Matthew 13:36-43

The Parable of the Wheat & Tares

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

If you’ve been away, this is the second in our summer series on The Parables of Jesus.

And what a great story it is: A farmer sowed wheat in his field, but while he slept an enemy sowed weeds so that when the wheat began to sprout and grow so did the weeds. This posed a dilemma: What should he do? If he pulled out the weeds, he’d destroy the wheat. So, he told his servants to let them grow together until the harvest.

Last week I told you that, by definition, a parable is a simple story using concrete imagery to make a single point, in Jesus’ case, about the Kingdom of God. So, what’s the point of the parable?

It’s simply this: The Kingdom of God is a mixed bag in which wheat and weeds grow together, side by side, and you can’t always tell them apart.

Three things you need to know about this parable:

• One, in Jesus’ day, sowing weeds in a neighbor’s field was a common way folks had of getting even with each other. Instead of spray painting graffiti on the wall of the house or egging the neighbor’s chariot, they’d sow Johnson grass in the neighbor’s wheat or corn or barley. It had become such a common practice that the Roman government actually passed a law against it.

• Two, this particular seed spoken of in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares is called a “bearded darnel.” It was a variety of rye grass and, in the early stages of growth, was indistinguishable from wheat. You couldn’t tell them apart. So, you didn’t know there was darnel growing in your field until the stalks started to produce, and then it was too late, because the roots would be so interwoven that to pull up the weeds would be to pull up the wheat.

• And three, the seeds of the bearded darnel were poisonous. They’d make you sick. The name comes from the French word, Darne, which means, stupefied. The symptoms of eating darnel grain were dizziness, slurred speech, vomiting and diarrhea. It was bad stuff.

And so, putting all this together, Jesus told a parable. A farmer sowed a field of wheat but, while he slept, an enemy came and sowed darnel, so that, when the wheat began to sprout, so did the darnel. What was he to do?

“Let both grow together until the harvest,
and in the harvest time I will tell the reapers,
‘First, gather up the darnel weeds,
and bind them in bundles to burn them;
but gather the wheat into my barn.'”
(Matthew 13:30)

Can you see how this parable applies to us today? First, it speaks of one of the most prevalent of all our sins, the sin of judging other people – playing God and deciding for ourselves who’s worthy and who’s not. Jesus recognized this tendency in his followers and said frankly:

“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.
For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged;
and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you.”

(Matthew 7:1-2)

We know better than to stand in judgment of others, yet we do it anyway, particularly when it comes to the church. There’s something deep down inside us that wants to separate the sheep from the goats, the saints from the sinners, the good guys from the bad guys.

And so, unconsciously, I think, we set ourselves up as gatekeepers. We practice “selective evangelism.” We defer to those whom we want to be a part of our fellowship, and we politely discourage the others.

We all have our own little litmus tests, but they’re pretty much the same, based mostly on how others act, how they dress, how they talk, where they live, what they do for a living. The common denominator is we’re attracted to those like us: “Birds of a feather flock together.”

This is nothing new. We’ve known it for a long time. The problem is, this gets translated into what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ, and, without really trying, we become a homogeneous congregation, all looking and acting pretty much alike. And that gives us a certain comfort. It gives us consensus. Then someone radically different comes into our fellowship, and we get into a stir and become restless until we weed them out.

I’ve seen it happen over and over through the years. There was a couple who came to our church in Sherman, Texas years ago. They dropped by the church midweek looking for a janitorial job. I told them we didn’t have the money to hire a custodian, but we’d love to have them come to worship with us. Lo and behold, the next Sunday, they did. And they came back, Sunday after Sunday, and then, one day, they joined the church. And, as far as I was concerned, they were great members. They tithed their income, they cleaned the church for free, and, when the congregation decided to sponsor a Cuban refugee, they invited him to be a guest in their home.

The problem was, they didn’t look like the rest of us. They were a little rough around the edges. And, to be honest, they didn’t smell like the rest of us either. And that made a lot folks uncomfortable. The long-time members were polite at first. But then they began to ostracize this new family in subtle ways. For example, when we’d have a pot-luck supper at the church, their dish would hardly be touched. And when small groups got together for a cookout at somebody’s house, they never invited this particular family to come. Well, you can imagine what happened. It time, they dropped out. They fell by the wayside and quit coming, and, as far as I know, no one made any attempt to ask why.

Back in the early days of our country, the Puritans made a concerted effort to purge the church of all those who weren’t of pure faith, and so, didn’t belong. Well, they failed, and I, for one, am glad they did, because if there’s no place in the church for sinners needing to be accepted and loved, there’s no place for you and me.

In his book, Going Home, Robert Raines describes what he pictures to be the church of Jesus Christ. He says,

“(It is) not a neat, tidy sober congregation
seated side by side in back-to-back pews facing forward,
(but) a milling crowd, pushing, shoving, loving, laughing –
a Moses-mob in the wilderness on (its) way (to the Promised Land).
(It’s) not the righteous, but sinners, whom Jesus came to call.” (p. 118)

In another one of his teachings, Jesus said, “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind.” (Matthew 13:47)

And that’s the first lesson we need to learn about the Parable of the Wheat and Tares: The kingdom of God is a mixed bag, in which it’s not always clear which is the wheat and which are the weeds. As such, we’d do well not to try to judge one from the other.

And the second lesson we need to learn is that, when it comes to human nature, not of us is ever completely a saint or a sinner, but a combination of both. One of my favorite theologians, Mr. Rogers, used to say: “Have you ever noticed that the very same people who are bad sometimes are the very same people who are good sometimes?” It reminds me of a story called, “Two Wolves.” It goes like this:

“An old Cherokee once told his grandson about a fight that was going on inside of him. He said it was between two wolves. One was evil: Anger, envy, greed, arrogance, selfpity, gossip, resentment, and false pride. The other was good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf do you think will win?’ The old Cherokee replied, ‘The one I feed.'” (Anonymous)

Scripture reminds us, we are born of the flesh and of the Spirit. We’re created in the image of God, yet we bear the mark of original sin. As such, there lies within each of us the capacity for evil and the potential for good. The Apostle Paul said of himself,

“For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do…
find then the law, that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present…” (Rom. 7:14-25)

I think this is why, when he was looking for a way to describe the final reconciliation of the world to God, the prophet Isaiah put it this way:

“The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young ones will lie down together.
The lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play near a cobra’s hole,
and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Yahweh,
as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11:6-9)

In the final act in the drama of salvation, the tensions that exist within us and within all God’s creation will finally be resolved and put to rest, and we shall live in peace with God and each other forevermore. But, until then, they coexist – the wheat and weeds grow side by side – even within us – so that to root out the one would be to destroy the other.

That’s the second lesson of the parable, and the third is this: Ultimately, there will come a day of judgment. In the words of the parable,

“Let both grow together until the harvest,
and in the harvest time I will tell the reapers,
‘First, gather up the darnel weeds,
and bind them in bundles to burn them;
but gather the wheat into my barn.'”
(Matthew 13:30)

At harvest time, two things would happen: The wheat and the darnel would be cut and taken to the threshing floor where the grain would be separated from the stalks. The wheat would be plump and golden brown. The darnel would be small and black. The women and children would then separate one from the other, grain by grain, throwing out the darnel and, of course, keeping the wheat to make flour.

More than once Jesus told his followers of an impending day of judgment, and he warned them, in the meantime, to watch out for false prophets. He said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” The question is, how do you know one from the other? Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15)

And it’s true – when all’s said and done, others know us by the things we do and say, whether we’re gracious, generous, thoughtful and kind … or callous, stingy, insensitive and selfserving:  “By their fruits you will know them.”

The Good News is, God’s grace is seen in the fact that, as we grow in the knowledge of God’s love, and, slowly but surely, humble ourselves before God and seek his will for our lives, we increasingly reflect the image of God in which we were created, and our human sinfulness – though it never, ever completely goes away – becomes fainter and fainter by comparison to the light of God’s grace and love.

Here’s the bottom line: There will always be darnel among the wheat – a little sinfulness in our souls – but, thanks be to God, the harvest will be plentiful, and we shall feast sumptuously on the bread of life.

Oh, by the way, those stalks that the wheat and darnel grew on? Once they were threshed and the grain was separated from the stalk, the stalks were bundled and burned as fuel for cooking and heating. And the darnel seed? The Greeks and Romans found that, even though it was poisonous, in small doses it had a medicinal quality.

In God’s sight, nothing is useless; nothing is lost. In God’s hands, even a dastardly deed of a vengeful neighbor can serve a useful purpose: “All things work together for good…”

Thanks be to God!  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2004 Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.