Parable of the Tares: Agricultural Malpractice?

Immediately following the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells another tale involving the sowing of seeds. But whereas the Sower speaks of the proper soil conditions for the grow­ing of plants, the Parable of the Tares revolves around two kinds of seeds: those that pro­duce nourishing grain (wheat) and those that produce poisonous weeds (darnel: Lolium temulentum):

The Kingdom of the heavens has been likened to a man sowing good seed in his field. But, when men were asleep, his enemy came and sowed darnel-seeds as well, in among the grain, and departed. And when the crop sprouted and bore fruit the darnel-weeds also appeared. And the house­holder’s slaves, approaching, said to him, “Lord, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the darnel-weeds it contains come from?” And he said to them, “Someone who is an enemy did this.” So the slaves say to him, “Do you wish then that we should go out and gather them?” But he says, “No, lest in gather­ing the darnel-weeds you should uproot the grain along with them. Let them both grow up together until the harvest; and at the time of the harvest I shall tell the reapers, ‘First gather the darnel-weeds and tie them in sheaves in order to burn them; but gather the grain into my granary.'” (Matt 13:24-30)

A simple story and simple didactic point—so it seems. When the wheat begins to sprout, the farmer and his servants  discover darnel growing right alongside it. The servants are sur­prised: “Lord, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the darnel-weeds it contains come from?” My enemy did this, the farmer explains. In accord with agricultural practice, the servants ask if they should pull up the darnel. The farmer’s answer sur­pris­es: don’t touch the weeds until harvest time. As Robert Capon points out, the farmer’s response violates good crop-raising sense:

Farmers and gardeners, of course, may raise an eyebrow at the story’s strictly agricultural aspects. The practice of not pulling out weeds until harvest time is no way to run a farm. All that such neglect insures is two undesirable results. First, it contributes to the choking out of the good plants that Jesus deplored in the Sower; second, it guarantees a bumper crop of unwanted weed seeds to plague the next season’s planting. (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 83)

Jesus’ audience would have known this and would likely have found the farmer’s decision baffling. Clearly the man doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s going to run the estate into the ground. “The farmer, though,” remarks Capon, “seems to have in mind some grander strat­egy—one that involves not fighting a minor battle against transitory inconveniences but winning an entire war, once and for all, against his enemy” (p. 86). But what does he hope to achieve by this unorthodox strategy?

In the story, and contrary to expectations, the grain of the parable is not threat­ened by the darnel. “It is not danger to the crop’s growth but inconvenience to the farmer and his servants that lies at the heart of the agricultural-theological dilemma in the parable” (p. 86). In the farmer’s judgment, pulling up the darnel, which can be easily mistaken as wheat, poses the greatest threat to the crop. He will not lose a single stalk; he will not chance losing even one son of the Kingdom! Weed the weeds now, and healthy wheat will be inevitably uprooted in the process. Best to adopt a hands-off laissez-faire policy and let the Kingdom be:

In other words, the parable says that doing nothing is, for the time being, the preferred response to evil. It insists that the mysterious, paradoxical tactic of noninterference is the only one that can be effective in the time frame within which the servants are working. No matter that they may have plausible proposals for dealing with the menace as they see it; their very proposals, the farmer tells them, are more of a menace than anything else. To be sure, he goes on to assure them that at some later, riper time, he will indeed interfere to a fare-thee-well with his enemy’s plans. But the principal thrust of the parable, especially as Jesus first tells it, is that until the harvest, the “evil” is to be suffered, not resisted. The parable’s main point, in short, is not eschato­logical redress of wrongs, but present for­bearance of them. And even though Jesus’ subsequent interpretation of the story tilts it mightily in the direction of eschatology, his insistence on nonresistance to the enemy’s troublemaking still comes through clearly enough. (p. 86)

The farmer is not concerned with the dangers posed to his crops by the weeds. All that is necessary for a bountiful harvest is noninterference. The wheat will grow alongside the darnel until it reaches fruition, at which point both will be gathered and separated. Vig­orous intervention, on the other hand, can only succeed in destroying the grain, which is precisely what the enemy is counting on. Evil has no power over goodness. On its own it cannot thwart the flourishing of the good seeds planted by the farmer. As we saw in the Parable of the Growing Seed, the crops grow “automatically” according to divine providence:

Indeed, that puts the finger on the whole purpose of the enemy’s sowing of the weeds. He has no power against goodness in and of itself: the wheat is in the field, the kingdom is in the world, and there is not a thing he can do about any of it. Evil, like darnel, is a counterfeit of reality, not reality itself. It is a parasite on being, not being itself.

As the parable develops its point, though, the enemy turns out not to need anything more than negative power. He has to act only minimally on his own to wreak havoc in the world; mostly, he depends on the forces of goodness, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work. That is precisely why the enemy goes away after sowing the weeds: he has no need whatsoever to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway—having no real power to muck up the opera­tion—he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him. Good­ness itself, in other words, if it is suffi­ciently committed to plausible, right-handed, strong-arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind. (p. 87)

The parable raises the question of evil within God’s good creation. Where did it come from? Answer: “An enemy did this.” This hardly seems an adequate answer, yet it’s the only answer the Bible gives us. Scripture is not interested in providing a rational account of evil and the suffering it brings. The story of Job makes that clear enough. Capon com­ments that there are only three possible replies to the why of evil:

  1. God is not good.
  2. God is good but not omnipotent: evil is beyond his competence.
  3. God is omnipotent, good, and perfectly loving; but he inexplicably has enemies who who are intent on destroying his good creation.

Take your pick (#3 is Jesus’ answer), but none will be of practical use to the afflicted:

Not a single one of these answers—nor any other answer that could imaginably be given—is the least help to you when it comes to actually dealing with evil. All that any of them addresses is the distinctly armchair problem your intellectual bookkeeping department is having with a divine operation over which it has no control. The only possible action that can come out of your concern is the bestowal or withholding of your personal approbation—something that, in either case, makes no difference what­so­ever. If a mugger is stabbing you with impunity, your biggest problem is hardly whether you can manage to approve or disapprove of a cosmic Somebody who, by design or default, makes such unpleasant behavior possible. (p. 89)

Those who suffer do not need a theodicy. They need that which only God and the saints can provide: examples of how to faithfully suffer evil and horror.

So what does this story tell us about God and his Kingdom? Jesus provides this allegorical explanation:

Then, sending the crowds away, he went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain the parable of the field’s darnel-weeds to us.” And in reply he said, “The one sowing the good seed is the Son of Man; And the field is the cosmos; and the good seed—these are the sons of the Kingdom; and the darnel-weeds are the sons of the wicked one, And the enemy who sowed them is the Slanderer; and the harvest is the consum­ma­tion of the age, and the reapers are angels. Therefore, just as the darnel-weeds are gathered and consumed by fire, so it will be at the consummation of the age; The Son of Man will send forth his angels, and they will gather up out of his Kingdom all the snares that cause stumbling, as well as the workers of lawlessness, And will throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and grinding of teeth there. Then the just will shine out like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. Let him who has ears hear. (Matt 13:36-43)

Capon is not alone in noticing that this explanation, with its focus on eschatological pun­ish­ment, virtually remakes the parable. Some have conjectured that it is the creation of the evangelist. Capon does not accept this solution, but the alternative he hesitantly offers is unconvincing. We will be discussing the question of eternal punishment at length when we come to the parables of judgment. In the meantime, ruminate on Capon’s summary of the parable:

Only God, it says, only the Farmer in charge of the universal operation, knows how to deal successfully with evil. And note well that his sole compe­tence applies both here and hereafter—both now, during the growing season, and then, at the harvest. Here and now, while the mystery of evil is intermin­gled with the mystery of the kingdom, he wills to deal with it only by áphesis: by forgiveness, by permission, by letting it be. But there and then, in the eschatological fullness of the kingdom—as that fullness is por­trayed in the rest of the New Testament—he still deals with it in terms of something that is a mystery to us now, namely, the mystery of the Resurrection. (p. 95)

The solution to the problem of evil: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

(Go to “The “Parables of Grace”)

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3 Responses to Parable of the Tares: Agricultural Malpractice?

  1. G-tic says:

    “Those who suffer do not need a theodicy. They need that which only God and the saints can provide: examples of how to faithfully suffer evil and horror.”

    I would suggest that, in fact, what they need is someone to make the suffering stop or prevent it in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an awesome post! I don’t know what to say in response, but I wanted to express something of how much I liked it! I never really thought about this parable that much before, but this makes so much sense!

    God leaves the evil in order not to interfere with the maturation of the good. Not one good thing shall be lost.

    Furthermore, let us think of the field not as the world, but as also representing one human soul. Why God does not uproot all the evil out of us now. I think that is something interesting and possibly fruitful to contemplate.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    This parable in the eschatological dimension of its explanation has similarities to that of the fishing net which follows it. If this is bad agricultural practice, the parable of the fishing net is by contrast good fishing technique (at least for the time). In the parable of the fishing net the point is made that when fishing, fishermen simply threw the net over the side at what looked a likely spot or possibly when they saw what looked like might be fish and hoicked into the boat whatever swum into it. They then landed whatever it was they caught and it was someone else’s job to sort out which fish were “clean” and kept as suitable to eat, or which “unclean” and had to be thrown away.
    The parable of the wheat and darnel seems to be in part making the same point – it is not for us (and we are the servants in this parable) to decide that someone is darnel and not wheat and uproot them, because we can’t tell. That’s the reapers’ job, and the reapers are the angels, not us.

    Liked by 1 person

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