Taking Care With the Tares
by Ted E. Bowling
Forerunner, "Ready Answer," May-June 2009
"The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field;
but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among his wheat and went his way."
In the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, Jesus Christ gives His disciples an example of how to treat tares within the church. His parable contains important instruction applicable to our Christian lives today, growing together with the brethren of God's church toward His purpose for us. In addition to the parable, Jesus Christ's own life sets an example, showing us how to act toward tares. Both the parable and Christ's life provide instruction that is defined by love, patience, wisdom, and diligence.
Jesus relates the parable in Matthew 13:24-30:
Another parable He put forth to them, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?' But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn."'"
Later in the chapter, He explains the parable's symbolism:
He answered and said to them, "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age." (Verses 37-40)
As Jesus says, the field is the world, in which He has established His church. The church is not of the world (John 17:14), but within it, just as a farmer may designate a specific plot of his land, separated from the rest, for a particular, unique crop.
However, Satan the Devil has also been at work, sowing his own seeds within the field. Using fragments of God's truth, Satan has founded false religions and counterfeit Christianities that preach distortions of truth. Like the tare that grows masquerading as the wheat, members of these false churches may appear good, pious, and very generous. Worldly Christians may possess a seemingly good heart and act with fine intentions, but when the top layer of goodness is peeled back exposing their core, they reveal deceived hearts lacking understanding or true love.
Further, the world's churches are in constant rebellion against God, refusing to keep His commandments and rejecting the absolute authority of His words. The world's ministers even pervert the Word of God with infusions from such pagan religions as Buddhism, Hinduism, or other mystic or New Age faiths. Through syncretism and false doctrine, these churches accomplish the will of their evil father: deceit and destruction (see John 8:44).
Satan's malignant influence is not felt only within the world. He has planted his own seeds, sowing false brethren and even ministers within the very church of God. However, as Christ reveals in this parable, God permits this intrusion of well-camouflaged counterfeits. Tares in God's church will appear religious and devout, with no obvious warning-flag identifying them to unsuspecting church members.
Wheat v. Tares
God has seeded His church with vessels for honor—the wheat—while Satan has sprinkled in his own vessels for dishonor—the tares (see II Timothy 2:20-21). Jesus does not use the imagery of wheat and tares haphazardly to relate this important lesson. Instead, the physical properties of these two different plants reveal a depth to the parable's symbolism that emphasizes how different in quality the wheat is from the tare, and how hard it is to tell them apart.
Wheat, which Christ uses to symbolize His true children, has always been a vital, life-giving substance, possessing both nutrition and healing properties. During most of human history, it has most commonly been used for bread, and it has long been called "the staff of life." Herbert W. Armstrong even proclaimed, "The grain of wheat God causes to grow out of the ground is a perfect food." The matchless quality of wheat serves as a symbol revealing how highly God regards His children.
In contrast, Christ uses the tare to symbolize counterfeits within His church. Tares are weeds diametrically opposite to wheat in all their properties other than appearance. Even the botanical name of the weed, darnel, conveys its detrimental quality. Darnel comes from the French language, meaning "drunkenness," having earned this name as a result of its intoxicating effect when consumed.
When darnel is ground into flour, baked in bread, and consumed while hot, the eater may experience symptoms similar to drunkenness, including trembling, followed by an inability to walk, hindered speech, and vomiting. In addition, darnel is commonly infected by the ergot fungus, which can cause hallucinations when consumed in small doses, but in large doses can do heavy damage to the central nervous system. The Greeks and Romans supposed the darnel and the fungus to cause blindness. The Romans even crafted an insult from darnel, lolio victitare, "to live on darnel," a phrase applied to a dim-sighted or shortsighted person.
The high value and health properties of wheat are opposite to the common and harmful properties of darnel, yet in Christ's parable the owner of the field allows both to grow together. One reason is because wheat and darnel are exact in their appearances during growth. Both plants are lush green and can be distinguished only when they mature and produce fruit: Wheat berries are large and golden, while darnel berries are small and gray. Thus, if the farmer attempted to uproot the tares before maturity, he would wreak havoc on his wheat. Today, modern harvesting equipment easily sifts between the two because of their different sizes.
Spiritual wheat and tares grow alike within God's church, identical in appearance, and to attempt to uproot the tares would result in uprooting some of the wheat as well. Just as the qualitative difference between the mature fruit of wheat and darnel is different, only by the fruit may the brethren be known (Matthew 7:15-20). Even after maturity, God Himself—and no one else—will have the tares removed and will destroy them in the furnace (Matthew 13:30).
The Warnings of the Parable
Christ's parable contains at least two warnings that are important to how we deal with possible tares within God's church. First, we need to be aware that tares—false members—are a reality. Counterfeit members do exist and are at work within God's church; Christ Himself says so. The fact that they are present requires that we be on our guard, not allowing ourselves to be led astray. For example, do we measure our actions by the actions of others? What if that person by whom we measure ourselves is a tare? Instead, Jesus Christ is the one and only perfect model, as shown by Scripture (Romans 8:29). Paul says that if we measure ourselves among ourselves, we are not wise (II Corinthians 10:12)
In addition to counterfeit brethren, tares could also be false ministers, even false apostles (see II Corinthians 11:13-15). False church leaders, teaching false doctrines that spread spiritual havoc, are a dire threat. Tares in the church spread destructive attitudes and ideas that can influence true brethren toward negativity, suspicion, cynicism, sarcasm, and doubt. Christ warns us of such deception in Matthew 24:24, "For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect." Knowing that tares are in the church, we must be vigilant, clinging to the truth lest we be deceived.
Second, Christ's parable warns us not only to take great care to avoid the false instruction and attitudes of the tares, but also to be mindful about how we treat young, immature "wheat" that we may mistake for tares. We must be slow to judge, remembering that church members are not all equally converted. Though they may be pure in heart, even the wheat may not always act properly. Likewise, some brethren may always act properly, may always seem to do the right thing, but their hearts remain unconverted or even corrupted.
God knows who belongs to Him and who does not (II Timothy 2:19), and He allows both to grow together. The interaction between wheat and tares, the true and the false, provides a constant test: How patient are we in our relationships with others? James sets the standard in James 5:9, exhorting, "Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!"
In order to endure to the end, we must develop the patient attitude described by James. We must grow to be thick-skinned, not easily offended in our dealings with young wheat or tares, never taking insults or affronts personally. When we deal with those coming to conversion, we all must be long-suffering, patient, having a great deal of love for one another. We must never contend with brethren, as the Scripture frequently admonishes (I Corinthians 3:3, Philippians 2:3).
Some may display their faults externally, while others hide their sins (I Timothy 5:24). It is easy to say about the former, "He is not living as he should," while missing a corrupt heart in the latter. However, God works with His children on an individual basis; He works with us one-on-one. Each of us has his unique trials and is experiencing tests unlike others, whether it be the loss of health, a job, a home, or a friend. Through His personal relationship with each of us, God is refining us into the mature wheat that He wants to reap at His harvest.
The Example of Jesus Christ
Besides providing the instruction in His parable, Jesus Christ provides the perfect example of how to treat and interact with a tare. He had to deal with a tare close to Him throughout His ministry. In John 6:70-71, John writes, "Jesus answered [His disciples], 'Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?' He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he who would betray Him, being one of the twelve."
How Christ dealt with Judas sets the example for how we ought to deal with recognized tares. Jesus knew Judas; He knew his character and heart after traveling with him throughout His three-and-a-half years of ministry. Yet, Judas was allowed responsibilities and given duties just as the other disciples were. Judas worked and prayed, appearing just as religious as the other eleven—but Judas was only like them in appearance, not in character.
However, Jesus never revealed to the other disciples that Judas was a tare. Even in John 6, specifically identifying who He meant, Christ only mentions the presence of a tare, forcing the disciples to look inward and evaluate their own hearts. It is clear the disciples were unaware of Judas' corrupt character even after spending more than three years with him. At the final Passover, the disciples had no idea who would betray the Master. Each of them began to say to Christ, "Lord, is it I?" (Matthew 26:22). If He had revealed Judas' nature to them, or had the disciples been wise enough to guess, they would have had no need to ask this question.
Instead of singling out Judas and treating Him poorly, Jesus showed love and kindness to him, His own disciple who would betray Him and cause His death. Christ showed His enemy courtesy, respect, and humility, and even in a position of servitude, washed Judas' feet. He never revealed the tare among them, but instead allowed Judas to expose his own character through his actions. Perhaps Jesus knew that if He revealed Judas' character, He would risk uprooting some of His other disciples. Loving the eleven so strongly, Christ would not risk losing one of them on account of Judas.
As we mature as Christians, it is our responsibility to judge. We are training to be priests and kings in the coming Kingdom of God, and in both of these positions, judging plays a major role. In preparation, we are constantly forced to evaluate and recognize sin in order to avoid it, though with care not to presume to know the heart of whoever sins. In addition, we must actively judge our own lives, recognizing the sin within ourselves. But when we recognize sin in others, and even correctly identify a tare in the church, we must still show love and kindness.
God has not given us the responsibility of removing the tares; He has reserved that job solely for Himself. In fact, from Jesus' example, He has not even given us the job of exposing who they may be. God, in wisdom infinitely greater than our own, will separate the wheat from the tares. Besides, wheat cannot reap even itself, much less the tare—only the reaper can reap.
As wheat, our responsibility is to grow in kindness, patience, and godly love, producing healthy and good fruit. This requires an attitude of meek, humble, and godly service. Most importantly, we have the responsibility to grow into the perfect image of our Savior, Jesus Christ.