Wheat and Tares
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?: ?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 corn, and the difference between them is hardly noticeable.?
But, still, why all 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.
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 easy 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.
This is a model of spiritual discernment: distinguishing between two things that are virtually identical, but in reality opposite. This is also a model of the spiritual life: discernment following by a sound strategy for addressing the problem.
Some of us may prefer the use traditional tools ? weighty volumes of commentary, heavy encyclopaedias and dictionaries ? when we seek out the riches of Scripture. Those who seek a less laborious approach now have endless valuable tools available on the internet. For example, <!-- m --><a class="postlink" href="http://bible.crosswalk.com/">http://bible.crosswalk.com/</a><!-- m --> Although the writings of most of the Fathers are available on-line, it can be difficult to find commentary on specific texts. I still find the ?Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture? (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois) particularly valuable. It devotes over three pages to this parable. Beautifully produced and presented in eleven volumes covering the New Testament, it is also, alas, extremely expensive.