Opening the Scriptures: Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Mt. 13: 37-43)

Jesus is here privately explaining to his disciples the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt. 13: 24-30), one of the stories he had given to the multitude a short time before. The parable itself, as well as Jesus’s explanation of it, is usually interpreted in the following way: those people who are good will go to heaven when they die, and those who are bad will be thrust into hell.

It’s a comforting affirmation for those who consider themselves righteous: in the by-and-by, all will receive their just deserts. Furthermore, such an interpretation quiets the urge to take matters into one’s own hands: to wreak justice as spiritual vigilante, punishing wrong-doers who have disturbed one’s well-being, or egotistic self-regard.

Through the ages, this particular interpretation of the parable has likely saved many from abuse, and some of them—-perhaps in greater proportion to their number—were prophets. As well as safeguarding would-be victims from the misguided and malicious, this interpretation may also have benefited potential perpetrators, restraining hubris from descending into action.

Although it’s had its beneficial uses, this interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the tares is not the one that George Fox presents to us. Fox sees from a different perspective and therefore arrives at a different interpretation. We can study his interpretation of this parable, because Fox reveals it in his third epistle. Here is the sum total of that short epistle:

Friends,—There is an eye, that hath looked to see the good seed, that was sown, and queried, from whence came these tares? The answer was and is; “The wicked one hath sown them.” Now read the tares, and what is the effect of them, and their work? And what they do, and have done? How they hang amongst the wheat? But now is the time of harvest, that both wheat and tares are seen, and each distinguished, the one from the other.  G. F. (Works, 7: 17-18).

To understand Fox’s perspective, one begins by isolating his own words from those which are found in the original Bible passage. His own words indicate his interpretation of the text.

For example, the epistle’s first sentence is “There is an eye”: no such reference to this “eye” occurs in the text of the parable; it is strictly Fox’s expression. In communicating his first response to the parable by referring to “an eye,” he asserts the parable is about seeing; it is about seeing or knowing the difference between good and evil (good seed or evil tares). With that much information given, we know that Fox is relating the parable to the Fall, for to “know[ing] good and evil”(Gen. 3:5) independent from God’s guidance was the temptation offered by the Serpent. In taking that bait—to no longer eye God’s Will—humanity became spiritually blind, unable to see, to discern good from evil. The “eye” Fox refers to is that which has overcome that blindness by again eyeing God; this “eye” sees: “both the wheat and tares are seen, and each distinguished, the one from the other”(p. 18).

That the “eye” is but one eye—and not the two eyes given by nature—implies a special kind of seeing, the seeing that metaphorically refers to understanding, or insight. Fox refers to seeing “the good” and the evil that exist within each unredeemed human: “[the tares] hang amongst the wheat.” For Fox, the parable is first a lesson on spiritual discernment: seeing, and second a lesson on what one sees: evil is within oneself; with surprise, one asks: “from whence came these tares?”(p. 17)

Fox urges an examination of the evil that grows within. (“Now read the tares”; that is to say, now that you see the evil in yourself, learn about it.) He directs the reader to examine the characteristics and consequences of that inward evil:

what is the effect of [the tares], and their work? And what they do, and have done? How they hang amongst the wheat? (pp. 17-18)

Fox is compelling the reader to see the effects of sin and wrong-doing in his life, and the stubborn persistence of sin in human nature, as tares “hang amongst the wheat.” For to see—to sense—the distinction between good and evil, and the harm evil does to oneself and others, is the first step to knowing to refuse the evil, and choose the good (Isa. 7:15).

The “harvest,” a word found in both the original text and Fox’s epistle, does not refer to physical death, and neither does it refer to some cataclysmic end of all life on earth, as is often portrayed in non-Quaker interpretations. These wrong interpretations result from assigning a literal meaning to Jesus’s words: “the harvest is the end of the world” (v. 39).

For Fox, the end of the world is the end of the worldly self, the unredeemed, fallen self that is in opposition to and independent of God. Dying to that self, the inward cross, is the worldly death that entails “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (v. 42). Once this inward separation of spirit from worldly flesh, wheat from tares, good from evil, has taken place, and the tares gathered and burned, “then,” says Jesus, “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mt. 13:42-43)

Jesus’s final statement (“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”) informs us that not all will grasp his meaning. He and other prophets realize comprehension comes only when the mysteries of the kingdom are unveiled by the Holy Ghost (Jn. 14:26). In his speech to London Yearly Meeting in 1675, Fox identified the parables, however, as one tool that prepares humankind to receive the Holy Ghost: “Here is the bundle of life opened, the end of the parables, and of the figures, and law, and who fulfilleth it.”

When Jesus’s disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, he said:

Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given….Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them (Mt. 13:11-15).

As did the prophets before them, seventeenth-century Friends understood that the worldly nature (described in this excerpt where Jesus quotes Esaias [Isa. 6:10]) could not understand the Scriptures. It is “by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know [the Scriptures],” wrote Barclay in Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Quaker Heritage Press, p. 62). No amount of scholarship, knowledge of Hebrew or Greek, nor seminary training could explicate the words given through the spirit of prophecy. The same dependency on the Spirit is required to understand early Friends’ writings: no amount of reading, training, or knowledge of history or doctrine can open the meaning of their writings. Because they are written from the spirit of truth, they must be read in that same spirit.

For I saw in that light and spirit which was before the scriptures were given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that spirit, if they would know God or Christ, or the scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by (Works, 1:89).

Fox here confirms the Scripture message that all must come to that Spirit (Rev. 22:17), if they would understand the words of the prophets and apostles that have come before. It is this Spirit of Christ that enables us to understand the writings of these prophetic men and women, regardless of the century in which they wrote—first, seventeenth, in between, or after—and to discern the spirit of truth from the spirit of error: to distinguish the wheat from the tares.

Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world; therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God; he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error (1 Jn. 4:4-6).

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