The Wheat and the Tares in a Modern Context
It is all very well to state the blindingly obvious that the times they are a changing. What is not nearly so clear is to decide what the changing times mean for our way of thinking package which includes our faith, our customs and our attitudes to one another.
Let’s think for a moment about just one of the more dramatic changes. I would suggest that one of the biggest shifts for many communities around the world is that a significant proportion of local populations are now increasingly confronted with those who do not share their background. Gone are the myriad of isolated backwaters where generation upon generation may have lived in the same community untroubled by those over the horizon who spoke different languages, or those who had chosen to live with different political and religious systems.
I would have to admit that if my own observations of my own community are anything to go by, as the sense of equilibrium is threatened, all too often the response comes across as unwaranted judgment. For example you are probabaly aware that a number of news sources have been running stories about the worsening attitude to Muslim immigrants in non Muslim nations. Hot off the press last Monday are the results of the latest six month review of hate crimes by an advocacy group called CAIR which stands for the Council on American-Islamic relations. Evidently in the first six months of this year (2017) there was a 91% increase in reported hate crimes compared with the same period last year against Muslims in the US. Although the Trump move to have Muslims from some nations banned from entering the country appears to have been put on temporary hold, we might also remember and reflect that the polls claim President Trump’s immigration proposals appear to have the strong support of conservative Christians for this policy.
If today’s gospel reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares is still valid for the modern Christians, they would be hard put to square support for prejudging Muslim immigrants with what today’s parable seems to be teaching.
Of all Jesus’ parables, given the tensions there are to day with the number of refugees continuing to climb and the frequent expressions of discomfort as followers of different faiths find themselves in disagreement with those who have unfamiliar customs and beliefs, this parable seems curiously appropriate for a modern age.
Jesus chose a farming analogy to make his point. The Greek word translated from Mathhew is about “Zinzania” – the weed that fools you. The commentators suggest he was talking about is better known as Darnel. Note that it is not the darnel itself which is poisonous. Darnel by itself is perfectly edible. The problem is that darnel is host to a fungus called the Ergot Smut fungus, which causes the ill-effects. Bread contaminated with this fungus is poisonous. Initially the sprouting darnel – the “zinzania” – looks superficially like wheat. Later on it does become more obvious – because 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 a wheat paddock once growth is underway is damaging for the subsequent harvest time.
Back in Jesus’ time the standard solution was to reap above the height of the darnel –whereas these days, the wheat and weeds go through a thrasher that first removes the chaff from the wheat and run it over a sieve to allow the smaller Darnel to fall through and be cast off with the chaff. The deadly fungus goes away with the darnel.
Jesus’ main point was of course that, like the tares and the wheat, with people of claimed faith we cannot make an early judgment as to which are the real deal and which ones are the ones with the poison.
Although I suspect it is a well-known and widely shared story, there is always the temptation to assume that one’s own group are the ones with the real truth whereas the others are the poison (or in faith terms the hypocrites). For example for Protestants there is an assumption that the Protestant faith of the moment is the right one and infinitely better than for example, the faith of the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Jehovah’s Witness, The Catholic or the Mormon.
Yet serious reflection makes us remember that any religious label will be no real guide to what the follower has understood and is starting to live. Catholic religious leaders who were accused a few days ago of historic charges of multiple cases of sexual assault on children in a world famous German choir were unlikely to be following Christian principles any more than an honest and caring Muslim should be confused with a suicide bomber.
Remember the parable teaches 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.
It seems reasonable to suggest 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 towards 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 one path to understanding, 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 example 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.
While we may lack empathy for those with other faiths 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 existence 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.
Yet sometimes we have blindness about ourselves. Perhaps we should 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.