Most Bible students are familiar with Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30). Its primary principle of "bad apples" being among the good is relatively easy to see, especially since Jesus Himself explains it (Matthew 13:36-43). However, an interesting bit of information appears in it that some may have overlooked.
Having spotted the tares among the wheat, the servants ask the owner of the field if they should remove the tares. His response is surprising: "No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them" (Matthew 13:29). The parable's imagery reflects a reality in agriculture that is easily understood by anyone who has ever pulled a weed. When a weed is removed, a mass of its roots and the soil through which the roots are intertwined also comes up. Weeds seem to be particularly stubborn in this way, often taking large amounts of soil with them—as well as neighboring plants rooted in the same soil.
Taken at face value, this verse implies that removing the tares would damage the wheat. Yet, Jesus is not really speaking about plants. The parable is an illustration using plants in a field to teach us about the church, which He calls "the kingdom of heaven." What He is really talking about are people in close proximity, say, in a congregation.
Matthew 13:24-25 establishes that two sowers cast seed in this field. One, the owner (Christ), sowed good wheat seed in his field, while his enemy (Satan) sowed tare seeds among the wheat. Thus, the tares, plants of the enemy among the wheat, are closely entwined with the wheat, which represent the converted Christian. The roots of both wheat and tare are tangled together in the same soil. At the very least, this suggests a certain intimacy, a closeness, a relationship—perhaps even a spouse or best friend, whose removal would so devastate the Christian that it might completely undermine the foundation Christ laid for him.
We see that a period of time passes between the sowing of seed and the servants noticing the tares, as verse 26 shows: "But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared." Up to the point of bearing fruit, it is difficult to distinguish between the wheat plant and the tare. This suggests that the tares represent those whose sinfulness is not particularly obvious for a long time.
Jesus makes a similar statement regarding spotting false prophets, which would also apply to false brethren, in Matthew 7:16: "You will know them by their fruits." He plainly states that "every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (verse 17). In fact, it is impossible for good trees to bear bad fruit and vice versa (verse 18).
Another aspect of this passage is that it contains a warning to Christ's servants. Remember, they ask Him in Matthew 13:28, "Do you want us then to go and gather them up?" But He replies in the negative, adding in verse 30, "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of the 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.'"
Notice the redirection of authority here. Christ's servants ask if they should go and root out these troublesome tares in the field. These servants are not identified specifically in Christ's later explanation of the parable (verses 36-43), but because the reapers are identified as representing "His angels," it is likely that the servants represent a separate group of people, perhaps faithful ministers of God or even vigilant members who recognize the evil.
Christ's answer is a sound, "No." He would do it in His time, for seeing all things, He alone knows everyone inside and out (Proverbs 5:21; Revelation 2:2, 9, 13, 19, 23; etc.). Only He knows the end from the beginning. The fruit that will be produced in the faithful while growing side by side with tares is of more value to Him than the well-intended zeal to remove sinners from among us (compare Luke 9:54).
Since man is so fallible, efforts to remove the tares could well be wrong-headed, causing more evil by uprooting one or more of the righteous. False Christians claiming holiness and righteous zeal have even murdered in the name of God, for instance, in the Spanish Inquisition. Such people believe they have both the right and the wisdom to do God's work in purifying the world, when in reality, that authority has not been given. This mindset can be nothing more than gross self-righteousness that exalts a person to the level of judge, jury, and executioner.
Does this mean that the church should not have the right to expel those who do not follow the way of God and lead others astray? Absolutely not! That would conflict with the authority given to ministers to shepherd their flocks. While the parable's general principle is for the members of the church to let God sort things out, the New Testament provides authority to the ministry to disfellowship those who are blatantly sinning and who cause division within the church. Recall Paul's actions against flagrant sinners (I Corinthians 5:1-5; II Thessalonians 3:6, 14; I Timothy 1:20), casting them out of the church to protect the rest. He hoped their estrangement from the church would lead them to repentance.
Nor does this mean that we should go to the other extreme and make an effort to befriend those practicing lawlessness. Notice this warning in II Chronicles 19:2: "But Jehu the son of Hanani the seer went out to meet him, and said to King Jehoshaphat, ‘Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD? Therefore the wrath of the LORD is upon you."
Contrary to the present ideology in our society, we are not more righteous when we tolerate sin. While we should be understanding of others' weaknesses, we must be honest in the face of sin. If persistent sin arises in someone we consider a brother in Christ, we may risk losing a friend by withdrawing from him, but the greater risk is endangering our relationship with God. Of course, if that person repents, we should welcome him back to our fellowship as a brother (see II Corinthians 2:6-8).
We are admonished to rid ourselves of sin at all costs (Matthew 5:29-30; Colossians 3:5-9), and part of doing that is to avoid contact with "anyone named a brother" who is immoral (I Corinthians 5:11). Being around drunkards will tempt us to get drunk, just as hanging around with liars or gossipers or promiscuous people can tempt us to follow them in their sins. It is hoped that such people are rare in God's church today, but we need to be vigilant against being drawn away from the standard of conduct Christ has set.
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is both a solemn warning and a humbling admonition. We are in the world but not of it, and some among us are not truly of us (I John 2:18-21). Our aim should not be to find all the tares and uproot them, as God will take care of that in time, but to look out for and strengthen one another, as we are all in this together (I John 3:4-12).
- Levi W. Graham
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