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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven Is a Mixed Field

The Parable of the Tares (Weeds / Darnel), found only in the Gospel according to Matthew (13: 24 - 30), is a curious story - not easily understood. And, unfortunately for us, the explanation put into the mouth of Jesus by Matthew (13: 36 - 43) does not really help us to understand it any better.

Jesus tells of a farmer who planted his field with wheat then, as he slept, an enemy of the farmer came during the night and oversowed the field with tares. The farmer’s servants recognize what has happened and ask for permission to root out all of the tares, but the farmer instructs them to be patient, and to instead let the wheat and the tares grow up together, saying that if the tares were yanked up, the wheat would be damaged as well. He tells them to wait until the harvesting time to separate the wheat from the weeds; the weeds will be bundled together and burned at that time.

The “tares” of the parable (Greek - ζιζάνια) have not been specifically identified, but are commonly thought to be not just “weeds” but Poison Darnel, also known as Bearded Darnel (Lolium temulentum), a ryegrass that looks almost identical to wheat, at least right up until the harvest time - and is susceptible to the Ergot fungus which can cause hallucinations, irrational behavior, and even death when consumed. It’s not just a prank. It’s not a minor irritation; the oversowing of darnel into the farmer’s wheat field was a deliberate and malicious act of sabotage. And, apparently, this was not an uncommon occurrence in the ancient world. There was,in fact, a Roman law against this kind of malevolent sowing. (Digest

The parable seems to be an injunction against an overzealous attempt to root out heresies and other objectionable elements from within the Christian community. “Let them grow up together” is the instruction, at least for now, they’ll be separated and burned by the harvesters. But the explanation of this parable ostensibly given by Jesus a few verses later neglects this apparent meaning, and makes the parable into a stiff, apocalyptic allegory of the end of the age.

This disconnect between the apparent motive of the parable and the explanation, combined with a variety of other peculiarities within the explanation cause many biblical scholars to suggest that “it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the interpretation of the parable of the Tares is the work of Matthew himself,” (Jeremias 81 - 85) and not directly from the mouth of Jesus.

It is even suggested by Sherman E. Johnson that the Parable of the Tares itself may be a literary construction composed by Matthew (by rewriting his source material in Mark 4:26 - 29) to provide a twin parable for the Parable of the Sower (to fit alongside the twin parables of mustard seed / leaven and hidden treasure / the costly pearl) who then provided his own allegorical explanations for them both (Johnson “Introduction” 239, “Exegesis” 415), explanations which may or may not have been what Jesus intended in the telling of the parable.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a mixed field - the good wheat seed sown by the farmer muddled with the toxic, seed mingled in by his enemy. Both grow up together. But we are to carry on our work in spite of mixed results. (Kee 625)

“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” (Augustine)

The servants of the farmer wanted to rush out to the field to pull up the plants sown by the enemy, to storm the fields yanking the pernicious plants up by their roots. But this would have caused damage and trauma to the farmer’s good wheat. Patience. Patience is what the farmer urged on his servants and not zeal, not furious anger, or even righteous indignation, but patience. This is not to say that we are unconcerned with bad doctrine or heretical theology, but it is not our job to go rip-roaring through the fields tearing up the plants and throwing them into the blazing furnace. The self-appointed sentry who takes it upon him or herself to rid the field of these weeds by confrontation and belligerence has taken up a task that the master has not given us and will not further the growth of the kingdom, but will instead cause damage and division.

Be patient. Let the kingdom (a mixed field though it be) grow as the farmer has told us.

Augustine, Sermon #23 on the New Testament.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Parables of Jesus. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1972. Print.

Johnson, Sherman E. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Exegesis” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

Johnson, Sherman E. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Introduction” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

Kee, Howard Clark.  “The Gospel According to Matthew” The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1971. Print.

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