Wheat and tares together sown: God’s will and our destiny
A sermon by Kenneth Padley
23rd July 2023
Reading: Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
High summer is upon us and so the British weather greets the holiday season with wind and rain. Nonetheless, gardens and fields are flourishing and so it is not inappropriate for the lectionary, our list of Bible readings, to treat us to a series of Sundays about plants and flowers. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the sower. Next week Jesus will say that God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed. This morning we heard his allegory about wheat and tares.
Today’s parable is only found in Matthew’s gospel and so is only heard once on a Sunday morning every 3 years. It asks big questions: questions about why there is moral evil in the world, why the gospel does not win the hearts of all, and what will the fullness God’s reign look like? These are deep topics which we need to dissect – but to do so with care and sensitivity.
Let’s recap on the story and what Jesus tells us of its meaning … A man sows good seed. The man is Jesus and the good seeds are the children of God’s kingdom. The seed is sown in the field of the world. Growing up alongside the good seed is bad seed sown by the devil. Finally, we heard about a future harvest in which the two types of plant will be separated and face very different fates.
This parable tells us much about the power of God. It is strongly deterministic. The wheat and the tares don’t have any choice about which type of seed they are, when or where they are sown, or what they become. Good seeds just become wheat, and bad seeds become tares.
A common criticism of theology like this is that, in emphasising God’s sovereignty in the creative process, human responsibility for our actions is diminished or even negated. However, Jesus’ parable does not concede this because the way each seed lives is intrinsic to itself: wheatiness is inherent in the good seed and weediness is inherent in the tares. Although we need to look beyond each seed to explain its beginning and end, what it does as seed is internally consistent with its nature. Even within a deterministic world view – as found in classical expressions of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, people are still responsible for their actions, be they good or bad.
Let’s analyse the wheat a bit further. The parable asserts that the wheat is sown by Jesus on his own land, and so we conclude that the seed is good and that the householder wishes it to flourish. The good seeds are analogues for Christians and so we are being enjoined to bear fruit, to nurture more Christians. My friends, we are not just seed sown by Jesus; as the Precentor reminded us last week, we are sown with a purpose, intended to bear fruit.
The flourishing of good seed is easy to discuss. The existence and growth of bad seed is more challenging. Today’s parable attributes the existence of the bad seed to the devil. Now whether we believe in evil personified, or a more generic negative force, the point of the story is that God is exonerated from the origin of evil. God may permit evil to exist for a while, but he bears no responsibility for its malignancy.
Why God should permit the existence of evil is not explained. We need to be cautious here about over-literalising the parable. For example, unlike the householder in the parable, God cannot go to sleep. We certainly can’t explain the existence of moral evil by saying that God was dozing – less than fully active – while the ‘devil’ crept over the fence. God is perfect and so could have created a perfect world. However, for reasons to which we are not fully party, She permits for a limited period the existence of imperfection.
It is worth noting in verse 26 that the growth of wheat and tares happens at the same time: ‘when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well’. There is not a causal relationship here, but the two phenomena are coterminous. How often we find this to be true: when God is at work in the world, opposition springs up. So not only must we discern what is of God; we must also be alert for the growth of weeds when we see the good seed thriving.
Much of today’s parable is set in the present. It’s about the way our world is. But then the story concludes with a harvest in the future. It is the inspiration for the autumn hymn, ‘Come ye thankful people come’. Although sung at harvest festivals, this hymn says more about God’s plan and redemption than earthly agriculture:
For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take his harvest home;
from his field shall purge away
all that doth offend that day…
Whereas on earth the wheat and the tares could not be separated for fear of damaging the crop, the parable asserts that this is not so at the judgment. And the judgment leads to different destinations for the wheat and the tares. The eternal garner of the wheat is of course the life of heaven while hell is represented by fire.
It might be possible to conclude from today’s parable that hell is a realm of eternal punishment. However, I am not sure we should be so literalistic. Within the parable’s arable imagery it makes perfect sense to burn unwanted plants with fire: that is what farmers did back then – indeed what we did in this country until burning the stubble was banned thirty years ago. But we need not read the parable as containing a literal description of ‘hell’. After all, the parable also tells us that the righteous will shine as the sun in God’s kingdom (verse 43) – but this is surely a metaphor not to be read literally.
If God is perfect existence, then those who reject God reject existence. Hell is the absence of God and so the essence of ‘hell’ is non-existence. Heaven is ongoing life with God; hell is simply ceasing to be. Indeed, we can read this conception of hell from today’s text. Farmers store good seed for the future; it is implicit therefore that God’s garner where the good seed remains is a place of ongoing existence. By contrast, that which is burned in the story clearly comes to an end. Far from underlying the medieval notion of hell as a place of ongoing punishment, by distinguishing the duration of the good and bad crops, this parable suggests that heaven is permanent while hell is not.
There is one final elephant in the room, the question of ‘how many’? How many weeds grow amidst God’s fair fields of corn? Today’s parable might be read as implying rather a lot, either from the malignancy of the enemy or from the fear of the householder that ripping up the tares would have an adverse impact on his crop. But, again, I think this is an area for caution. Only God is aware of final tallies – if indeed there are any whom he does not ultimately wish to be saved. It is our job as Christians to proclaim salvation through faith in Christ – not to be so judgmental as to speculate on our neighbour’s spiritual health or destiny. It is our job as Christians to encourage the fruitfulness of the crop and to pray that God will speed the day when parables become reality:
Then, thou Church Triumphant come,
raise the song of harvest home;
all be safely gathered in,
free from sorrow, free from sin,
there for ever purified,
in God’s garner to abide;
come, ten thousand angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest-home!