Weeding tares is way above your pay grade

The story Jesus told to his disciples about the wheat and the “tares” (a plant now called Bearded Darnel, as I understand it) is one of the least satisfying stories of Jesus’s ministry. (This story and all the others I will be using as references are in Matthew 13. ) I’ll tell you how bad it is. I once had a friend who was wearing a plaster cast and she developed an insistent and annoying itch inside the cast. “What shall I do about the itch,” she asked the nurse. “Do what we do,” replied the nurse. “Don’t scratch it.”

That’s how unsatisfying this story is.

Today’s question is straightforward: how shall we understand this story? There is an interpretive key I would like to recommend and one I would like to excoriate. You won’t have any trouble telling which is which.

Who’s asking?

There are three kinds of answers here. I am interested in two of them. The three are: a) who asked Jesus this question, b) who asked Matthew this question, and c) who in the story asks the question.

The answer to the first question is that we really don’t know and there is no real basis for informed speculation. That’s not to say that no one asked Jesus this question or that Jesus did not answer it this way. He almost certainly did, but the time, the place, and the asker are lost to us.

Furthermore, Matthew presents Jesus as a preacher of sermons. Very likely, Jesus wastares 7 not a preacher of sermons, but Matthew is really struck by the insight that Jesus is the new Moses. In order to make the parallel clear, Jesus needs to be a lawgiver and that requires that he give sermons, not just that he drop memorable anecdotes. So Matthew collects the Jesus material he has [1] into longer bodies of text; into sermons. And because these sermons are composites built from the Jesus material, we can’t tell the setting of any one part of the sermon.

But someone asked Matthew. This is a story Matthew draws out of the Jesus tradition to deal with a question that someone is asking. Matthew recalled this story because he thought it was a good answer to a question he was being asked or possibly a good response to the needs of the congregation he was addressing, whether they had thought to ask the question or not.

That brings us to who in the story is asking the question. We transition now from the uncertainties of history to the very direct evidence of the story. We know it was the field hands—servants, slaves, laborers [2]—who came to the master and asked the question because Matthew tells us that.

The tares as a kind of question

Matthew has grouped a lot of the teachings Jesus gave into blocks of similar material, so it might help us a little to see what other stories appear in this chapter and what questions they represent.

There are five other parables in Chapter 13 [3] There are: a) the sower and the seed, b) the catch of fish, c) the buried treasure, d) the yeast in the dough, and e) the mustard seed. The catch of fish (47—50) has a final division into good fish and bad fish, just like the wheat and the darnel. The buried treasure stories (44—46) say how great is the value of the Kingdom of God [4] and how worthwhile it is, therefore, to use all your resources to acquire it.

The other three can be seen as small encouragements to disciples who might be getting discouraged. Don’t give up, they say. It takes only a little yeast (verse 33) to make a big difference and a tiny mustard seed (verses 31,32) grows into a huge plant. And the seeds that are sowed don’t always produce very much (verses 3—9) because sometimes the soil is bad.

tares 8All of these are “don’t get discouraged” (DGD) stories. DGD, sometimes the soil is bad. It’s not your fault. Just keep sowing. DGD, some of the fish are unusable. Just throw the bad ones away and keep on fishing. DGD, it takes only a little yeast to raise a big lump of dough and only a little seed to make a tree so big birds can nest in it. DGD, no matter what this is costing you, the value of the reward is so great that it will be worth it. DGD.

So what questions are being asked?

All of Chapter 13 is given over to DGD, so I think it will serve us as a good interpretive background for the wheat and the tares.

Question 1 Why are there weeds in your field, master? Did you use inferior seed?

Answer: No, the seed was good. The weeds can be accounted for by the hostile actions of an enemy. This is not carelessness, as some of you have apparently been thinking. This is sabotage.

That seems pretty clear.

Question 2 So what shall we do about it?

Answer: Nothing. Tare discernment is way above our pay grade.

And this is why I said the story is so unsatisfying. Yeah, it’s the master’s field and all that, but it is where I work. And I have the master’s interests at heart. And as much as I value the wheat (low level long term appreciation) I am really angry about the tares (short term highly motivating emotion) and I want to do something about it NOW. “Do what we do,” said the nurse, “Don’t scratch it.”

At the level of the story, this is clear instruction at least. Agriculturally speaking, there is no question what is a “weed” because the farmer intends some particular crop. Other plants in that field are therefore “weeds.” But when we come to the theology behind the story—which is the reason Jesus told it and the reason Matthew remembered it— it’s not so easy. Let’s imagine that the disciples of Jesus, the field hands of the story, in announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God come across people who are preaching a different message or just a different form of the message. That would be a “wrong message” from the standpoint of the disciples.  It would  be a weed.

Why are those other people here? Some explanation needs to be arrived at which does not put the blame on Jesus. [5] This story gets that job done. It recognizes that there are weeds and accounts for their presence by saying that the Devil has done it. This is sabotage. You just keep on preaching.

The next question is what to do about the weeds, and particularly why doing that is a good thing to do. The servants in the story—the disciples in the Jesus movement—offer to undo the evil that they see being done. Jesus tells them not to.   Thinking of Matthew’s use of the story as a practical application, we are brought to asking why Jesus would not want his disciples to be opposing these other messages.

I don’t think there is any sound basis for speculation, but it may be that Jesus, as tares 2Matthew understands the message, is concerned about conflict among the preachers of the Way. If we think of the “weeds” as other interpretations of Jesus’s teachings, it may be that Matthew was counting on the continuing context of the Torah to keep the church together. It is only Matthew (13:52) who imagines both the old treasures and the new being brought out of the storehouse.

Or, if we imagine that the weeds are actual opponents, Matthew may have felt that it was too early for Jesus’s disciples to be opposing them. You just keep preaching what Jesus told you to preach. A later time will be better for dealing with preachers of “untruth.” That means “at the final judgment” in the story, but any later time might be good enough for Matthew.

But why wait?

It is the rationale for waiting that I find most intriguing. I summarized it in the title of this piece as “Way above your pay grade” and I did that because Jesus said it would be up to the angels to make the decision. “And,” he might have said, “I know that you are not angels.”

It is clear that the master does not want his laborers mucking about in the fields. Why? It might be because the two kinds of plants are so interconnected in their roots that uprooting one will damage the other. That would work for this story, but not for the fish (13:37—40).

It might be because you really can’t tell which is which until the head of grain appears. At that point, even the servants can say this one is wheat and that one is darnel. That fits really well with crops of grain, but the story is supposed to point to controlling the message Jesus is bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16) that you can tell what kind of plant it is by the kind of product it produces. Wheat plants produce wheat, barley plants produce barley. But it isn’t true about people unless who a person is going to turn out to be is a direct outcome of the person he is now and if that were true, there would be no need to go around preaching about the Kingdom of God.

What is equally true of wheat plants and people is that there will be a time when the natural outcome of that life will be judged. It isn’t now because it isn’t the harvest yet. And it won’t be you, for reasons the story doesn’t specify. In Jesus’s commentary on the parable, he says it will be the angels doing the harvesting, but in every version, the workers are told to leave things alone now.

Psychologizing the parable

So there are puzzles in applying this parable to what we imagine to be the present life of the church that Matthew is instructing. Still, the elements are clear: a) there is an immediate problem, b) this problem comes from an outside and evil force, not from God’s lack of foresight or provision, c) is it a problem that cannot be successfully dealt with now, d) at harvest time, the end time for a plant, when the plant has produced its fruit, is the time to deal with this, and e) the weeds will be utterly destroyed while the good wheat will be collected and stored.

Any application that meets those criteria could be said to be “applying” the parable. It would be hard, however, for an exegete, let alone a preacher, to say that all action can be safely deferred to the end time when it will be turned over to God’s agents. What is a preacher to do?

One kind of answer is to “psychologize” the story. That doesn’t mean just that we are going to talk about people rather than plants. It also means we are going to talk about motivations rather than actions.

tares 4I recently heard a sermon in which the preacher identified the “weeds” with “the shadow side” of the self, as Carl Jung calls it. Jung’s use of “the vast part of the self that the ego does not know about or will not accept” is broadly attractive in a lot of ways. It is hard to get a handle on, as you might expect, just as the Freudian unconscious is hard to get a handle on. But it would be deeply unorthodox (heretical) to identify the shadow in psychoanalytic theory with the weeds in Matthew’s story. The shadow side is an inevitable part of us and although it is “dark,” it is not evil.

The wheat doesn’t have a shadow side. The field has been infiltrated by weeds.The weeds are not part of “us” in the sense that they are part of each plant. And there is no “salvation” for weeds. There is only identification and then destruction.

A further difficulty is that once we have mixed the fields, with their good and bad plants, together with the persons, with their lit and shadowed sides, we can no longer predict what God will do. In other passages—none that I am aware of in Matthew, but it is common in the writings of Paul—there is the idea that the evil in us will be purged and we will be reckoned holy by the grace of God. God does not have, in any theology I have read, any constructive use for the evil in us. [6]

So psychologizing this particular parable brings us to a difficult pass. Taking the story in its context provides an analysis of the situation, but no real ideas about what to do. “Cool it” is not a proposal for action. Similarly, the time when this is all going to get sorted out—the end time, the harvest—when the angels will deal with the matter, also does not help.

On the other hand, if by psychologizing the parable, we can refer to those dark parts of ourselves—it’s hard to say in a sermon just what those might be—and to say that God has a use for them might feel very freeing. We are a mixture of good and evil, this line of thinking goes, and God has a place in His Kingdom for both the good and the evil. You see how that brings us some difficulty about God and evil.

For myself, I think I’d rather stay with Matthew’s use of the story and align all applications to those Matthew would like. But then, like Jesus, I am not a pastor and the effect on my congregation isn’t something I have to worry about.

[1] Scholars believe that Matthew had access to previously written sources as he composed his gospel. He certainly had a copy of Mark before him. He seems to be drawing on a “sayings source” known as Q (short for the German Quelle, meaning, “source.” And he seems also to have had access to another body of material, which Mark and Luke did not have. It is usually called M. Out of these materials, Matthew forms the “sermons” that Jesus preaches in his gospel.
[2] The Greek douloi is used for all those roles and for this story, it really doesn’t matter.
[3] A chapter doesn’t always define a “block” of material, of course, but it does here.
[4] The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s account.
[5] Jesus says that God is the sower of the seed, but the disciples know where they heard it and their opponents are not casting their opposition to the message as opposition to God.
[6] There may well be parts of us we dislike or of which others disapprove, but if they are not evil, God may find a use for them that will surprise us. We need to look here at things God disapproves of, not things we disapprove of. If we persist in disapproving, we may be told to wait until the harvest and see what fruit is borne of them.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.