The Parable of the Wheat & Tares

Today’s reading in the lectionary is the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30). From the Jerusalem Bible:

Jesus put a parable before the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well. The owner’s servants went to him and said, “Sir, was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the darnel come from?” “Some enemy has done this” he answered. And the servants said, “Do you want us to go and weed it out?” But he said, “No, because when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.”’

You’ll notice that the Jerusalem Bible, which is used at Mass here in the U.K., uses the word ‘darnel’ instead of ‘tares’. I had never heard that word before, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and here is what I found:

Darnel [Lolium temulentum, a.k.a., poison darnel or cockle] usually grows in the same production zones as wheat and is considered a weed. The similarity between these two plants is so extensive that in some regions, cockle is referred to as “false wheat”. It bears a close resemblance to wheat until the ear appears. The ears on the real wheat are so heavy it makes the entire plant droop downward, but L. temulentum, whose ears are light, stands up straight. The wheat will also appear brown when ripe, whereas the darnel is black. When the Lolium matures, the spikelets turn edgeways to the rachis, where the wheat spikelets remain as they grew previously.

And wheat and darnel look almost exactly alike:

wheat (left) and darnel (right)

Jesus’ parable had more layers than I ever realised before. Instead of just being a parable about bad people being inextricably intertwined with the good people in the Church until the Judgement Day (the way this parable is usually explicated), the use of the word ‘darnel’ to translate ζιζάνια indicates that those who are destined for judgement, as the darnel is collected and burned, are almost indistinguishable in exterior appearance from those who are destined to be saved and gathered into the Father’s barn. Not only that, but the darnel looks nourishing, but is actually poisonous, and can cause death. Therefore, it is destined for death.

Here are some extra layers of understanding which I think the translation of ζιζάνια as ‘darnel’ brings out:

The similarity between these two plants is so extensive that in some regions, cockle is referred to as “false wheat”.

In the parable, wheat represents true followers of Christ, and darnel represents the false followers, who look almost exactly alike. (Note that it is both the farmhands – i.e., the angels – and the farmer – i.e., the Father – who are able to tell the difference in the parable. We might not be able.)

It bears a close resemblance to wheat until the ear appears.

False discipleship and true discipleship may appear to be the same, but ‘you will know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:16, from the Sermon on the Mount).

The ears on the real wheat are so heavy it makes the entire plant droop downward, but L. temulentum, whose ears are light, stands up straight.

True fruitfulness comes with the heaviness of the Cross. False fruitfulness is unbent by suffering and sacrifice, because it is not united with Christ on His Cross.

The wheat will also appear brown when ripe, whereas the darnel is black. 

I don’t want to make too much of this, other than to say look at this beautiful ripe wheat:

versus this forbidding-looking darnel:

One can probably stretch by making some point about true discipleship only being darkened by the lesser dark of venial sin, whereas false discipleship is corrupted by the utter darkness of mortal sin, but I think I’d rather just use the two images to show the contrast – since wheat isn’t really brown, but gold. It’s the colour of the Sun (of Justice, the Royal Son of the Father) and the Kingdom (gold), versus the colour of corruption and death (black).

When the Lolium matures, the spikelets turn edgeways to the rachis, where the wheat spikelets remain as they grew previously.

True discipleship stays on the straight path, whereas false discipleship causes a person to grow sideways, to become bent.

So it’s a parable not just about the Church not being able to separate herself from false followers of Christ, but also not being able for certain exactly who they are, until the final Judgement when all people’s fruits will become clear.

And finally, a last point from Wikipedia: ‘The French word for darnel is ivraie (from Latin ebriacus, intoxicated), which expresses that weed’s characteristic of making one feel poisoned with drunkenness, and can cause death.’

The healthy fruits lead to life, the poisonous fruits to death – not only in terms of the righteous receiving life, and the damned receiving death, as in the harvest of the parable, but also in terms of those who eat those people’s fruits. In Communion, we eat the Body and Blood of Christ, and become one with each other through the eating. If we commune with Christ in sincerity, we eat unto life. If we commune falsely, we eat unto death. And if we are united to death, we bring death to those who are joined with us. Whereas if we are united to life, we bring life to those who are joined with us. Thanks be to God for His Son Jesus Christ, who brings life out of our death.

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