Posted on February 8th, 2011
THE PARABLE OF THE WHEAT AND THE TARES – Matthew 13:24-30 – Epiphany V
While in high school and college, I made some easy money mowing lawns each summer. I was surprised that one of my customers kept me on after the first time I mowed his lawn, because I managed to mow down with efficient zeal what I guess were the beginnings of some flowers, or plants, or whatever they were. What looked like out of control weeds to me were in fact something precious to him. All I could say was, “Sir, forgive me, for I know not what I do.” He was a kindly Christian man, and he not only forgave me, he paid me more than I deserved.
In today’s parable, the master is far more cautious and careful than I was. When you can’t be sure if it’s weeds or good seed, leave it alone!
Now on Sundays we look at Bible passages in isolation, which is okay for the sake of time, but these things are in the order they are for a reason. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds comes immediately after the Parable of the Sower (which we will hear in a few weeks). The Parable of the Sower is about hearing the Word of God. The Sower, i.e., the Lord, is reckless with His seed, His Word, scattering it all about. But He is not at all reckless about tearing up that which is growing. About that He is very cautious.
Now remember, a parable is an earthly story that teaches us about heavenly realities. So what are these things? Jesus Himself later explained the parable to His disciples when they asked, saying,
He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Only at the end will it become completely clear who are the wheat and who are the tares, who belongs to the Lord and who is to be thrown into the fire of judgment. For now, we have to remember and be aware that Satan is the enemy of the Lord’s church, and he is tirelessly sowing poisonous seeds, trying to ruin the Lord’s harvest. This is true especially in the church. In the words of Daniel Defoe,
Wherever God erects a House of Prayer
The devil builds a chapel there.
And ‘twill be found upon investigation
The latter has the larger congregation.
What particularly astonishes me about this parable is what it reveals about the character of God. If it were my field and the enemy had sown tares, weeds, with the aim of destroying the crop, I think I would fall into the trap and go out and promptly seek to tear up anything that looked faulty. But the Master, the Lord, is far more patient. He is willing to wait and be patient, because He doesn’t want any of the good wheat, His faithful Christians, to be destroyed in the process of weeding.
It’s important to understand that what is called “tares” or weeds in this parable is a plant called darnel. It is “organically related to wheat, and at the early stages of growth one cannot distinguish darnel from wheat, they look so much alike” (Pless). They can only be distinguished upon maturity; while they are growing, they appear identical. At harvest, it will be obvious which is which, and the wheat can be separated out then. The farmer could attempt to distinguish the wheat from the tares, but he would likely destroy a lot of good wheat in the process.
Our Augsburg Confession tells us that in the church on earth, “many false Christians, hypocrites, and open sinners remain among the godly.” We should not try to root out all hypocrites; and I suppose if we did, we would have to exclude every one of us! Unless the case is extremely obvious and apparent so that the pastor can exercise needed church discipline, as is his responsibility, we should let it alone. God does the judging.
I have often been surprised at how wrong I can be about people. Church members that seem to be the most zealous, the most faithful, the most supportive, end up causing great trouble spreading wicked slander and false reports. And those that you think aren’t paying any attention and are just going through the motions end up showing themselves to be very faithful and pious. One of the best things to ever happen to me as a pastor was a man who told me he didn’t believe a certain Biblical teaching, and nothing I could say would ever change his mind. Not long before he died, he asked me if I remembered him saying that. “Yes,” I replied, and he proceeded to tell me he had, in fact, changed his mind! A man I was convinced was a weed at the end was shown to be wheat. I suspect God gave me that experience to temper my highly judgmental nature. I simply don’t know how it’s going to turn out, so keep preaching the Word of God and let God do the work.
There is a place for church discipline. When someone persists in willful, unrepentant sin, they should be admonished by the pastor and finally, if they refuse to listen, they must be put out of the church.
Most of the time, however, the situation is not so easily solved—not that church discipline is ever easy. We must not imagine that we can find and join a church without sinners, or cleanse our own church such that all sin is rooted out. The Lord’s church on earth consists of nothing but sinners. So today’s parable not only gives good guidance for pastors to not be quick to tear apart the church trying to root out every sinner; it also gives good guidance to each of us in our personal lives in dealing with sin. The epistle appointed to go along with today’s parable is perfect, for it tells us how to deal with sin that comes our way within the church: with “patience,” just as the Master prescribed in the parable. With “patience, bearing with one another.” That is the life of a Christian – patiently bearing each others sins, burdens, problems, weaknesses. Imagine how your marriage, your school, your workplace, our church meetings, would be transformed if we responded to the weaknesses of our fellow sinners with such patience! “And if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
We cannot tell the wheat from the tares, the hypocrites from the godly. And the truth is that, however we might wish to be godly, there are times when act like God-forsaken hypocrites.
Parables are illustrations, and we must be careful not to carry them too far. For while true wheat may not transform into a weed, and a weed will not become wheat, the category in which we belong can change. Sinners can repent, and people with faith can fall away. So we would do well to treat others as though they are the wheat, and be patient and forgiving; and at the same time look at ourselves as tares, weeds, as false hypocrites. Root out the hypocrisy in your own life, and don’t worry about your neighbor’s sins. Look at the plank in your eye, not the speck in your neighbor’s.
Judgment belongs to God, not to us. As for us, God has ordained the peace of God to rule in our hearts and the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly. It’s difficult to translate into English, but the last part of today’s Epistle doesn’t quite capture the implications of what Paul actually says. “Be thankful,” our translation says. It’s the only place in the New Testament where the verb eucharistein, “to give thanks,” shows up as a noun. “Eucharist” comes to be a word for the Lord’s Supper, because Jesus took the bread and gave thanks (eucharist) before giving it to the disciples saying, “This is My body.” The closest we can put St. Paul’s words into English would be something like, “Be doers of thanksgiving,” or perhaps just, “Be eucharistic.”
Our Lord Jesus is the true wheat, which, as He said in John 12, is planted into the ground and springs forth to bear fruit. In His death He was planted in the ground, and in the resurrection He sprang forth to life. Only in Him is there no hypocrisy, only in Him is perfection and no weeds or poisonous seed. Receiving the wheat which is His body He forgives our sins, our hypocrisy, and roots out that which is false and weedy in us. Come, kneel and confess your sins, and thankfully receive Him who is the finest of wheat, your crucified God.