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The Tares
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 2 from Notes on the Parables of our Lord
Matt. 13:24-30, and 36-43
Of this parable, the parable, namely, ‘of the tares of the field,’ we have, no less than of that which went before, an authentic interpretation from his lips who uttered it.  And this is well:  for it is one on the interpretation of which very much has turned before now.  References or allusions to it occur at every turn of the controversy which the Church had to maintain with the Donatists; and its whole exposition will need to be carried out with an eye to questions which may seem out of date, but which, in one shape or another, continually reappear, and demand to receive some solution from us.  –‘Another parable put He forth unto them, saying, 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.’  Our Lord did not imagine here a form of malice without example, but adduced one which may have been familiar enough to his hearers, one so easy of execution, involving so little risk, and yet effecting so great and lasting a mischief, that it is not strange, where cowardice and malice met, that this should have been often the shape in which they displayed themselves.  We meet traces of it in many quarters.  In Roman law the possibility of this form of injury is contemplated; and a modern writer, illustrating Scripture from the manners and habits of the East, with which he had become familiar through a sojourn there, affirms the same to be now practiced in India... 

There can be no question which is the Sower of the good seed here.  From the Lord’s own lips we learn, ‘He that sowed the good seed is the Son of man.’  This title, by which our Lord most often designates Himself, is only in a single instance given to Him by another (Acts 7:56), and then indicates no more than that the glorified Saviour appeared in a bodily shape to the eyes of Stephen.  To the Jews this name, though drawn from the Old testament, from the great apocalyptic vision of Daniel (7:13), was so strange, that when they heard it, they asked, ‘Who is this Son of man?’ (John 12:34); not ‘Son of man,’ but ‘Son of David,’ being the popular name for the expected Messiah (Matt. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:31, &c.).  He claimed by this title a true participation in our human nature; this, and much more than this.  He was ‘Son of man, as alone realizing all which in the idea of man was contained, --as the second Adam, the head and representative of the race, --the one true and perfect flower which had ever unfolded itself out of the root and stalk of humanity.  Claiming this title for His own, He witnessed against opposite poles of error concerning his person –the Ebionite, to which the exclusive use of the title ‘Son of David’ might have led, and the Gnostic, which denied the reality of the human nature that He bore. 

But if Christ is the Sower in this, exactly in the same sense as in the preceding, parable [The Sower], the seed here receives an interpretation different from that which it there obtained.  There ‘the seed is the word of God’ (Luke 8:11), or ‘the word of the kingdom;’ here ‘the good seed are the children of the kingdom.  And yet there is no real disagreement; only a progress from that parable to this.  In that, the word of God is the instrument by which men are born anew and become children of the kingdom (Jam. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23); in this that word has done its work; has been received into hearts; is incorporated with living men; is so vitally united with them who through it have been made children of the kingdom, that the two cannot any more be contemplated asunder (cf. Jer. 31:27; Hos. 2:23; Zech. 10:9). 

The next words, ‘the field is the world,’ at once bring us into the heart of that controversy referred to already.  Over these few words, simple as they may seem, a battle has been fought, greater, perhaps, than over any single phrase in the Scripture, if we except the consecrating words at the Holy Eucharist.  Apart from mere personal questions affecting the regularity of certain ordinations, the grounds on which the Donatists justified their separation from the Church Catholic were these:  The idea of the Church, they said, is that of a perfectly holy body; holiness is not merely one of its essential predicates but the essential, its exclusive note.  They did not deny that hypocrites might possibly lie concealed in its bosom; but where the evidently ungodly are suffering to remain in communion with it, not separated off by the exercise of discipline, there it forfeits the character of the true Church, and the faithful must come out from it, if they would not, by contact with these unholy, themselves be defiled.  Such was their position, in support of which they urged Isaiah 52:1, and all such Scriptures as spoke of the Church’s future freedom from all evil.  These were meant, they said, to apply to it in its present condition; and consequently, where they failed to apply, there could not be the Church. 

On this, as on so many other points, the Church owes to Augustine, not the forming of her doctrine, for that she can owe to no man, but the bringing out into her own clear consciousness that which thereto she had implicitly possessed, yet had not worked out into a perfect clearness even for herself.  He replied, not gainsaying the truth which the Donatists proclaimed, that holiness is an essential note of the Church; but only refusing to accept their definition of that holiness, and showing that in the Church which they had forsaken this note was to be found, and combined with other as essential ones—catholicity, for instance, to which they could make no claim.  The Church Catholic, he replied, despite all appearances to the contrary, is a holy body, for they only are its members who are in true and living fellowship with Christ, and therefore partakers of his sanctifying Spirit.  All others, however they may have the outward marks of belonging to it, are in it, but not of it: they press upon Christ, as the thronging multitude; they do not touch him, as did that believing woman, on whom alone his virtue went forth (Luke 8:45). There are certain outward condition without which one cannot belong to his Church, but with which one does not of necessity do so.  And they who are thus in it, but not of it, whether hypocrites lying hid, or open offenders who from their numbers may not without worse inconveniences ensuing be expelled, do not defile the true members, so long as these share not in their spirit, nor communicate with their evil deeds.  They are like the unclean animals in the same ark as the clean (Gen. 7:2), goats in the same pastures with the sheep (Matt. 25:32), chaff on the same barn floor as the grain (Matt. 3:12), tares growing in the same field with the wheat, vessels to dishonour in the same great house with the vessels to be honoured (2 Tim. 2:20), endured for awhile, but in the end to be separated from it, and for ever. 

The Donatists wished to make the Church, in its visible form and historic manifestation, identical and coextensive with the true Church which the Lord knoweth and not man.  Augustine also affirmed the identity of the Church now existing with the final and glorious Church; but he denied that the two were coextensive.  For now the Church is clogged with certain accretions, which shall hereafter be shown not to belong, and never to have belonged, to it.  He did not affirm, as his opponents charged him, two Churches, but two conditions of one Church; the present, in which evil is endured in it; the future, in which it shall be free from all evil; --not two bodies of Christ; but one body, in which now are wicked men, but only as evil humours in the natural body, which in the day of perfect health will be expelled and rejected altogether, as never having more than accidentally belonged to it; and he laid especial stress upon this fact, that the Lord Himself had not contemplated His Church, in its present state, as perfectly free from evil.  At this point of the controversy the present parable and that of the Draw-net came in.  From these he concluded that, as tares are mingled with wheat, and bad fish with good, so the wicked shall be with the righteous, and shall remain so mingled to the end of the present age; and this not merely as a historic fact; but that all attempts to have it otherwise are, in this parable at least, expressly forbidden (ver. 29).  The Donatists were acting as the servants would have done, if, notwithstanding the master’s distinct prohibition, they had gone and sought forcibly to root out the tares. 

The Donatists were put to hard shifts to escape these conclusions.  They did, however, make answer thus: ‘By Christ’s own showing, “the field” is not the Church, but “the world” (ver. 38); the parable, therefore, does not bear on the dispute betwixt us and you; for that is not whether ungodly men should be endured in the world (which we all allow), but whether they should be suffered in the Church.  It must, however, be evident to every one not warped by a previous dogmatic interest, that the parable is, as the Lord announces, concerning the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ or the Church.  It required no special teaching to acquaint the disciples that in the world there would ever be a mixture of good and bad; while they could have so little expected the same in the Church, that it behoved to warn them beforehand, both that they might not be offended, counting that the promises of God had failed, and also that they might know how to behave themselves, when that mystery of iniquity, now foretold, should begin manifestly to work.  Nor need the term 'world' here used perplex us in the least.  No narrower term would have sufficed for Him, in whose prophetic eye the word of the Gospel was contemplated as going forth into all lands, as seed scattered in every part of the great outfield of the nation. 

It was ‘while men slept’ that the enemy sowed his tares among the wheat.  Many have found this statement significant, have understood it to suggest negligence and lack of watchfulness on the part of the Rulers in the Church, whereby ungodly men creep into it unawares, introducing errors in doctrine and in practice (Acts 20:29, 30; Jude 4; 2 Pet. 2:1, 2, 19).  There is, alas!  always more or less of this negligence; yet I cannot think that it was meant to be noted here.  If any should have watched, it is ‘the servants;’ but they first appeared at a later period in the story; nor is any want of due vigilance laid to their charge.  The men, therefore, who slept are not, as I take it, those who should or could have done otherwise, but the phrase is equivalent to ‘at night,’ and must not be further urged (Job 33:13; Mark 4:27).  This enemy seized his opportunity, when all eyes were closed in sleep, and wrought the secret mischief upon which he was intent, and having wrought it undetected, withdrew. 

‘The enemy that sowed them is the devil.’  We behold Satan here, not as he works beyond the limits of the Church, deceiving the world, but in his far deeper malignity, as he at once mimics and counterworks the works of Christ: in the words of Chysostom, ‘after the prophets, the false prophets; after the Apostles, the false apostles; after Christ, Antichrist.’  Most worthy of notice is the plainness with which the doctrine concerning Satan and his agency, his active hostility to the blessedness of man, of which there is so little in the old Testament, comes out in the New; as in the parable of the Sower, and again in this.  As the lights become brighter the shadows become deeper.  Not till the mightier power of good had been revealed, were men suffered to know how mighty was the power of evil; and even in these cases it is only to the innermost circle of disciples that the explanation concerning Satan is given.  Nor is it less observable that Satan is spoken of as His enemy, the enemy of the Son of man; for here, as so often, the great conflict is set forth as rather between Satan and the Son of man, than between Satan and God.  It was essential to the scheme of redemption that the victory over evil should be a moral triumph, not one obtained by a mere putting forth of superior strength.  For this end it was most important that man, who lost the battle, should also win it (1 Cor. 15:21); and therefore as by and through man the kingdom of darkness was to be overthrown, so the enmity of the Serpent was specially directed against the seed of the woman, the Son of man.  In the title ‘the wicked one,’ which he bears, the article is emphatic and points him out as the absolutely evil, the very ground of whose being is evil.  For as God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5; James 1:17), so Satan is darkness, and in him is no light at all; ‘there is no truth in him’ (John 8:44).  Man is in a middle position; he detains the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18); light and darkness in him are struggling; but still with the possibility of manifesting itself.  And thus a redemption is possible for man, for his will is only perverted, but Satan’s is inverted.  He has said what no man could ever fully say, or, at least, act on to the full:  ‘Evil, be thou my good;’ and therefore, so far as we can see, a redemption and restoration are impossible for him. 

The mischief done, the enemy ‘went his way;’ and thus the work did not evidently and at once appear to be his.  How often, in the Church, the beginnings of evil have been scarcely discernible; how often has that which bore the worst fruit in the end appeared at first like a higher form of good.  St. Paul, indeed, could detect the punctum saliens out of which it would unfold itself; but to many, evil would not appear as evil till it had grown to more ungodliness.  ‘But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also; appeared, that is, for what they were, showed themselves in their true nature.  Many have noted the remarkable similarity which exists between the wheat and this lolium or tare as long as they are yet in the blade.  Being only distinguishable when the ear is formed, they fulfil literally the Lord’s words, ‘by their fruits ye shall know them,’  Augustine upon this that, only when the blade began to ripen and bring forth fruit, the tares showed themselves as such indeed, most truly remarks, that it is the opposition of good which first makes evil to appear; ‘None appear evil in the Church, except to him who is good;’ and again, ‘When any shall have begun to be a spiritual man, judging all things, then error begins to appear unto him; and elsewhere, drawing from the depths of his Christian experience: ‘It is a great labour of the good to bear the contrary manners of the wicked; by which he who is not offended has profited little; for the righteous, in proportion as he recedes from his own wickedness, is grieved at that of others.’  As there must be light with which to contrast the darkness, height wherewith to measure depth, so there must be holiness to be grieved at unholiness; only the new man in us is grieved at the old either in ourselves or in others. 

‘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?’  These servants are not, as Theophylact suggests, the angels (they are ‘the reapers;’ ver. 30, 41); but rather men, zealous for the Lord’s honour, but not knowing what spirit they are of, any more than James and John, who would fain have called fire from heaven on the inhospitable Samaritan village (luke 9:54).  The question which they ask, ‘Didst not thou sow good seed in thy field?’ expresses well the perplexity, the surprise, the inward questioning which must often be felt, which in the first ages, before long custom had too much reconciled to the mournful fact, must have been felt very strongly by all who were zealous for God, at the woful and unlooked-for spectacle which the visible Church presented.  Where was the ‘glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing?’  Well, indeed, might the faithful have questioned their own spirits, have poured out their hearts in prayer, of which the burden should have been exactly this, ‘Didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? –didst not Thou constitute thy Church to be a pure and holy communion? –is not the doctrine such as should only produce fruits of righteousness? –whence then is it that even within the holy precincts themselves there should be so many who themselves openly sin and cause others to sin?’  In the householder’s reply, ‘An enemy hath done this,’ the mischief is traced up to its source; and that not the imperfection, ignorance, weakness, which cling to everything human, and which would prevent even a Divine idea from being more than very inadequately realized by men; but the distinct counterworking of the great spiritual enemy; ‘the tares are the children of the Wicked One; the enemy that sowed them is the devil.’ 

In the question which follows, ‘Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?  ‘the temptation to use violent means for the suppression of error, a temptation which the Church itself has sometimes failed to resist, finds its voice and utterance.  But they who thus speak are unfit to be trusted in this matter.  They have often no better than a Jehu’s ‘zeal for the Lord’ (2 Kings 10:16); it is but an Elias-zeal at the best (Luke 4:54).  And therefore ‘he said, Nay.’  By this prohibition are forbidden all such measures for the excision of heretics, as shall leave them no room for after repentance or amendment; indeed the prohibition is so clear, so express, that whenever we meet in Church history with ought which looks like a carrying out of this proposal, we may be tolerably sure that it is not wheat making war on tares, but tares seeking to root out wheat.  The reason of the prohibition is given: ‘Lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.’  This might be, either by rooting up what were now tares, but hereafter should become wheat—‘children of the Wicked One,' who, by faith and repentance, should become 'children of the kingdom;’ or through the servants’ error, who, with the best intentions, should fail to distinguish between these and those, and involve good and bad in a common doom; or perhaps leaving tares, might pluck up wheat.  It is only the Lord Himself, the Searcher of hearts, who with absolute certainty ‘knoweth them that are his.’  The later Roman Catholic expositors, and as many as in the Middle Ages wrote in the interests of Rome, in these words, ‘lest ye root up also the wheat with them,’ find a loophole whereby they may escape binding, when this danger exists of plucking up the wheat together with the tares.  To which Maldonatus adds, that in each particular case the householder is to judge whether there be such danger or not; the Pope being now the representative of the householder, to him the question should be put, ‘Wilt thou that we go and gather up the tares?’ and he concludes his exposition with an exhortation to all Catholic princes, that they imitate the zeal of these servants, and rather, like them, need to have their eagerness restrained, than require, as did so many, to be stimulated to the task of rooting out heresies and heretics. 

At the same time this ‘Nay’ does not imply that the tares shall never be plucked up, but only that this is not the time, nor they the doers; for the householder adds, ‘Let both grow together until the harvest.’  Pregnant words, which tell us that evil is not, as so many dream, gradually to wane and disappear before good, the world to find itself in the Church, but each to unfold itself more fully, out of its own root, after its own kind: till at last they stand face to face, each in its highest manifestation, in the persons of Christ and of Antichrist; on the one hand, an incarnate God, on the other, the man in whom the fulness of all Satanic power will dwell bodily.  Both are to grow ‘until the harvest,’ till they are ripe, one for destruction, and the other for full salvation. 

And they are to grow ‘together;’ the visible Church is to have its intermixture of good and bad until the end of time; and, by consequence, the fact of bad being found mingled with good will in nowise justify a separation from it, or an attempt to set up a little Church of our own.  Where men will attempt this, besides the guilt of transgressing a plain command, it is not difficult to see what darkness it must bring upon them, into what a snare of pride it must cast them.  For while, even in the best of men, there is the same intermixture of good and evil as in the visible Church, such a course will infallibly lead a man to the wilful shutting of his eyes alike to the evil in himself, and in that little schismatical body which he will then call the Church, since only so the attempt will even seem to be attended with success.  Thus Augustine often appeals to the fact that the Donatists had not succeeded—they would not themselves dare to assert that they had succeeded—in forming what should even externally appear a pure communion: and since by their own acknowledgement there might be, and probably were, hypocrites and undetected ungodly livers among them, this of itself rendered all such passages as Isaiah 52:1, as inapplicable to them as to the Catholic Church in its present condition: while yet, on the strength of this spirit of intolerable pride and presumptuous uncharitableness towards the Church from which they had separated.  And the same sins cleave more or less to all schismatic bodies, which, under plea of a smallest of these, from its very smallness persuading itself that it is the most select and purest, being generally the guiltiest here.  None will deny that the temptation to this lies very close to us all.  Every young Christian, in the time of his first zeal, is tempted to be somewhat of a Donatist in spirit.  It would argue little love or holy earnestness in him, if he had not this longing to see the Church of his Saviour a glorious Church without spot or wrinkle.  But he must learn that the desire, righteous and holy as in itself it is, yet is not to find its fulfilment in this present evil time; that, on the contrary, the suffering from false brethren is one of the pressures upon him, which shall wring out from him a more earnest prayer that the kingdom of God may appear.  He must learn that all self-willed and impatient attempts, such as have been repeated again and again, to anticipate that perfect communion of saints, are works of the flesh; that however fairly they may promise, no blessing will rest upon them, nor will they for long even appear to be crowned with success. 

Some in modern times, fearing lest arguments should be drawn from this parable to the prejudice of attempts to revive stricter discipline in the Church, have sought to escape the dangers which they feared, by urging that in our Lord’s explanation no notice is taken of the proposal made by the servants (ver. 28), nor yet of the house holder’s reply to that proposal (ver. 29).  They conclude from this that the parable is not to teach us what the conduct of the servants of a heavenly Lord ought to be, but merely prophetic of what generally it will be, --that this proposal of the servants is merely brought in to afford an opportunity for the master’s reply, and that of this reply the latter is the only significant portion.  But, assuredly, when Christ asserts that it is His purpose to make a complete and solemn separation at the end, He implicitly forbids, --not the exercise in the meantime of a godly discipline, not, where that has become necessary, absolute exclusion from Church-fellowship,--but any attempts to anticipate the final irrevocable separation, of which He has reserved the execution to Himself.  ‘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.’  Not now, but ‘in the time of harvest,’ shall this separation find place; and even then, not they, but ‘the reapers,’ shall carry it through.  This ‘time of harvest,’ as the Lord presently explains, is ‘the end of the world,’ and ‘the reapers are the angels;’ who are here, as everywhere else, set forth as accompanying their Lord and ours at His coming again to judgment (Matt. 16:27; 24:31; 2 Thess. 1:7; Rev. 19:14), and fulfilling his will both in respect of those who have served (Matt. 24:31), and those who have served Him not (Matt. 13:47; 22:13). 

‘As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so shall it be in the end of this world; the Son of man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;’ in the words of Zephaniah, ‘the stumbling-blocks with the wicked’ (1:3).  The setting forth of the terrible doom of ungodly men under the image of the burning with fire of thorns, briers, weeds, offal, chaff, barren branches, dead trees, is frequent in Scripture; thus see 2 Sam. 23:6, 7; Matt. 3:10, 12; 7:19; John 15:6; Heb. 6:8; 10:26, 27; Isaiah 5:24; 9:18, 19; 10:16, 17; 33:11, 12; 66:24; Esd. 16:77, 78.  But dare we speak of it as an image merely?  The fire reappears in the interpretation of the parable; the angels ‘shall cast them,’ those, namely, ‘which do iniquity,’ ‘into a furnace of fire.’  Fearful words indeed! and the image, if it be an image, at all events borrowed from the most dreadful and painful form of death in use among men.  Something we read of it is in Scripture.  Judah would have fain made his daughter-in-law (Gen 38:24), and David alas! did make the children of Ammon (2 Sam. 12:31) taste the dreadfulness of it.  It was in use among the Chaldeans (Jer. 29:22; Dan. 3:6); and in the Jewish tradition, which is probably of great antiquity, Nimrod cast Abraham into a furnace of fire for refusing to worship his false gods.  It was one of the forms of cruel death with which Antiochus sought to overcome the heroic constancy of the Jewish confessors in the time of the Maccabees (2 Macc. 7; Dan 11:33; 1 Cor 13:3).  In modern times Chardin makes mention of penal furnaces in Persia.  Whatever the ‘furnace of fire’ may mean here, or  ‘the lake of fire’ (Rev. 19:20; 21:8), ‘the fire that is not quenched’ (Mark 9:44), ‘the everlasting fire’ (Matt. 25:41; cf. Luke 16:24; Mal. 4:1), elsewhere, this at all events is certain; that they point to some doom so intolerable that the Son of God came down from heaven and tasted all the bitterness of death, that He might deliver us from ever knowing the secrets of anguish which, unless God be mocking men with empty threats, are shut up in these terrible words, --‘There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt. 22:13).  All which has just gone before makes very unlikely their explanation of the ‘gnashing of teeth,’ who take it as chattering from excessive cold; who, in fact, imagine here a kind of Dantean hell, with alternations of heat and cold, alike unendurable.  We take these rather as the utterances generally of rage and impatience (acts 7:54), under the sense of intolerable pain and unutterable loss. 

‘Then,’ after it has been thus done with the wicked, ‘shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’  As fire was the element of the dark and cruel kingdom of hell, so is light of the pure heavenly kingdom.  ‘Then,’ when the dark hindering element has been removed, shall this element of light, which was before struggling with and obstructed by it, come forth in its full brightness (see Col. 3:3; Rom. 8:18; Prov. 25:4, 5).  A glory shall be revealed in the saints; not merely brought to them, and added from without; but rather a glory which they before had, but which did not before evidently appear, shall burst forth and show itself openly, as once in the days of His flesh, at the moment of His Transfiguration, did the hidden glory of our Lord (Matt. 17:2).  That shall be the day of ‘the manifestation of the sons of God;’ they ‘shall shine forth as the sun,’ when the clouds are rolled away (Dan. 12:3); they shall evidently appear, and be acknowledged by all, as ‘the children of light; of that God who is ‘the Father of Lights’ (James 1:17); who is Light, and in whom is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).  And then, but not till then, shall be accomplished those glorious prophecies so often repeated in the Old Testament; ‘Henceforth there shall be no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean’ (Isaiah 52:1); ‘In that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts’ (Zech. 14:21); ‘Thy people also shall be all righteous’ (Isaiah 60:21; cf. Isaiah 35:8; Joel 3:17; Ezek. 37:21-27; Zeph. 3:13).