Summary: How does Jesus’ parable, which argues for leaving tares undisturbed, square with admonitions in the epistles to discipline errant members of the congregation?
As far as the parables of our Lord are concerned, the one before us in today’s gospel is certainly clear. Some of them are not so clear, even when our Lord interprets them for his disciples; and others are left in the gospel record uninterpreted. This one, however, is quite straightforward. If it poses a difficulty for us, it is in the area of application. Our Lord says, “He who has ears, let him hear.” Of course, mere hearing is not quite the point – it’s what we are going to do with what we hear him say that will prove us.
So, let us turn our attention to the parable with this in mind – what are we to hear? what are we to think? what are we to do? Actually, the point of the parable seems to be not something to do, but something NOT to do. But first, let’s review the salient points of this parable.
First, what are tares? The tares mentioned in this parable are the plant which goes by the name darnel . It is a form of rye grass. And, when it first sprouts and for some time as it is growing, it is virtually indistinguishable from wheat. Only as it matures do the differences between wheat and darnel become evident. But, by the time you can recognize darnel and distinguish it from wheat, it is already well established in the field, and its root system is well mingled with the wheat. As Jesus explained in the parable, if you go in and start pulling up the darnel at this point, you are going to destroy part of your crop at the same time.
Jesus’ advice to his servants a feature of this parable that isn’t exactly at home in the kinds of Christianity in which my initial spiritual formation occurred. I was reared in a version of the Christian faith that put a great store in drawing very sharp lines between “them” and “us.” Of course, the premise to this view about Christian fellowship and ministry is that we are ABLE to draw these kinds of lines in the first place. And, that is the first notion that this parable challenges.
As I said, when wheat and darnel first sprout, they are indistinguishable. You could not possibly uproot the darnel at this stage, for fear of pulling up wheat instead and leaving the tares to flourish. In order to see which is wheat and which is tares, you must leave them all alone and let them come to maturity. Only as they near the time of harvest is it possible to see the difference between them.
There are communities of Christians – you can find them in all denominations, I think – which haven’t gotten the point of this parable. They think you can have a pure church – a field that contains ONLY wheat, as it were – in this life, before the end of the age. But, they are wrong. For one thing, they cannot stop the enemy from sowing tares among them. For another thing, they do not have the discernment to distinguish between wheat and tares. And, finally, by setting themselves the goal of producing a field with absolutely no weeds in it, they usually achieve a field that has very little wheat in it.
Why does Satan do this? Why does he sow tares among the wheat? Make no mistake here – the field is the world, but the tares are sown among the wheat by the enemy. He doesn’t just willy nilly sow tares just any old place. It is among the wheat that the tares are sown by Satan. What is he up to?
First of all, weeds take up room that would otherwise be useful for the production of wheat. Every Christian ministry of any size has these kinds of “plants” in it, as it were – those who consume resources, the food, water, and sunshine they take to themselves are not available for the wheat plants in these groups. I actually think that this problem is not only easier to see, but also far more common the larger a group of Christians grows. Church programming designed to meet the needs of the tares will inevitably rob resources from ministries that would cause wheat to grow and multiply.
Secondly, as innumerable commentators have observed, the root systems of the tares become entangled with the root systems of the wheat. This is why one cannot just yank the tares out of the ground once you recognize them. If you do that, you will certainly uproot some wheat as well.
Thirdly, tares produce nothing useful; instead they produce a great many more useless plants like themselves.
I wonder, sometimes, if this is why Christian organizations – seminaries, are good examples – tend to decay over time. They do not go away, but they eventually become fields of nothing but weeds. In general, communions of Christians follow a similar path – a beginning that flourishes with new growth, a maturity in which there is an abundance of both good wheat and useless weeds side by side, and finally, a decline into sheer weediness.