Some of Jesus’ stories have lost something over the passage of time – but Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares takes on new urgency in this age when we are surrounded by competing teachings, different versions of religion and many who tell us that theirs alone is the one true faith.
Perhaps we need to start by looking again at what Jesus used as his example. The Greek word which is translated for weeds here is “Zinzania” – the weed that fools you. In some wheat producing areas, tares are weeds often now called Bearded Darnel. The darnel in itself is not poisonous. It could be eaten and cause one no harm. The problem is that it plays host to a fungus called the Ergot Smut fungus, which is deadly to both human and beast. Bread contaminated with the fungus is poisonous. The catch with it is that unless the farmer is blessed with super vision, the early sprouting darnel – the zinzania – looks superficially like wheat. Later on it does become more obvious – the grain from the darnel is smaller and darker and the plant itself is shorter, yet in practice as any farmer would tell you, weeding the wheat paddock once growth is properly underway would be disastrous.
The way the farmer deals with the darnel weeds, is either reaping above the height of the darnel – or more often these days, to run the wheat and weeds through a thrasher that first removes the chaff from the wheat and at the same time runs it over a sieve which allows the smaller Darnel to fall through and be cast off with the chaff. The deadly fungus goes away with it.
So what then do we make of the parable when we are thinking of the competing versions of Religion. There are, I believe, 19 major religions in the world, most of which have a variety of sub groups of belief. Wikipedia, that great mine of often trivial information puts the number of Christian denominations alone at about 38,000 and given the chequered history of the Church there can be no question that most would believe at least some of these would qualify both as deadly and as poisonous. Within each denomination too there is a range of attitudes, knowledge and belief. (Sit in on a Church leaders meeting if you don’t believe me!)
Between many churches differences exist on matters such as: whether or not abortion is permitted, whether or not celibacy is required for religious leaders, requirements for animal sacrifices, including mode of killing animals for consumption, appearance factors (for example if shaving is allowed, what, if any jewellery is to be worn and whether or not women’s heads must remain covered), birth control usage, agreed calendar, acceptable clergy gender, clergy organization and hierarchical control, meeting day, documentation, acceptable foods and drink, place of fasting, attitudes to war, family power sharing, family types, gender of deities, homosexual rights, the form of approved meeting place, nature of humanity, dates for New Year and Christmas, the allowed number of deities, origin and age of the universe, how prayer should be conducted, whether or not pre-marital sex is permitted, role of women, sacred texts, how suicide is to be viewed, surgical modifications to the body, special clothing, symbols, etc. (List adapted from the website http://religioustolerance.org )
Jesus appears to be saying – not that the followers of the different belief systems and all their individual followers all have it correct – but rather that it is not we who should be the judges of precisely who the developing poisonous seeds are represented by in his story and he suggests that rather leave the judgement of this to the harvest of final outcomes.
With the huge number of religions to choose from we might pause for a moment to stop to acknowledge that there is probably no way of knowing for certain that any one of these religions is absolutely correct. If more followed Jesus advice perhaps there would be more by way of religious tolerance – fewer examples of religious genocide and far fewer examples of unpleasant attitudes to those of other faith shown in places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. etc.and in fact if we really want to get down to it, a neighbourhood near you.
If more people accepted their religion as the best faith for them, but at the same time recognized that there are other religions which offer other insights of spiritual truth, perhaps there might be more acceptance of other systems of morality, other religious practices, etc. As one exxample despite their presumed shortcomings most religions do have followers whose beliefs seem to motivate people to lead better lives. Look at the very low crime rate in Saudi Arabia for example.
So Jesus appears to be saying that despite failures in actions and intent we should not judge and reject those who don’t seem to be conforming – and that is probably the standard way of interpreting the parable, but it seems to me that there is an even more urgent message – namely that we ourselves should not make the ready assumption that it is we who are the true growing ones and it is the others who contain the poison. After all if the true growing plants can be confused with the harmful weeds in the initial stages then the assumption that our lives are the desired outcome should not be too readily assumed. For example I have often heard it said that Islam is a bad religion – and one that leads to ill-treatment of women and the existance if suicide bombers. Yet if you read what many Muslims are saying, they are claiming that it is the Christians who are dangerous. It is certainly true that soldiers who are Christian have killed many innocent civilians in places like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have the evidence from numerous surveys from such experts as George Barna telling us that those identifying as Christian are not markedly different in their behaviour from those who do not call themselves Christian. Almost the same marriage breakdown rates, similar crime statistics and so on. At the very least this should give us cause to pause before claiming that we alone have our lives as they should be.
You will also hear Church folk sling off at those they consider to be heretic – the conservative Christian view of Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons for example. The words the so-called heretics use are after all little different from the words we use – but those words are the easy part. The real test comes in what we do in response to the words we say that is important. For example we regularly get glimpses of the starving children in Africa in short segments of the TV news. If we are eating a nice dinner while we are watching – and doing nothing in response to what we are seeing – should we really be certain that it is only other hypocrites who need the judging. Should we therefore remain certain that it is the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Muslims who are in need of enlightenment?
Well who is right? Jesus is very clear in this allegory of the wheat and the tares. No-one, he seems to be saying is sufficiently wise to sort out the good from the bad in another person’s heart. Frankly we do not know what is in another’s heart. Some for example get a raw deal in life. You may be born with a brain defect….a chemical imbalance which gives you a bad temper. What you become is a product of many starting points and many influences. Whether or not the outcome is the best possible is not for others to judge. That may well be a question for final judgment yes – but it is not our final judgement.
I am reminded of the opening words of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”.
I am sure for many Christianity seems to be simply measured by which group you are connected with. Are you a Methodist – or a Roman Catholic – a Muslim or a Hindu – but if we know that, is that sufficient? Well, according to Jesus – actually no. And there are some very good reasons why his parable is justified. For a start statistics show clearly that most people stay more or less with the faith they are born into. If you happen to be born in Saudi Arabia to Muslim parents – you would almost certainly be brought up Muslim – whereas in the US Bible belt it would be almost as certainly be a conservative Christian. It would seem manifestly unjust if you were to take the blame for where you were born.
In any case, if it were Christianity you were born into while you may well accept the label of Christian yet this is no guarantee you would be following the entire spirit of Christianity. You may for example greatly admire a Christian – perhaps it was the one who introduced you to the Gospel…your mother – or perhaps your Sunday School teacher – and of course there is a place for wise teaching. But you know – sooner or later you have to decide how to order your own life. That your mother – or Sunday School Teacher or Bible class leader or Minister or wise friend happens to be a good Christian won’t necessarily help you when it comes to your own situational choices in later life.
Yet the judgements made of others are all around us.
You don’t have to look far before you encounter those comforting discriminations that keep our society what it is today. Howick with its new Asian population is still called Chowick by those who don’t like Asians. Christians often see their version of religion as superior to that of the Muslims. If you believe Christians are mainly folk of good-will perhaps you should look sometime at the variety of vitriolic sites on the internet attacking the followers of Islam.
I am indebted to the Progressive Christianity website of Rex Hunt for the following quote:
‘A sense that there is an enemy marks many societies, religious and otherwise. It is almost as though we need an enemy, an other, against whom to define ourselves. This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, and even create enemies for survival… A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning. There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’. The simpler, the better. This is the stuff of prejudice. Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’ ( sourced from Loader/web site).
Yet sometimes we have blindness about ourselves. Perhaps we shpould finish with the following from a work called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
“If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
If we insist on judging it could be that first we ought to start with ourselves.
POSSIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
Do suicide bombers and other terrorists influence our opinions about Islam, and is this what is meant by Jesus in his caution about us passing judgement?
Presumably anti–Christian terrorists are motivated to take their chosen course of action, so how do you think they see Christians? – and more importantly why?
Are civilians who are casualties in war equivalent to civilians who are casualties as a consequence of terrorist action?
Under what circumstances do you consider military action to be justified?
Which of the major modern conflicts reflect Christian responsibilities?
If circumstances of birth and upbringing are a major influence in a local population’s selection of faith, are we justified in wanting those with different upbringing to adopt our faith?
Should missionary attempts work both ways? Eg Islamic and Hindu attempts to proselytise Christians be the equivalent of Christian missionary enterprise among Hindus and Muslims?
Under what circumstances do you consider military action to be justified?
Are there some Christian distortions so bad as to require our judgement of heresy?
Regardless of Jesus caution about judgement are there minimal standards required of those who wish to join our branch of faith? (cf Pope Francis’ declaration that the Mafia were to be excommunicated) – if so what?
NB It would be good if those who do work through these questions were to share their answers to encourage others’ thought.