Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

80. Tares (Matt. 13:24-30,36-43)*

“Another parable put he forth unto them”. The Greek word often means: “he set it before them,” as though it were another meal (eg. 1 Cor. 10:27; Acts. 16:34; Lk. 11:6), to be masticated carefully and thoroughly digested.

But the same verb has other uses, as when “Moses laid before the elders of the people all these words which the Lord commanded him” (Ex. 19:7). So there could be emphasis here yet again on Jesus being a prophet like unto Moses. But Moses never spoke parables like these, not even in the instructive symbolism of the Tabernacle.

The story (an expansion of Pr. 11:18?) is marvellously simple, and absolutely true to life in all its details, except one. A farmer sowed his field. But some time after this, in the middle of the night whilst his men slept (and himself apparently gone away for a time), one who hated him stealthily over-sowed the field with tares.

Is it possible to infer that this enemy had had a great crop of tares in his own field — how else would he be equipped with this seed? — and was moved with envy at the better husbandry of the other?

It was one of the meanest, most despicable tricks human nature is capable of. As the season advanced, the spiteful stratagem still went unnoticed because in early growth this particular weed is practically indistinguishable from wheat. But when the corn began to form in the ear, then the vexing situation became evident enough for among the green ears ripening to the rich golden-brown of harvest, the black head of the tares was unmistakable (Mt. 7:20).

The farm workers, surprised and worried, drew their master’s attention to the sorry situation. Should they get busy and pull out all these tares, so as to give the wheat a better chance? After all, wasn’t that normal farming practice throughout the Holy Land, and right round the world? Imagine, then, their mystification when the Lord of the harvest instructed differently: ‘Leave well alone at present; pulling up tares now will spoil the good crop too.’ It had to be so, for God’s husbandry is not like man’s. So at this point the parable fails to be true to life. Came harvest at last, and the time for action. The entire crop was cut. Then it was comparatively easy for the reapers to single out the tares, lying loose and easily distinguished. These were gathered up in bundles and made into an enormous bonfire, so that there could be no further crop damage. The ripened wheat was then threshed and carried into the barn.

Authoritative Explanation

Evidently this parable specially impressed the disciples. They had already learned from the parable of the sower to mark the resemblance between the preaching work of Jesus and the sowing of the fields in Galilee. But here were other features — an enemy, tares, unconventional farming methods-which puzzled them. So in the house they came to him asking for elucidation; “Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field”. Here the manuscripts are about evenly divided between two readings. One group used the word by which Nebuchadnezzar demanded of his magicians an interpretation of his dream (Dan.2:4). The other reading means: Explain thoroughly, in every detail (Dan. 8:26 LXX; cp. Mt. 15:15).
Why was there no query about the other parables (v. 31-33)? Did the disciples recognise that tares, mustard seed, and leaven had the same basic idea in common?

Jesus responded to their request readily enough, setting before them the one-one correspondence between parable and meaning - and not for this parable only (Mk. 4:34).

“He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man”. In this detail also the parable is not true to life. For what farmer wealthy enough to own bond-servants (slaves) would sow the field himself? But this point is needed in the story to give due emphasis on Jesus as the preacher. It was his gospel, even in later days when the apostles came to preach it.
“The field is the world”. There is no lack of examples in the New Testament where this word kosmos is used in the limited sense of “the Jewish world” (Rom. 4:13; Col. 2:8,20; Heb. 11:38; Jn. 12:19; 7:4; 1:10). And indeed the outworking of the parable fairly clearly requires this.

“The good seed are the sons of the kingdom”. In the first instance the seed represents the word of the gospel, but in its germination it clearly stands for people in whom that word is making growth. “Son of the kingdom” is a good phrase, being Hebrew idiom for “those associated with the kingdom”. But there is more to it than this, for sons are they who inherit.
“The enemy that sowed the tares is the devil”. This is now interpretation and not allegory. So it is not difficult to understand why some have deemed this to be one of the clearest proofs of the existence of a personal superhuman Devil.

It almost seems as though the Lord was prepared beforehand for such a misunderstanding, for in the parable itself (v. 28, see RVm), he was careful to phrase it: “A man, an enemy hath done this”, the rather awkward pleonasm emphasizing the need to identify with some evil human influence at work in the early days of the church.

The Jewish Plot

This is hardly the place to develop the theme at length, but throughout the New Testament, and especially in the epistles of Paul, there is traceable the build-up of a deliberate underhand attempt by Jews to wreck the infant church from within. (See “The Jewish Plot”; HAW, Testimony, June ‘74). To a large extent this succeeded. By the time the apostles died, the apostasy was well established.

The sowing of the tares completed, the enemy “went away”. This, too, has its counterpart in history. By the time that the Roman armies were celebrating “Judaea capta”, Jewish influence in the church had done its damage. From now on the ecclesias were almost entirely Gentile, but the Jewish seeds of apostasy continued to flourish

The similarity between the “tares” and the “wheat” hardly needs emphasis. It was this which gave the apostasy such wide-spread influence.

The servants who were eager to root out the tares in the early stages of growth represent the apostles. They would naturally be anxious to deal drastically with growing signs of evil in the early church. Peter’s dealings with Ananias and with Simon the sorcerer show this. But the balanced policy to which the apostles settled down was to censure false teachers and to issue blunt warnings to the flock against them. Paul, whose work among the Gentiles became a special target for slander, was amazingly tolerant of these “sons of the wicked one” (Phil. 1:15-18; 1 Cor. 4:5).

A Lesson not learned

This rooting out of error at the earliest possible time is here explicitly forbidden for the simple reason that permanent damage to the good crop would be inevitable. Not believing tnis obvious principle, exclusive purists have time and again proved its truth by their zealous blundering. No division for the sake of purity has ever yet taken place without serious harm to the good crop. How long before it comes to be recognized that the Lord’s words are both wisdom and authority?

“Let both grow together until the harvest.” There were clean and unclean beasts in the ark. There is wheat and chaff in the threshing. The flock has both sheep and goats. The net gathers good fish and bad. In every house there are vessels to honour and to dishonour.

A Contradiction?

Then, “in the end of this world, the Son of man shall send forth his angels — his angels! What a claim this humble Nazarene was making for himself (1 Pet. 3:22)-and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend and them
which do iniquity”. They are his angels because he is the Son of man foretold in Dan. 7:13, and to him is committed not only “the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven” but also authority over the “ten thousand times ten thousand” who stand before the Ancient of days.

There is a seeming contradiction here (and in v. 49), for elsewhere the Scriptures are so explicit that the judging of the quick and the dead will be the work of Christ himself. Perhaps it would be sufficient to say that what Christ will do through his angels is in effect his own work. However more detailed and exact reconciliation of these divergent ideas is possible; but it involves longer discussion than is appropriate here. (See “The Last Days”, ch.11, HAW).

The two phrases: “all things that offend”, and “them which do iniquity” should perhaps be read as adding a further detail to the parable. Not only will there be wrath upon those who are “tares” but also on the “enemy” who sowed them. This last point could, in any case, be readily pre-supposed since the farmer immediately divined who was responsible for the evil trick played on him.

“The furnace of fire”which destroys the “tares”is, of course, not to be taken literally. It is the figure used so powerfully by John the Baptist (3:12) for the final destruction of the unworthy. But torment is also clearly implied: “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. The first of these words signifies intense sorrow, the ground for which in the day of rejection needs no explanation. But “gnashing of teeth” means anger, as the usage in Acts 7:54 clearly shows: “they gnashed on him (Stephen) with their teeth”. What anger in the day of rejection? Obviously this is not resentment against the Judge or his angels, but anger with self, as it is now fully realised, too late, what unspeakable blessings have been forfeited through folly, wilfulness, or pathetic lack of faith. This will be the real punishment of the wicked — to be allowed to live long enough in the kingdom of Christ for this bitter realisation to bite deep into the soul.

Seeing the saints in glory will make this experience all the more bitter. “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father”. This is Daniel’s picture of saints raised and glorified: “They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmanent” (12:3; and cp. Mal. 4:1- 3); for, “the path of the just shall be as the light of dawn, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day”(Pr. 4:18). In his transfiguration the face of Jesus shone as the sun (Mt. 17:2). So, the parable ends with a glorious promise that his faithful ones shall be like him in that day.

They not only “shine as the sun”, but they also “shine forth”, their brightness now no longer obscured by clouds. Instead, they are now more diligent than ever in their diffusion of the light God has committed to them.

On certain details the Lord made no commentary. “I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them.” It is difficult to believe that such features of the parable are meaningless. Can it be that rejection of the unworthy will be pronounced first, before the good “grain”is gathered in? The parable of the dragnet hardly seems to support such a conclusion (v. 48). And why bother to bundle up the tares before burning them? Are these, who have created stumblingblocks for many, to be dealt with each according to their own proud exclusive fellowship?
They are gathered “out of his kingdom”, a detail which seems to indicate that this judgment will take place when Messiah is already King of Israel “sitting on the throne of hisglory”(Mt. 25:31).

It has been suggested that the fire of destruction will be the holocaust of judgment which the godless world is to experience in the last days, a horror from which the faithful will be preserved (Is. 26:20,21).

Notes: Mt. 13:24-30,36-43.

While men slept. Literally: the men, an idiomatic way of saying “his men”; cp. Gk. definite article in 1 Cor. 1:1; 5:1; 8:11; 16:12; Lk. 16:8; Col. 4:9; Acts 7:25.
Children of the wicked one. Cp. Jn. 8:44; Acts 13:10; 1 Jn. 3:6-8.
Things that offend. Stumbling blocks; cp. Ez. 7:19; Zeph. 1:3: Mt. 16:23; 18:7.

Iniquity. Gk: anomia describes the mentality which says: “I will think what I like. I will do what I like.”

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