Tearing out the Tares

One vital point in understanding the parable of the wheat and the tares is that the two plants are very difficult to distinguish until they bear fruit.

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed [tares] among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the [tares] appeared also.

And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have [tares]?”

He said to them, “An enemy has done this.”

So the servants said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?”

But he said, “No, lest in gathering the [tares] you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the [tares] first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

Matthew 13:24-30 ESV
(I changed “weeds” changed to “tares” in this quote for clarity.)

When I was growing up, I heard this parable taught many times in Sunday School. The point made most often was this: Watch out for those tares. They look like real Christians, but that’s only a disguise on the outside. God knows what’s really in their hearts, and at the judgment, he will be able to tell them apart. The wheat will go to heaven, while the tares will go to hell. So don’t be like the tares. Be a real Christian, all the way through.

That’s good advice and all true as far as it goes, but it’s not complete. What about the man’s instructions to his servants?

Don’t pull out the tares, lest in doing so, you root up the wheat along with them.

I quoted the full parable in Matthew 13 at the top of this article from the English Standard Version, but I think this is one of those few cases where the ESV is clearly wrong. Certainly a tare is a kind of weed, but it’s a specific kind of weed, and that fact is important to the parable. I changed that word in the quote to make sure that point isn’t lost.

Fausset’s Bible Dictionary says this about the tare:

Darnel; at first impossible to distinguish from wheat or barley, until the wheat’s ear is developed, when the thin fruitless ear of the darnel is detected. Its root too so intertwines with that of the wheat that the farmer cannot separate them, without plucking up both, “till the time of harvest.” The seed is like wheat, but smaller and black, and when mixed with wheat flour causes dizziness, intoxication, and paralysis; Lolium temulentum, “bearded darnel”, the only deleterious grain among all the numerous grasses. (Fausset’s Bible Dictionary)

The landowner in Yeshua’s parable didn’t want his servants to weed out the tares because of three distinctive features:

  1. The tares are nearly indistinguishable from the wheat throughout most of their lifecycle. A worker, being unable to tell the difference, might pull up wheat and tares indiscriminately.
  2. The roots of the tares intertwine with those of the wheat, so that, even if correctly identified, removing them might still remove neighboring wheat plants.
  3. When they begin to ripen, the tares finally become evident to even the most untrained worker. All of the plants can be cut together and the tares separated out by hand.

Besides the Sunday School lesson I referenced above, what can we learn from this?

There are three kinds of believers that can be described as tares:

  1. Hypocrites who appear like saints to everyone else, but who harbor secret sins.
  2. The licentious who justify their behavior using alternative translations or interpretations of Scripture.
  3. Heretics who profess extra-Biblical revelation or who rely on obscure, mystical interpretations of Scripture to support a belief that could never be derived from a plain reading of the text.

Did you notice that I worded each of those to influence your opinion against the people being described?

Christians (and Jews and every other religious group…maybe I should just say “people”) have a long history of attacking their own over seemingly minor disagreements. We let our emotional attachments to our own opinions trump reason, knowledge, and love, and in the end, all we accomplish is destruction. We are like the servants in Yeshua’s parable, but instead of asking him what we should do, we take it upon ourselves to pull up what we perceive to be tares.

Let me give you some examples of the three types I listed above.

Secret Sins

A deacon at your church is respected and liked by the congregation. He has served honorably for many years. But recently you saw him exchange envelopes with a strange man in a restaurant. Was it a drug deal? A blackmail payoff?

This man looks like wheat to everyone else, but now you’ve seen something that makes you wonder if he might be a tare. Should you expose him?

What has he actually done? Did you see drugs, money, photos…anything actually bad at all? In reality, all you saw was two men exchanging envelopes. It could be a contract, landscape design, or project specs. You don’t really know anything at all.

God’s Law doesn’t authorize us to snoop in other people’s private lives. (See “So Shall You Purge the Evil from Your Midst“.) If someone is flaunting their sin or if it becomes public knowledge somehow, that’s another story, but if someone has sin in their closet that nobody knows about except him and God, then leave it be. You don’t know what unwarranted damage you might cause by meddling where you don’t belong.

Differences of Opinion

Reasonable and well-meaning people will have different opinions on what God’s instructions mean. That’s normal. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

One person believes they should never eat meat sacrificed to idols, while someone else believes it’s okay as long as you don’t participate in the ritual itself. They both might feel very strongly that they are right and that the other person is engaging in legalism or idolatry. They both love God with all their hearts and do all they can to help their neighbors, but based on this one issue, they are ready to excommunicate each other.

They have both identified the other as a tare, when in reality they are both wheat. Being wrong about something doesn’t condemn a person to hell or make them into a wolf in sheeps clothing. It just means that they’re wrong about something.

We all believe things that other people don’t, even things that seem to us to have clear and incontrovertible support from Scripture. Investigate why others believe the way they do, and you will almost certainly find that they have good reasons, and aren’t in rebellion against God. When we find ourselves on the opposite side of an issue from knowledgable and godly people, we need to step back and acknowledge that we might be wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to change your mind. It only means that you need to extend a little grace to your brothers and sisters in Yeshua when the Bible isn’t quite as black and white as we would like it to be.

Religious Dogmas and Esoteric Theories

Infant baptism or only adults? Sprinkling or immersion? Trinitarianism or unitarianism? Yeshua or Yahusha? Cessationism or continuationism? Young earth creationism or theistic evolution? There are countless more examples of controversies within Christendom that have no real impact on how we look or behave.

If you keep the Sabbath and don’t bow down to any graven images, does it really matter if you believe that God does or doesn’t have semi-autonomous parts? Nope.

If you don’t murder or steal, what practical difference does it make if you call the Messiah Jesus, Yeshua, or Yahusha? Zilch.

Does believing that the earth is 6000 years old or 5 billion years old matter if you honor your parents and respect your neighbor’s property? Not a bit.

Does reading the Bible in English make you any more or less a Christian than reading it in Latin? Christ didn’t read the Scriptures in either one, so I can’t see how it could.

These are matters of vain philosophy and imagination. They are myths and just-so story telling. Yet so-called devout Christians have killed each other over these issues because they refused to heed the parable of the wheat and the tares. In attempting to uproot what they believed was a tare, they caused hatred and division in the Body of Messiah. They destroyed lives, both innocent and guilty, and they continue to do so today by accusing their brothers and attacking one another over relatively trivial matters.

Deuteronomy 29:29 says “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The secret things that belong to God are sins that are done in secret as well as those things that God has not chosen to reveal to us in any detail.

The Bible hints at many things that are not explained in depth and never addresses many others. For example, there are a number of instances in the Old Testament in which an angel is referred to as God. There are seven spirits of God. In mystical language, John said that Yeshua is God, and then there is the Holy Spirit, but the Scriptures also say that God is one. So is God one, three, or seven? We are created in God’s image, yet God doesn’t have a body. We have a body, so how can we be made in the image of a God that doesn’t? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and the plain fact is that neither does anyone else. God is God, and he is beyond human comprehension. He has not chosen to give us a detailed description of himself or his anatomy, and if he had, we shouldn’t expect to understand it anymore than an amoeba would understand ours.

Only pride insists otherwise.

When we insist, in the guise of stamping out heresy, on attacking one another over questions to which nobody could possibly know the answers or that don’t have any practical application, then we are like hamfisted workers, carelessly tearing out good wheat with bad tares because we think we know better than our master.

In our zeal to purify the Body of Messiah, we have tainted it by filling our hearts with hatred.

There are things that are clear in Scripture. In the context of the parable, we might say that thistles are easy to tell from wheat. Someone with spiritual eyes to see and hands to touch will never confuse the two. If you can uproot what is clearly evil without harming what appears to be good, do so. This is also part of our master’s instructions.

Open homosexuality, murder, theft, idolatry… Only those who are are in active rebellion against God and his Law will defend them. These things mark the truly reprobate from the righteous, and we are commanded by God to remove them from our communities to prevent their spread. We aren’t authorized to go looking for them in people’s closets, but if they are revealed, then we have to deal with them.

Speculations about esoteric matters that have not been revealed to us can be interesting, even enlightening at times, but are more often simply a waste of time. As long as they don’t lead people to reject what has been revealed or to behave contrary to God’s commands, they aren’t worth fighting over and driving off good people.

In the end, even every stalk of grass will be known by its fruit, and sometimes we just need to let them all grow and leave it to the Master to sort them out.

The master wanted his servants to wait for the harvest because there are things they don’t know. They can’t see the roots of those tares. They can’t see the DNA that truly defines one from the other. There’s a good chance they can’t even tell the difference between the wheat and the tares by looking directly at them.

Those things that God has not chosen to reveal to us are his business, not ours.

The Two Trees of Moses

Ecclesiastes 12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!

Proverbs 3:18 Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.

God placed two distinct trees in the Garden of Eden and told Adam that he could eat of one–the Tree of Life–but not the other–the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. You know the story. Adam ate from the wrong tree and died spiritually, condemning all mankind with him. He was exiled from the Garden.

God’s Law (aka Torah) also is a tree of life. Moses said that those who keep it will live and those who do not will be cursed. In Deuteronomy 29:18-20, he described a man who chose the other tree, who said, “I know better than God what is good for me. I don’t need a book to tell me what is good and evil, and I will be blessed despite my flagrant disregard of Torah.” Moses said, “God will not overlook his transgressions. God’s anger and jealousy will smolder against him, and all the curses of the Torah will settle on him, and God will blot out his name from under heaven.”

Proverbs 14:12 There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

Choosing to keep Torah is choosing to submit to God and acknowledge his lordship and superior understanding. Rejecting Torah is claiming to be greater than God or, at the very least, to be equal. This was the same temptation Satan used to persuade Eve in the Garden.

If obedience to God’s Law brings life, as God and his prophets clearly stated many times in Scripture, why then was Israel rejected? Why were they scattered and persecuted as if they had not obeyed?

Paul wrote that Israel followed after “a law of righteousness” in their Zeal for God, but they never attained it. (Romans 9:31) They didn’t really submit themselves to God because they didn’t really have faith in him. The had faith in themselves and submitted to a law mostly created by men. They said, in effect, “If obedience is good, greater obedience must be better,” and added a host of rules on top of God’s commands.

Legalism replaced God's Law with man's. Obedience to God's Law is not legalism.
Legalism replaces God’s Law with man’s, while licentiousness ignores God’s Law. Reject both. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

The Jewish teachers rejected the essence of Torah, and chose love of knowledge and tradition over love of God and man. In trying to gain life, they rejected it in favor of self, and they lost both. They failed to see that, although Torah can enhance one’s life in the here and now, its ultimate end is the salvation of the soul. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes.”

The story isn’t over, yet, though. We have all been redeemed from Adam’s sin if we repent. Just so, God promised to restore Israel and punish those who persecute her. As Israel repents and elevates her love and fear of God over her love of tradition, she is even now being regathered from her long exile.

Deuteronomy 30:1-6 And it shall be when all these things have come on you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and when you shall call them to mind among all the nations where YHWH your God has driven you, and shall return to YHWH your God and shall obey His voice according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, with all your heart, and with all your soul, then YHWH your God will turn your captivity. And He will have compassion on you, and will return and gather you from all the nations where YHWH your God has scattered you….And YHWH your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed, to love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.

Be Ye Perfect Right Now or Else!

Torah teaches us the meaning of grace and mercy.God wants us to keep His law, but He doesn’t expect perfection. He never did or else Torah1 wouldn’t include instructions for handling missteps. You will fail, but it will be OK in the end if you trust in God. That doesn’t mean obedience is optional. Knowingly disregarding what God has told you to do is the same as rejecting God himself. Either He is King or He isn’t.

Studying and living Torah helps a person to develop a better understanding of God’s character. It teaches us what mercy and grace really mean, and it should give one great hope in God’s goodness. Consider that the blessings & curses of Torah are guaranteed to the nation of Israel2, of which we have been made citizens, but the curses are temporary. If you repent, God is eager to forgive. According to Torah, all of Israel will repent. Whatever she has done in the intervening eras, she will return to Torah and to her Husband, and she will be restored in full.

See Deuteronomy 30:1-5 & Romans 7:25-8:4.

I talk a lot about “Law”. Keep the Sabbath. Keep the commandments. Study Torah. Et cetera. Sometimes I’m afraid that I give the wrong impression.

Recently I had a conversation with a man who couldn’t understand why I say that followers of Jesus should be keeping Torah. I explained from Scripture how Paul fought a persistent battle against Jewish teachers who taught that new converts must keep the whole Torah plus all of the rules that men had added to it (the “burden that neither we nor our fathers were able to bear”) in order to be saved. The Jerusalem Council refuted this false teaching, instead giving new converts four simple rules to start with, expecting that they would continue to study the Word and grow in maturity and righteous behavior. Obedience to God’s Law has never been a requirement for salvation, but it has always been a standard of behavior for God’s people.

When I had answered all of the man’s questions, he was in a near panic. He said he would pray about this because, if he had unrepented sin in his life, he needed to fix it right NOW! The next morning he said that the Spirit had told him that I was wrong and that Jesus cancelled all of the old laws and gave us new ones.

To be honest, I was relieved. This man clearly had an unbalanced perspective on sin, believing that any error would endanger his salvation. He was already a legalist. If he had been convinced that it’s a sin to work on the Sabbath or eat bacon, I’m afraid he would have become what’s known in Messianic Jewish circles as a Torah terrorist. I think you probably can guess what that means. A new set of rules to obsess over was the last thing he needed.

Long after Paul became a disciple of Jesus, he admitted that he still sinned. He didn’t like it, but he had to be honest.

For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Romans 7:19-20)

The Apostles didn’t tell new converts to stop all sin immediately. That would just be replacing one unbearable yoke with another one. They gave them just four things:

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. (Acts 15:28-29)

But that didn’t mean that it was now okay to steal and kill. This list was never intended to be the sum total of righteous behavior. It was just a place to start. “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21)

The fact is–and we all need to face this–nobody in this life will ever be sinless. It is completely beyond our power to be perfect. As a much greater man than I once said, If we could be saved by good behavior, then Christ would have died for nothing. Thank God for His grace and mercy!

I’m not excusing anybody’s sin. God hates it and wants us to keep working it out of our lives. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul said. What he didn’t say was, “Do it right now or you’re going to hell.”

I’m going to give you the same advice that I gave to my friend, the same advice that James and the Jerusalem Council gave to the new converts at Antioch: Start with the big stuff, the things that cause you and your community and God the most grief. Next, work on those behaviors that the Holy Spirit convicts you of personally. Finally, keep studying, praying, worshiping, and fellowshipping.

Trust me. If you follow this plan, you will find no end of sins to work on.

 

1 Torah is God’s Law as written in the books of Moses. Extra-Biblical Jewish writings are the work of men. Some of it’s good–some isn’t–but it isn’t Torah. The same thing goes for extra-Biblical Christian writings.
2 The “nation of Israel” is not the modern state of Israel, although there must certainly be significant overlap.

An Invitation to Behold

“Behold, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26 ESV…sort of.)

We are all sufficiently able to understand God’s commands to keep them by simply hearing them. They aren’t complicated. They were intended to be understood and followed by poorly educated laborers and herders. As Moses said later,

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 ESV)

None-the-less, there is more to Torah and to the blessings and curses that it contains than is easily discernible in a strict, literal reading. There are treasures to be found if you look closely.

Every single parsha* tells of the Messiah and his role as the redeemer of all mankind, but Moses didn’t highlight those bits with a yellow marker. You have to look under the surface text. You have to see, to behold. Many passages contain layer upon layer of meaning bringing guidance and understanding to our relationships with each other and with the Creator. To discover those layers, you have to look closely and from different angles.

This is a command to pay attention to the blessings and curses, but beneath the plain text, it is also an invitation to search the Torah more deeply.

* Thousands of years ago, the Pentateuch (aka Torah) was divided up into portions called parshim (plural) or parsha (singular). Each week almost every Jewish and Messianic congregation around the world reads and studies the same parsha.

Because He Said So

Deu 28:1-2 – And it will be, if you shall listen carefully to the voice of Yahweh your God, to observe and to do all His commandments which I command you today, Yahweh your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come on you and overtake you, if you will listen to the voice of Yahweh your God….Deu 28:58-59 If you will not observe to do all the words of this Law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and fearful name, Yahweh Elohim, then Yahweh will make your plagues remarkable, and the plagues of your seed great and persistent plagues; with evil and long-lasting sicknesses….Deu 29:1 These are the words of the covenant which Yahweh commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb….Deu 29:9-11 Therefore, keep the words of this covenant and do them, so that you may act wisely in all that you do. You stand today, all of you, before Yahweh your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp, from the cutter of your wood to the drawer of your water…

Deu 29:14 – Nor do I make this covenant and this oath with you only, but with him who stands here with us today before Yahweh our God, and also with him that is not here with us today.

MKJV

The Law of God applies to all men in all times who would please him by their lives: civil, religious, military, and familial leaders; men, women, and children; foreign laborers; everyone near and far, and more; all who have left the world to be called by God’s name. Once we have come out of the world (aka Egypt) to serve him, he expects us to follow his rules.

We do not obey for salvation from the final death, because Israel was saved from death in Egypt by the blood of the Passover lamb and baptized by their passage through the Red Sea before ever receiving this Covenant. Their faith in God’s promise saved them, not circumcision or observance of the Sabbath. He wants us to obey his rules, because they are his rules. Although the Law was given for our own prosperity, it is not optional. How can we call him Lord and then act as if his commands are merely helpful suggestions?

Sept 6, 2007, update: Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our sons forever, so that we may do all the words of this Law.” Among the “secret things” are many whys. Why should we worship this way and not that way? Why does it matter if a pig doesn’t chew its cud or if a rabbit doesn’t have split hooves? What difference does it make if the ashes are of a red heifer or of a Holstein? We can speculate about the things God hasn’t told us, but when push comes to shove, what matters is obedience. If we really have faith in God, we will obey his Word, especially when we don’t understand it.

Sept 10, 2007, update: I’ve heard two interpretations of “secret things.”

  1. Deep mysteries that are irrelevant to us, are beyond our comprehension, or that might harm us if revealed. The revealed things are those which we can sense or examine.
  2. Secret sins–victimless crimes–that God deals with privately so long as they are not flaunted. The revealed things are those which are made public and have identifiably direct victims, such as murder, theft, and adultery.

In this post I dealt with the first interpretation, but I think they are probably both correct in different contexts.

Under the Law of Christ

The Law of God is both life and death depending on how it is used.What is 4? 4 is 2+2. It is also 2*2, the square root of 16, 2^2, 4*1, 100/25, a representation of the Messiah, a common term of a first enlistment in the army, and the month of April. If, in the course of a math lesson on squares, I ask “What is 4?” and you reply “April,” I would say “Wrong. 4 is not April; it is the square of 2.” I would be correct and you would be incorrect, but only in that context. In a discussion on calendars, “April” might be just what I was looking for.

The Torah (sometimes ambiguously known as “the law”) is both life and death. It is death in that if we try to earn our salvation by adherence to it, we will only earn death. It is life in that it is God’s standard for human behavior and teaches us how to live with each other and with God. If, in the course of a lecture on obtaining salvation, I ask “What is the Torah?” and you reply “Life,” I would say “Wrong. The Torah is not life; it is death.” I would be correct in that context. But if, in the course of a lecture on living peacefully with your neighbor or on crime and punishment, you answer “Life,” I would say “Correct! The Torah preserves our lives and teaches us how to live with our fellows in a way that is pleasing to God.

“We are not under the law” does not mean that we cannot learn from it or that we must reject every teaching of the Torah that was not explicitly retaught by one of the Apostles after Jesus’ death and resurrection.1 It means that we are no longer subject to the eternal consequences of the Law. If we fail, we do not lose our souls. To be under the Law is to be below, inferior to the Law. We are not inferior to the Law, because Jesus fulfilled its requirements. The Law does not rule us, because we have been redeemed from our obligation to it by the blood of the Lamb. The Law does not condemn us because the handwriting of the accusations and curses against us has been washed away2 and there is no witness against us. That is what it means to be “under the Law:” to be condemned by it because we remain under the Law of death, which is the Law that requires our death.

Obeying the Law, not as a means of salvation or of justification, but out of love for God and in obedience to God, is not being “under the law.” It is being willingly and gratefully obedient to the commands of God without fear of failure or condemnation, because we have forgiveness and because the price for our failure has already been paid. That does not mean that we are now free to behave as we wish, to ignore God’s teachings concerning his Law. That would be the ultimate insult to our Messiah. Was he killed so that we could spit in God’s face? We are no longer inferior to the Law, but we heed God’s teachings concerning it, because to do otherwise is to spite God.

The sole purpose of the Law (or the Torah, God’s teachings concerning the Law) is not to condemn anyone. That is one purpose. Even if that was its only purpose, it would still be worth using as a standard of behavior. How could it condemn anyone if it was not a standard of righteousness? Can anyone be condemned for doing something right? If anyone is condemned by the Law, it is because of their disobedience and not their obedience. It follows then that disobedience to the Law is undesirable, whatever its affects. If we are forgiven for our disobedience are we then free to disobey at will? That’s absurd! If disobedience condemns, obedience does not.

If we rely on obedience to the Law for our salvation, we will be condemned because we cannot obey everything perfectly. Our obedience to the Law in such a state is a curse, because it is so much wasted effort, and the Law is death to us. If we are forgiven and the accusations against us are blotted out, then our obedience to the Law is a blessing to God and to us. Our obedience to the Law in that state is life, and not death.

1 Romans 5:8-6:23 expresses the core sentiments of this article more eloquently than I ever could.
2 Numbers 5:11-31