These Parables: Tares in the Field of the Lord

I remember with special affection a certain professor of mine who once said to a prolific rival: “I see you’ve written another book. What are you calling it this time?”

In the same way, commentators often lump Christ’s parable of the tares in the field (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) with His parable of the fishing net (Matthew 13:47-50), as though Our Lord were repeating Himself or improvising on a theme. In the former parable, a man sows his field with good grain seed, but his enemy steals into the field at night and sows tares, a kind of weed, among that good seed. In the latter parable, a net thrown into the sea draws in both good fish and bad, like the good and bad seed.

While repetition is central to Hebrew poetry (the Psalms echo verses by way of paraphrase, to intensify the feeling), no true disciple of Jesus can think that He simply runs out of imagination. The parable of the tares stands on its own, calling us to exercise patience with the human will as it exercises its God-given freedom.

Nothing is perfect in this vale of tears: All things are beautiful through the right lens, but God alone is perfect. Muslim weavers emphasize this point when they intentionally weave a discordant thread into every rug in order to avoid blasphemy. A prelate once grandly told those he was confirming: “All of us are sinners and have missed the mark, even I.” The Church Militant here on earth basks in perfection from afar, while the Church Triumphant in heaven has already become perfect. Until the end of time, we are a mixed crop of saints and sinners.

Pope John Paul II has been saying this in his public expressions of sorrow for the crimes of those who professed themselves to be Christians, as have the Polish bishops who publicly repudiated a massacre of Jews by townspeople during World War II.

Catholics in America might consider performing in the near future some public act of contrition for the recent plague of miscreant church renovators and the vulgarities visited on Catholic altars.

Sins are scandals, but sinners have always mixed with saints, and even the past sins of the saints should not surprise us. St. Augustine used the parable of the tares to confound the Donatists, ultra-rigorous Christians who demanded the excommunication of their more lax brethren who had denied their faith rather than suffer martyrdom. The parable applies to contemporary Catholics who want their history airbrushed and who paint their saints with perfect complexions and capped teeth.

Evil is a presence inevitable, though not unavoidable, in consequence of the fall of man: “It is necessary that scandals come,” Christ said (Matthew 18:7). The secular observer can miss this, for his mind is busy abusing religion for being religious and simultaneously faulting religious people for not being religious enough. Secular editors note that Hitler was baptized more often than they note that St. Francis of Assisi was also baptized.

The parable also shatters the Calvinist solution to the problem of evil—that human beings are born depraved for the bad seed comes after the good seed in Christ’s telling. In the beginning, the field was good, and the first seed was good. Nature is not originally evil, and so we can reject Calvinism and Manicheanism and Jansenism and every modern pessimistic obfuscation of the sacramental life that gives grace to sinners. When the Master planted the wheat, He set in motion every baptism, marriage, and ordination. The tares were sown only the next morning.

The enemy steals into the garden when good men slumber (during His agony in the garden, Jesus found Peter, James, and John sleeping). The enemy never sows tares by daylight (Jesus was captured in the night and denied by Peter in the night). The enemy obscures lucidity with euphemisms and cloaks with pride the consciences of bright minds. Lucifer’s light-bearing name is ironic, for his is the art of turning the light inside out, of casting high noon into midnight.

The Church is not our invention, and it certainly is not our possession. Therefore, we may not force it to conform to our grand visions of perfection. It was wrong to burn heretics, for while error has no rights, the erroneous do. Savonarola told the bishop who pronounced eternal damnation on him that he might damn him on earth but that God has the final word. If the tares are plucked violently, the very plucking could destroy the wheat.

Tares there are, but a harvest awaits. And this can be a consolation. For the saints are the wheat and, in the imagery of St. Ignatius of Antioch, can look forward to being ground for fine bread. All in good time. God is God and the source of the holiness of His Church. Its infallible witness against lies and its supernatural power over evil may well seem exasperating when they take the form of patience with sinners. But taken for what they are, with a dose of happy humility, they become a hymn: “I have power to lay down my life, and power to take it up again.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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