The Wheat And The Tares

The Wheat And The Tares

Daniel Horner

In the year 222 A.D. Callistus insisted that communicants living in open sin should be allowed to remain within the communion of the Church. His basis was the parable of the wheat and the tares.

In 1973 many Christians insist that no one should attack “easy-believism” or point out false teachers. Their basis is the parable of the wheat and the tares.

The consequence of Callistus’ views was the increasing ungodliness of the Church culminating in the worldly power-seeking of the Middle Ages. Are we heading in the same direction in present-day Christianity because of our shoddy interpretation of the wheat and tares parable? Perhaps we need to rethink our interpretations. The parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13 are only difficult to understand if one is unwilling to accept their teachings. Jesus says as much in verse 13. There he explains that the reason he speaks in parables is “because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” But later, after explaining the parables privately to his disciples, he asks, “Have ye understood all these things?” They reply, “Yea, Lord.” Perhaps our shying away from these parables as being too difficult and our multiple interpretations are not matters of the head but of the heart.

The Parable

The parables of the Kingdom of Heaven begin with the familiar one of the sower. Here the picture is that of men’s response to the sowing of the word concerning the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus continues with a similar picture in the second parable of the wheat and the tares. In these the emphasis is not on the response of the hearers as it is on those who profess to be in the Kingdom of Heaven.

A man has sown good seed in his field, but while his servants are sleeping an enemy intentionally sows tares in the field and goes his way. Soon there is the sprout and finally the fruit. To the dismay of the servants the fruitage reveals that some of the seed is of a degenerative variety, mere tares. The master realizes that an enemy must have done this. The servants consequently are eager to sort the tares from out the good wheat. The master instructs them, “Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.” Apparently the grain is not seen as fully ripe because the master says to wait until the harvest and then the tares will be gathered out and burned whereas the wheat will be gathered into his barn.

In looking over the account, there seems to be two points that ought to be especially noted in evaluating our present-day interpretations of this parable. First, that the servants can tell the difference between the wheat and the tares. Second, the master is not concerned with the rooting up of the tares themselves, but is concerned that in the rooting up of the tares the true wheat be damaged, probably because their roots were intertwined.

The Interpretation

Now let us look at Jesus’ interpretation of the parable in verses 36-43. The sower is the Son of Man. The field is the world (notice here that it is not the local church). The good seed is the children of the Kingdom while the tares are the children of the wicked one. The enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world (the age); and the reapers are the angels (These reapers seem to be different from the servants). The wicked are to be gathered out and cast into a furnace of fire whereas the righteous are to shine forth in their Father’s Kingdom.

The Application

Are there justifications in this parable for allowing open sinners to remain within the communion of the church? Hardly. If there are, it is strange that Jesus would contradict himself later when he advocates excommunication in Matthew 18:15-17. Or that Paul would advocate excommunication in 1 Corinthians 5 for the man committing incest. Paul warns believers in verse 11 not to company with a brother who is a “fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one he is not to eat.” Was the Apostle wrong in this?

What about the prevailing “easy-believism” and “decisionism” of our day? The parable does acknowledge that there will be many “converts” who will not really be children of the Kingdom. The tares appear to give every sign of being wheat. Many of the so-called converts today show little evidence of being even tares. Paul’s admonition to “examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5) and the strong warnings of the Epistle to the Hebrews reveal that there is nothing harmful in having people check whether they are wheat or tares. Matthew 7:21-23 should certainly disturb all of us. There is also the question relating to Galatians 1:8 as to whether a true gospel grounded in God’s holiness and righteousness is being preached today or whether it is a mere sales formula. The key point here is one mentioned earlier. The discerning servants of the master could recognize the wheat from the tares. The master tells them not to root out the recognizable tares not for the tares’ sake but for the wheat’s.

Does the parable teach that we should not expose false teachers? This would be a foolish interpretation when compared with other Scriptures. Jesus warned his disciples of “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” and minced no words in denouncing them. Those who say that this is Jesus’ prerogative only should consider John the Baptist in Matthew 3, or Paul in 2 Timothy, or Peter in his second epistle, or the admonition of Jude 1:3 to contend for the faith. Paul even names the false teachers in 1 Timothy 2:17, Hymenaeus and Philetus … who said that the resurrection is past already. There seems to be a heart problem with those who hold the above liberal interpretation. What then is the central message of the parable? It would seem that Jesus is showing once again that the sphere of Christian profession will be much broader than real possession. Many of those within the visible bounds of organized Christianity will eventually hear the tragic words, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” In fact, the next parable of the leaven (Matt. 13) will show that at the time of harvest there will be total corruption of Christendom. This is seen in the great whore of Revelation 18. There is another point to the parable that is perhaps not so easily recognizable. That is, what damage is done to the true seed when an attempt is made to root up the tares? The examination of every group that has endeavored to establish a pure Christian society reveals the answer. When an endeavour is made to establish a sectarian group along such ideas as being the only pure one. Much damage is done to the true saints, the wheat. Besides the fact that the subtle enemy will sow tares even in the “pure” group. The faithful will also pick up certain fleshly quantities. Spiritual pride will arise with the feeling that ones own group is superior to all others. There will be schisms in the body of Christ and loss of ministry among the saints. There will be a spiritual blindness to one’s own errors as the movement slides into formalism and creedalism. There could be confusion divisive as the saints quarrel with each other. There may also be fanaticism of sectarianism or as Oswald Chambers puts it, “Sectarianism produces a passion for souls; the Holy Spirit a passion for Jesus Christ.” In Jesus’ day the Pharisees were excellent examples of these characteristics (Matt. 23).

Illustrations of the dangers of trying to set up a pure society also abound in the Church history. The Church of Rome is an excellent example. Her attempts at a pure society on her own terms had led to the horrors of the Crusades but especially the Inquisition. But Protestantism has not been exempt. John Calvin’s “pure” society in Geneva led to the burning of Servetus. The Reformation, though a glorious spectacle, led to untold bloodshed. Even the noble Puritans with their concept of “the city set on a hill as a light to the world” indulged in many cruelties because of their attempt at a pure society. Read concerning the trial of Anne Hutchinson as she confronts Puritan ecclessiasticism or the treatment of Roger Williams or the Salem witches. Governor John Winthrop, the prosecutor of Anne Hutchinson, is an interesting study of the damage done to the wheat by the rooting out of the Tares. Something similar is evident in the Pinchot family in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, “The House of Seven Gables.”

What then shall we do? The answer is not in silence. There are too many Scriptures that exhort us to speak out. Neither is the answer in endeavouring to set up our own little sect of “pure ones.” Be assured that the enemy will sow tares even there and we will do damage to ourselves. The answer seems to be that in these days of a great leavening of the truth of God, the faithful wheat must “keep His word” (Rev. 3:8) and, transcending all sectrian barriers seek each other out (Mal. 3:16).