Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The wheat and tares


The parable of the sower and the seed shows how the Word of God affects men differently, eliciting different responses. Jesus Christ's next parable-the wheat and the tares - speaks of the fourth part of the seed that falls on good ground, and how the enemy of man's salvation tried hard to blast the seed and the fruit in this good ground. This parable speaks about the origin of evil to people perplexed by temptation in the Church and by schism and falling away from the Church. Here is how the Evangelist Matthew sets forth this parable:

"The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which 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 blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matthew 13:24 30).

Having told this parable, Christ explains to the apostles and us that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man, that is, the Lord Himself. His enemy is the devil Satan, the sower of the tares; the field is the world of His Church. The good seeds are the sons of the Kingdom, the children of the Church, in whom the Word of God has taken root in the heart, and rendered them into God's wheat, to gather into heaven, which is the Kingdom of God. The tares are the sons of the evil one, that is, the false teachers and evil tempters by whom Satan does his evil work.

The Fathers of the Church teach that the devil counteracts Christ in everything. "After the prophets," says Saint John Chrysostom, "false prophets appear; after the Apostles, false apostles; after Christ, Antichrist will appear." Christ calls men to the truth, whereas the devil and his servants, i.e., the false teachers and tempters, sow falsehood and ruin in the minds of men, and sows vices in their hearts, embellishing all with similitudes of truth and goodness. Christ calls such men the tares, who resemble the wheat externally. "Until the devil sees what to counterfeit," writes Saint John Chrysostom, "he does not begin anything and even does not know how to set to work. Therefore even now, when he has perceived that he can no longer carry off, or choke, or scorch that which has been sown and has taken root, he invents a different kind of deception, namely he sows his own seed."

The devil sows tares, says the Lord, while men sleep. In other words, the devil sows his tares secretly, unnoticeably, when the guards appointed to look after the field, that is, the pastors of the Church, keep watch carelessly and when the faithful themselves live carelessly as well and listen to false teachers. About this matter, Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow writes:

"Men sleep spiritually when they carelessly close the eyes of their mind and do not wish to gaze at the light of evangelical truth, and when, like those who dream during sleep, they do not control their thoughts and do not bridle their desires. They sleep, and in the darkness of forgetfulness of God and His law, he steals in and sows his tares."

Christ, of course, knows all this, and calls His followers to awaken spiritually, to stay on constant watch. Let us turn again to Saint John Chrysostom: "But how, sayest thou, is it possible to remain without sleep. It is not possible without natural sleep, but without moral sleep it is possible. Wherefore, Paul also said: "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith" (I Corinthians 16:13).

The Lord alludes to heretics where the shoot springs up, and brings forth fruit, and the tares appear as well: "At first they conceal themselves; but when someone enters into conversation with them, then they pour out their venom."

"Behold," continues Saint John Chrysostom, "the devil's malice. He did not sow before, because there was nothing to destroy. But when everything is already sown, he too sows, in order to ruin that which cost the husbandman many labors. Such is the powerful enmity that the devil has displayed against Christ in everything!" The householder sowed good fruit, but the enemy sowed tares there by night. When the first shoots appeared, he called the workers and showed them that tares were growing together with wheat. On seeing the field, the servants asked their lord: "How could this be? After all, didst thou not sow good seed?"

The servants of the householder offer to pull up the tares, so that only wheat will grow. But the householder rejects their proposal because pulling the tares might harm the wheat, which looks so much like tares. Weeding could mix them and cause the loss of an ear of wheat. With so many roots intertwined, uprooting tares could can harm the roots of an ear of wheat, so that it perish. This cost-benefit is important. We see sin and scandal in the secular world, and within the Church as well. The sight of evil men makes people say: "O Lord! Why dost Thou not now chastise the evil? Why dost Thou give them the opportunity to make use of all the good things of the world? Why do they squeeze and oppress the good?"

To such questions, Christ's parable answers: "Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest, the day of the dread judgment, I will say to the reapers, My angels: Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them" (Matthew 13:30); "and they shall gather out them that do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (verses 41 42). But gather the wheat into my barn (verse 30). Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (verse 43).

Many Church people imagine that they are zealous for truth and purity, and call for the tares to be uprooted. But zeal to excise every evil within the Church may be zeal to pull out as much wheat as tares, and so to harm everyone. The Lord forbids such a zeal against evil, because only God, the Knower of hearts, can tell the hypocrites from the righteous without error.

Many sinners, of course, repent and become righteous. Blessed Augustine says: "Many are correcting themselves, like Peter; many are forborne, like Judas; many will not be exposed until the coming of the Lord, Who will illumine that which is concealed in darkness and will disclose the thoughts of the heart." Indeed, many saints have been righteous people who fell into sin at some time. At the moment of their fall, one might take them for tares.

The Fathers also teach that temptations of the world and deeds of evil men purify the souls of the righteous. They help the souls to see weakness clearly, to feel guilt deeply, and to weaken the power of sin little by little. Gold is purified of dross by fire. The mix of good and evil men furnishes the good with occasions to be perfected, to win patience, meekness, humility, gentleness, and love. The lives of the righteous are tied to the lives of sinners. Bonds of kinship, like tastes, and outward circumstances mean that a shock to one shocks the others. For example, an unworthy father, drunkard, or profligate may carefully raise his pious children; the well-being of honest workers may be in the hands of an avaricious and crude proprietor; an unbelieving ruler may be a wise and beneficial lawgiver. For the Lord God to punish all sinners would upset the order of life on earth.

Moreover, Christ does not want the tares pulled out that grow alongside the wheat in the Church because he wants the righteous to learn patience and for sinners to feel His loving kindness. Saint John Chrysostom says that the Lord allows us to stop false teaching, but only by evangelizing the false teachers. We may not use force, as has happened in the Church many times. The Holy Fathers forewarn that - "Zeal that wants to vanquish every evil is itself a great evil, because it can bring about much harm."

The indignant Christian cannot take action when he sees evil except to curb the evil in himself. Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesenskij) wrote: "The Lord said: I say unto you, That ye resist not evil." The Russian and Slavonic texts of the parable do not coincide here. "Evil" is not evil as such, but is an evil person. In Russian this text is--"I say unto you: do not resist an evil [person]!" The Authorized Version (or King James Version) and then the New King James Version translate this passage (Matthew 5:39) "But I tell you not to resist an evil" [person]. Here the sense is slightly different-"To struggle with evil, do not address the man who does evil, but the evil that he causes." And do not try to put this person out of the Church, as the servants wanted to put out the tares. Try to convince him, try to explain his error to him. As Father John of Kronstadt said: "Sinful they are, but love the sinners and pity them."

Only unreasonable zeal strives to destroy every cause of evil. Apostle Paul says that this "zeal is not according to knowledge." Zeal can be an evil itself because it sows confusion and temptation in the Church. Christ says: "Let both grow together until the harvest," and the harvest is the end of the age. Blessed Augustine comments: "And so the Church until the end of the age will combine within Herself the good and the evil, without harm to the good. If it turns out that there are tares in the church, this does not hinder our faith and love; upon observing tares in the Church, we shouldn't fall away from Her. We ourselves must only try to be wheat, so that when the wheat will be gathered into the barns of the Lord."

Theophilact, Bishop of Bulgaria, also has also considered this matter: "If Matthew [who before his conversion was a tax collector hated by his fellow countrymen] had been wrenched from this life when he was numbered among the tares, then together with him the wheat of his word, which would subsequently sprout up from him, would have perished too. In the same way, both Paul and the thief, when they were tares, survived so that their virtue would spring up subsequently."

"Christ does not want the death of sinners, but desires that they come unto the knowledge of the truth and be saved (I Timothy 2:4). In the warmth of His goodness and in the enlivening rays of his love he wishes to soften the hardness of their hearts and arouse in them a new life" (II Corinthians 5:17).

Lord Jesus Christ chooses His saints, such as the convert Saul, the persecutor of Christians. Saul-Paul was not the only convert to become a saint? Many pagans became confessors of the faith upon seeing the selflessness of ancient martyrs and people alive recently. The new martyrs and confessors of Russia have inspired many people to their steadfastness! The Holy Fathers likened the Church of Christ to Noah's Ark, which held clean and unclean animals together. The Church is a net, drawing in creeping things along with the fish. Both sinners and righteous make up the Church as the Body of Christ. The Church must take care of the unsteady converts and the beginners, and not tempt nor drive them out through "zeal not according to knowledge."

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