratch, at Stunde Null. I should add also that the whole sermon is far more powerful than the summary account I will give here.

Thielicke begins by admitting that the parable poses a great and puzzling question:

We understand the angry reaction of the servants, who want to go out immediately and rip out the weeds, even though, from a farmer’s point of view, this is almost impossible. Nor does the Lord permit this. Rather, he says, “Let both grow together until the harvest. You can’t change things. Leave the decision, leave the separation of the weeds from the wheat to the judgment day of God. This is not your affair. God will take this thing in hand in his good time.” What is it that causes our Lord, so strangely, it seems, to stifle the holy zeal of his people and to say to them, “Hands off! You cannot change the field of the world as it is anyhow”?

He suggests that there are three reasons why Jesus dissuades his disciples from separating the wheat (the real disciples, those who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven) from the tares, the weeds (those who are not truly Christians and will ultimately be cast out).

“First, he is saying: Please do not think that you can exterminate the evil in the world by your activity and your own personal exertions. After all, that evil is within you yourselves.” Even those who are true believers are not free from the sins that they denounce in others, which is why, Thielicke believes, we tend to distrust those who become obsessive about social reform. “The fanatical reformers do precisely what the servants in our parable wanted to do. They want to exterminate the tares with force and will power, failing to remember that their own wills are filled with weeds. Not to see this is their Pharisaical error; and to see this is the royal realism of Jesus Christ.”

The second reason Jesus forbids the uprooting of the weeds is

the same reason that Jesus forbade his disciples to call down fire from heaven to consume the hostile Samaritans (Luke 9: 52 ff.). On that occasion he cried out in anger to his people, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of: for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” We would therefore be spoiling God’s plan of salvation if we were to organize a great “Operation Throw-them-out,” if we were to cast out of the temple the hangers-on, the hypocrites, the “borderliners,” and all the other wobblers in Christendom, in order to keep a small elite of saints. For this would mean that we would rob these people of the chance at least to hear the Word and take it to heart…. But the very reason why Jesus died was to open the Father’s house to everybody, including the superficial, the indifferent, the mockers and revilers. The bells of invitation which sound over market place, fields, and alleys would be silenced, and the comforting promise, “Everybody can come, just as you are,” would be turned into a questionnaire in which everybody would have to list his accomplishments and merits. And finally somebody else would add them up and evaluate them and give the verdict: “You passed” or “You failed.”

This, I think, requires no commentary; just reflection.

And now the third reason: “the householder in the parable explicitly points out that the servants are completely incapable of carrying out any proper separation of grain and weeds because they look so much alike and therefore in their zeal for weeding out the tares they would also root out the wheat.” Here Thielicke is quick to insist that he is not counseling either indifference or a reluctance to make moral judgments: “Of course we should ‘distinguish between spirits.’ Of course we must call what is godly godly and what is satanic satanic. The Lord Christ himself did this.” But the casting out of people is a different thing, a different order of action.

When we examine the weed patch more closely and try, on the basis of what we know about sin, blasphemy, and nihilism, to determine clearly just who is a sinner, a blasphemer, a nihilist, we encounter a strange difficulty. We find that nobody is merely a blasphemer or merely a nihilist, but always at the same time an unhappy, misguided child of God. The soldiers who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and then mocked him were not only blasphemers and functionaries of Satan. On the contrary, the Father in heaven grieved over them, because they really belonged to him and, tragically, they seemed to be completely unaware of this and went on heeding the prompting of another, dark, power. I venture to ask this question: Have we ever in our life met a person, no matter how depraved, unbelieving, or vicious he may have been, even some malicious, quarreling, clacking neighbor or a slippery, scheming fellow worker— I ask you, have we ever met a person of whom we dared to say, “This person is really a weed and nothing but a weed”?

Or were we not at the same time brought up short and challenged to see that Jesus died for him too, and that none of us can know whether God may not still have something in mind for him, whether some altogether different seed may yet spring up in him? Would not our hand wither if we were to root him out as a weed? Must not this hand draw back and perhaps open in a gesture of blessing and prayer that God may yet bestow his mercy upon this seemingly lost and condemned failure?

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.