Tares and Wheat
Discerning Tares from Wheat
I was, albeit in a rather minor way, reminded this weekend of the value of good Scripture study. I saw a passing reference to the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, and, found myself wondering just what tares might be. I had, I suppose, always assumed they were just some form of generic weed.
So: first, what is the Greek word translated in English as either tares (a bit uncommonly old-fashioned now) or weeds? The Greek word is Î¶Î¹Î¶Î¬Î½Î¹Î± (zizania), plural of Î¶Î¹Î¶Î¬Î½Î¹Î¿Î½ (zizanion), and that is usually assumed to mean darnel. So, a specific species of plant. But can that possibly matter?
Indeed it does. Darnel is Lolium temulentum, a species of rye-grass, the seeds of which are a strong soporific poison. It is an annual plant that can grow up to a meter tall. It is commonly found in Syria and Israel in those areas in which wheat is grown. More importantly, it resembles wheat so strongly in appearance that it is widely known as ?false wheat?. Until both wheat and tares have grown to the point at which the ears appear they look the same. The ears of darnel are light and do not bend with the heaviness of the seed within them as do the ears of wheat. This explains the instruction given by the householder when his servants suggest that they dig up the weeds (tares):
?28?The servants said to him, ?Do you want us then to go and gather them up??
29 But he said, ?No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.
30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of 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.??
It also explains the comment in the version of the parable found in the apocryphal ?Gospel of Thomas?: ?Jesus said The Father's kingdom is like a person who has good seed. His enemy came during the night and sowed weeds among the good seed. The person did not let the workers pull up the weeds, but said to them, 'No, otherwise you might go to pull up the weeds and pull up the wheat along with them.' For on the day of the harvest the weeds will be conspicuous, and will be pulled up and burned.?
The relevance of tares or darnel (as opposed to generic weeds) was known to the early Fathers. St Augustine in his commentary on St Matthew?s Gospel, noted:
?Between wheat and weeds is something called darnel, when the plant is in its early growth and there is no stalk yet. It looks like an ear of wheat, and the difference between them is hardly noticeable.?
But, still, why this focus on darnel? All the parables of The Lord appear to be simple tales with easy-to-understand meanings. But they are all, in fact, very sophisticated stories, with many layers of meaning, in which sometimes minor details, properly understood, bring out the most important teaching.
This parable is often read as a simple story of good (wheat) and evil (weeds) which must be separated. But life relatively rarely offers such easy choices and, when it does, it requires no great insight to understand what should be done. If the wheat was contaminated, say, with a plant bearing no resemblance to wheat, and which quickly produced scarlet flowers, it would be easy to distinguish the good wheat from the bad weeds. The weeds could be pulled out with no risk to the wheat.
But darnel looks like wheat, grows like wheat, is all but indistinguishable (except to the very knowing eye) from wheat until both plants have reached the stage of ripeness immediately prior to the harvest. One produces a heavy head of life-giving grain and is bent over with the weight; the other produces many poisonous seeds and remains upright.
One can readily say: life?s like that! That which has the appearance of good may, eventually, reveal itself to be evil. That which seems to have the potential for fruitfulness may grow into that which is deadly or delusory. What appears to be a life of spiritual devotion may be a life of pretence and deception. Within our own lives we may be deceived by the appearance of ?wheat? (all too often because ?wheat? is what we want to see) only to find out, eventually, that it was ?darnel?.
In the parable, the householder is obviously a skilled and knowledgeable farmer: he recognizes the darnel almost as soon as it begins to grow, and can therefore plan how he will deal with it. He does not, as his servants suggest, rush in to weed out the darnel immediately for fear of destroying the wheat as well. He will wait until the distinction between the two is easier to make, and will then have his servants carefully separate the two plants. Then even the darnel may be put to some use: it was traditionally bundled up and dried for use as fuel.
The reference in the parable to burning is not necessarily to burning as waste. In our modern affluent society we all too often assume that those things that cannot be used for our purposes have no use at all and are rubbish. This is how these words in this parable are often misunderstood. ?Gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them? is assumed to mean burn them as waste, as useless rubbish. But at the time Jesus spoke these words, tares and many other plants were collected and dried and used as fuel for cooking and heating. They could not be used for food, but that did not mean that they had no use at all.
That which is not useful, or which may even be harmful, for one purpose can be transformed, made useful for another purpose.
The farmer demonstrates a model of spiritual discernment: distinguishing between two things that are virtually identical in appearance, but in reality opposite. This is also a model of the spiritual life: discernment followed by a sound strategy for addressing the problem.
One of the key virtues of the Christian spiritual life is discernment. It is often assumed to mean the power of discerning others, and so it may be. But care needs to be taken to distinguish judgment from discernment. We can all too easily judge others, assuming, for example, that they are tares when they may be wheat. We can all too easily exercise false discernment in relation to ourselves, assuming the tares in our lives are actually wheat.
Discernment requires two characteristics. The first is to be watchful. ?Nepsis? is the Greek word which means to be watchful, alert. In St Luke 12:37 Jesus says: ?Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when He comes, shall find watching.?
St Symeon the New Theologian wrote
?Our whole soul should have at every moment a clear eye, able to watch and notice the thoughts entering our heart from the evil one and repel them.?
The Philokalia teaches:
?Vigilance is a firm control of the mind. Post it at the door of the heart, so that it sees marauding thoughts as they come, hears what they say, and knows what these robbers are doing, and what images are being projected?.so as to seduce the mind by phantasy.?
But someone may be watchful or vigilant, and not know what to look for. The second requirement of discernment is knowledgeable judgment. We must watch, but we must know what to look for, and we must be able to distinguish between that which is good and that which is bad, that which provides nourishment and that which poisons.
Think of the farmer in the parable. Instead of rushing in to rip out what might be tares, but what might equally be wheat, and, in the process trampling on the wheat, he exercised discernment. This involved patience, clear vision, knowledge and strategy. The farmer needed to wait until it was possible to discern the tares from the wheat. The farmer needed to be able to see clearly the characteristics of each plant. And the famer needed knowledge to distinguish between the two. Finally, the farmer needed a strategic plan, a deliberate system of action to implement that which his vision and knowledge had shown him needed to be done. Discernment without action may be some sort of theoretical academic gift, but it produces no practical results.
Every person?s life is like the farmer?s field in which wheat and tares grow. We need watchfulness, we need knowledge, we need discernment, we need patience and we need deliberate action. What is it in our lives that we might think of as ?wheat? that may be ?tares?? Is our patience actually indifference? Is our enthusiastic piety actually pride? Is our manifest humility actually a desire to attract attention to our ?spirituality??
Until, like the wise good farmer we can distinguish between things which appear to be the same, we run the risk of allow ?tares? to flourish to the detriment of ?wheat?. We need to develop ? and to pray for ? the gift of discernment that we may develop an informed strategy to ensure that our ?tares? are carefully removed so that our individual harvest may be rich.