Parable of the Tares
The Parable of the Tares (also known as the Parable of the Weeds, Parable of the Wheat and Tares, Parable of the Wheat and Weeds, or the Parable of the Weeds in the Grain) is a parable of Jesus which appears in Matthew 13:24-13:30, following the Parable of the Sower, and preceding the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The parable relates how servants eager to pull up the tares were warned that in so doing they would root out the wheat as well and were told to let both grow together until the harvest. According to the interpretation supplied in Matthew 13:36-13:43, the parable's meaning is that the "sons of the evil one" (the tares or weeds) will be separated from the "sons of the kingdom" (the wheat) at "the end of the age" (the harvest) by angels. This is usually taken to refer to the separation of the unsaved sinners from the saved believers during the Last Judgment. A shorter, greatly compressed version of the parable is found without any interpretation in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.
The parable in the Gospel of Matthew goes as follows:
- Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
- But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.
- But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then the tares appeared also.
- So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didn't you sow good seed in thy field? from where did the tares come out from?
- He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
- But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
- Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.— Matthew 13:24-30, Holy Bible: King James Version
The word translated "tares" in the King James Version is ζιζάνια (zizania), plural of ζιζάνιον (zizanion). This word is thought to mean darnel (Lolium temulentum), a ryegrass which looks much like wheat in its early stages of growth. Roman law prohibited sowing darnel among the wheat of an enemy, suggesting that the scenario presented here is realistic. Many translations use "weeds" instead of "tares".
Then Jesus sent the multitudes away, and went into the house. His disciples came to him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the darnel weeds of the field." He answered them, "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world; and the good seed, these are the children of the Kingdom; and the darnel weeds are the children of the evil one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. As therefore the darnel weeds are gathered up and burned with fire; so will it 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 cause stumbling, and those who do iniquity, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and the gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.— Matthew 13:36-43, World English Bible
Although Jesus has distinguished between people who are part of the Kingdom of Heaven and those who are not, this difference may not always be readily apparent, as the parable of the Leaven indicates. However, the final judgment will be the "ultimate turning-point when the period of the secret growth of God's kingdom alongside the continued activity of the evil one will be brought to an end, and the new age which was inaugurated in principle in Jesus' earthly ministry will be gloriously consummated."
St. Augustine pointed out that the invisible distinction between "wheat" and "tares" also runs through the Church:
O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. ... I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world. Let us seek after good days, for we are now in evil days; but in the evil days let us not blaspheme, that so we may be able to arrive at the good days.
Some churchmen understood Jesus's explanation less literally, interpreting "the children of the evil one" and "the children of the kingdom" to be something else than humans. One of them was Origen who argued that Jesus's interpretation of the parable needs an interpretation of its own, pointing to the phrase with which Jesus followed his exposition of the parable, namely, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear", which occurs after biblical passages with a hidden meaning (see Luke 14:34-14:35 and Mark 4:2-4:9). Here is an abridged version of Origen's commentary on Jesus's interpretation of the parable:
Good things in the human soul are the offspring of the kingdom of God and have been sown by God the Word so that wholesome words about anything are children of the kingdom. But while men are asleep who do not act according to the command of Jesus, "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation", (Matthew 26:41) the devil sows evil opinions over and among natural conceptions. In the whole world the Son of man sowed the good seed, but the wicked one tares—that is, evil words. At the end of things there will be a harvest, in order that the angels may gather up the bad opinions that have grown upon the soul, and may give them over to fire. Then those who become conscious that they have received the seeds of the evil one in themselves shall wail and be angry against themselves; for this is the gnashing of teeth. (Acts 7:54) Then above all shall the righteous shine, no longer differently as at the first, but all "as one sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:43) Daniel, knowing that the multitudes of the righteous differ in glory, have said this, "And the intelligent shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and from among the multitudes of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever." (Daniel 12:3) And in the passage, "There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differs from another star in glory: so also is the resurrection of the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:41-15:42), the Apostle says the same thing. I think, then, that at the beginning of the blessedness enjoyed by those who are being saved the difference connected with the light takes place. Perhaps the saying, "Let your light shine before men" (Matthew 5:16), can be written upon the table of the heart in a threefold way; so that even now the light of the disciples of Jesus shines before the rest of men, and after death before the resurrection, and after the resurrection until "all shall attain unto a full-grown man" (Ephesians 4:13), and all become one sun.
The parable seems to have been interpreted in a similar way by Athenagoras who incidentally stated that "false opinions are an aftergrowth from another sowing", and by St. Gregory Nazianzen who exhorted those who were going to be baptized: "Only be not ignorant of the measure of grace; only let not the enemy, while you sleep, maliciously sow tares." Moreover, St. Gregory of Nyssa relates how his sister St. Macrina cited the parable as a scriptural support for her idea that God gave humans a passionate nature for a good purpose and that passions become vices when we fail to use our reason properly. In her opinion, the "impulses of the soul, each one of which, if only they are cultured for good, necessarily puts forth the fruit of virtue within us", are the good seed, among which "the bad seed of the error of judgment as to the true Beauty" has been scattered. From the bad seed, "the growth of delusion" springs up by which the true Beauty "has been thrown into the shade." Due to this, "the seed of anger does not steel us to be brave, but only arms us to fight with our own people; and the power of loving deserts its intellectual objects and becomes completely mad for the immoderate enjoyment of pleasures of sense; and so in like manner our other affections put forth the worse instead of the better growths." But "the wise Husbandman" leaves the growth of the "error as to Beauty" to remain among his seed, "so as to secure our not being altogether stripped of better hopes" by our passions having been rooted out along with it. For "if love is taken from us, how shall we be united to God? If anger is to be extinguished, what arms shall we possess against the adversary? Therefore the Husbandman leaves those bastard seeds within us, not for them always to overwhelm the more precious crop, but in order that the land itself (for so, in his allegory, he calls the heart) by its native inherent power, which is that of reasoning, may wither up the one growth and may render the other fruitful and abundant: but if that is not done, then he commissions the fire to mark the distinction in the crops." Finally, Theophylact of Ohrid believed that the parable has a double meaning, writing that the field "is the world, or, each one’s soul", that the "good seed is good people, or, good thoughts", and that the tares are heretics, or, bad thoughts.
The Parable of the Tares has often been cited in support of various degrees of religious toleration. Once the wheat is identified with orthodox believers and the tares with heretics, the command Let both grow together until the harvest becomes a call for toleration.
Preaching on the parable, St. John Chrysostom declared that "it is not right to put a heretic to death, since an implacable war would be brought into the world" which would lead to the death of many saints. Furthermore, he suggested that the phrase Lest ye root up the wheat with them can mean "that of the very tares it is likely that many may change and become wheat." However, he also asserted that God does not forbid depriving heretics of their freedom of speech, and "breaking up their assemblies and confederacies".
In his "Letter to Bishop Roger of Chalons", Bishop Wazo of Liege (c. 985-1048 AD) relied on the parable to argue that "the church should let dissent grow with orthodoxy until the Lord comes to separate and judge them".
Opponents of toleration, such as Roman Catholic inquisitors and Protestant reformers like John Calvin or Theodore Beza, found several ways to harmonize killing of heretics with the parable. Some argued that a number of tares can be carefully uprooted without harming the wheat. What is more, the tares could be identified with moral offenders within the church, not heretics, or alternatively the prohibition of pulling up the tares could be applied only to the clergy, not to the magistrates. As a millennialist, Thomas Müntzer could call for rooting up the tares, claiming that the time of harvest had come.
Martin Luther preached a sermon on the parable in which he affirmed that only God can separate false from true believers and noted that killing heretics or unbelievers ends any opportunity they may have for salvation:
From this observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus outroot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God's Word alone must do. But by murder we separate the people from the Word, so that it cannot possibly work upon them and we bring thus, with one stroke a double murder upon ourselves, as far as it lies in our power, namely, in that we murder the body for time and the soul for eternity, and afterwards say we did God a service by our actions, and wish to merit something special in heaven.
He concluded that "although the tares hinder the wheat, yet they make it the more beautiful to behold".
Roger Williams, a Baptist theologian and founder of Rhode Island, used this parable to support government toleration of all of the "weeds" (heretics) in the world, because civil persecution often inadvertently hurts the "wheat" (believers) too. Instead, Williams believed it was God's duty to judge in the end, not man's. This parable lent further support to Williams' Biblical philosophy of a wall of separation between church and state as described in his 1644 book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution.
John Milton, in Areopagitica (1644), calling for freedom of speech and condemning Parliament's attempt to license printing, referred to this parable and the Parable of Drawing in the Net, both found in Matthew 13:
[I]t is not possible for man to sever the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the other fry; that must be the Angels' ministry at the end of mortal things.
- "Gospel of Thomas Saying 57". Peter Kirby. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
- Liddell H G and Scott R, A Greek-English Lexicon, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1843–1996, under "ζιζάνια". The plural form (Zizania) has in modern times been adopted as the botanical name for wild rice.
- "Thayer's Lexicon: ζιζάνια". Blueletterbible.org. Retrieved 2013-11-09.
- Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 2009, ISBN 0-8028-6498-8, pp. 386-387.
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- Jeffrey Burton Russell, Dissent and Order in the Middle Ages: The Search for Legitimate Authority (New York: Twayne Publishers 1992), p. 23
- Bainton, Roland (1932). "The Parable of the Tares as the Proof Text for Religious Liberty to the End of the Sixteenth Century". Church History. 1 (2): 67–89. doi:10.2307/3160016. JSTOR 3160016.
- Luther, Martin. "Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30". Retrieved July 9, 2019.
- James P. Byrd (2002). The challenges of Roger Williams: religious liberty, violent persecution, and the Bible. Mercer University Press. ISBN 9780865547711. Retrieved July 20, 2009.
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