The center of the Gospel of Matthew includes a collection of seven stories having to do with the Kingdom of God and its implications for this world and the world to come. We often refer to all of these episodes as parables (as, indeed, the gospel calls them!), but some of the longer ones are more developed than most parables. We also, unlike most of the parables, have the explanation provide to us through the ears of the disciples, and Jesus interprets the parables allegorically. They\’re all fascinating, but the one I want to look at today is the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Jesus sets it up like this (this is a slightly expanded translation to help reveal what I think is going on):
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed proper seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. The master’s slaves came and said to him, ‘Master, didn’t you sow proper seed in your field? Why does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the slaves responded, ‘You want us to go and uproot them, right?’ But he said, ‘No, because then you would have to uproot the wheat along with the weeds. Instead, let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Uproot the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn”’” (Mat 13.24–30)
It’s only later, after leaving the crowds (who don’t get an explanation!), and discussing the purpose of teaching in parables to begin with, that he provides the explanation to his followers:
“The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (Mat 13.36–43)
The allegorical reading is fascinating and it’s clear that the purpose of this story is to answer a question that has plagued Christians since the first century: “Why hasn’t the judgment happened yet? Why hasn’t the kingdom come?” The answer is clear, but because we have so many of the answers provided in the text, we–as do most of the commentators I consulted–stop there. We don\’t ask some of the pressing questions that the text provides:
- Why would the enemy sow tares in the field in the first place?
- Why do the servants ask to uproot and what do they suggest that they uproot?
- What does the master do?
Let’s look at the relevant laws and see if that might help make sense of our questions.
There are two laws that clearly deal with this situation. In the first, the Deuteronomic Code records:
You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together (Dtr 22.9–11).
The Priestly Code is the second, and it records:
You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material (Lev 19.19).
Both laws record the same three “areas” where mixtures are forbidden: animals, land, and clothing. But they are subtly different: for example, Deuteronomy discusses animal use; Leviticus discusses animal breeding. Both address wearing mixed clothing but that is more about identity than about clothing manufacture (but that’s a post for another time!). But the topic we’re interested in today is it discusses what to do if your field has two different kinds of seed.
Deuteronomy and Leviticus are both (typically) laconic when it comes to what happens. Leviticus doesn’t provide any information other than the prohibition: there’s not information about punishment, judicial proceedings, or recompense. Deuteronomy provides a little more information, noting that–if the field is corrupted–“the whole yield will be forfeited.” But what does forfeit mean? In Hebrew, this comes from the shoresh קדשׁ, which means we often translate as “make holy,” but often means “removed for common use,” “dedicated to God,” or “destroyed” (cf. Lev 27.28–29; Num 21.2–3). Although there are no perfect parallels to this situation from ancient Near Eastern law collections, there is a Hittite law which might shed a little light on the meaning of “dedicated.”
If anyone sows his own seed on top of another man’s, they shall place the perpetrator’s neck on a plow, hook up two teams of oxen, turn the face of one ox in one direction and the other ox in the other direction, and thus the man will be put to death. Then the oxen will be put to death as well… (HL $$166–67).
In both instances, this is clearly a serious crime. But why? And how does looking at these legal passages help us answer the meta-questions about the Wheat and the Tares?
In Deuteronomy and Leviticus, most people read the sowing of multiple types of seed as being done by a single individual. Most explanations focus on the practice mixed- or inter-cropping, where different types of crops are sown in the same land in order to benefit from different nutrients in the ground. This is less efficient in general, but in bad land and subsistence-level farming (which fits the Israelites!) in can be the best way to eek out every iota of productivity from bad land. But this makes not sense for why it would be forbidden. Other explanations (especially of the Leviticus passage) have seen in this forbidden a reflection of the holiness concepts which are described as part of the priestly principles coming from the Created Order (Gen 1.24–25). But, at least in the Hittite law (as well as in the Roman Digest of Justinian 184.108.40.206), a very different perspective is being offered: someone else–other than the owner–comes in and sows a different type of seed! In fact, this is the exact same situation as we see in the parable, and brings us back to one of the original questions.
The enemy (who we know is the devil) sowed tares in the field for malicious reasons. Not just because darnel may be infected by a poison which can harm those who ingest it. But because the the devil is attempting to force the master to destroy the entire crop. Certainly, this is what the slaves expect to be the answer when they ask, “Don’t you want us to go and uproot the entire crop?” They are not asking if they should go and try to uproot just the weeds because it might result in some casualties among the wheat; that would not follow the law which required the entirety of the field to be dedicated or destroyed. A dedicated crop, one that cannot be sold or harvested or used is of no use. Better to uproot the whole thing and start over with the land than let it grow for no purpose, sucking up the nutrients of the soil and wasting the entire growing season for no benefit. Indeed, the law itself demands that such be done. But what is truly surprising is the master’s response: “No, do not uproot anything. Let everything grow. I will still take the wheat into my barn after the harvest.”
And it’s only then that the depth of the allegory is revealed. Satan, as he often does in Scripture, has attempted to turn the God’s law against his people (e.g., Zcr 3). But God is not a respecter of persons; he is not willing for the righteous to perish along with the unrighteous; and he will not allow accusers tell him whom he may or may not save. In fact, as we look at more examples from how God interacts with the law, it becomes clearer and clearer that it was enduring, but not eternal. The law is meant to point to something better, and it was always meant to be the beginning and not the end.