Wheat, Weeds, and the End of the Age: What the Parable of the Tares Says About the World Today

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and He would not speak anything to them without a parable, so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled:

I will open My mouth in parables;
I will declare things kept secret
from the foundation of the world.

Then He dismissed the crowds and went into the house. His disciples approached Him and said, “Explain the parable of the weeds in the field to us.”

He replied: “The One who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; and the good seed—these are the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Therefore, just as the weeds are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Anyone who has ears should listen!” (Matthew 13:24-43)

When Jesus finished this first series of parables, ushering in a way of teaching that would become characteristic of his ministry from that time forward, Matthew stops to comment on the significance of them. To do so, he quotes two verses from Psalm 78.

Rebellion and Faithfulness

As always, it’s worth going back to the Old Testament to see the quote in context. Psalm 78 is a long psalm recounting the mighty works of God in Israel’s history and lamenting their continual, self-destructive rejection of him despite his faithfulness and constant care.

Matthew quotes the psalm here not only because it describes Jesus’s way of teaching but also because it highlights the response of the crowds: like the Israelites in history, most rejected the truth when it came to them.

This passage from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, commenting on Psalm 78:17-31, could just as well describe the crowds in Jesus’s day, who increasingly followed him in order to see miracles, eat bread, or take part in the excitement and gossip surrounding him, but who simultaneously rejected him as Messiah and refused to believe his message:

In response to the evidences of God, the people rebelled. They refused to believe, even in the face of the evidence. They were skeptical about God’s ability to provide food in the desert … The unbelieving generation was condemned because the people were not overwhelmed by God’s ability to deliver. They were not concerned with God or the wonders of God but were fleshly in their basic orientation to life. They ‘craved’ food and died in their lust. True faith looks beyond the gifts to the giver, the Lord of Glory.

Wondrously, though, God did not abandon his faithless people in the days described by this psalm — the early days of Israel in the wilderness, followed by the increasingly faithless and wicked period of the judges, when the nation’s corruption nearly caused it to self-destruct.

And his answer to the problem all the way back then was to raise up a king, the earthly ancestor of Jesus, the precursor and foreshadow of Christ:

He chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loved.
He built his sanctuary like the heights,
like the earth that he established forever.
He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skillful hands he led them.
(Psalm 78:68-72)

Explain This to Us

Finished with his parables, Jesus dismissed the crowds and went inside. While his last two parables — the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast — were fairly easy to understand, the same was not true of the parable of the wheat and the tares.

So, as they’d earlier done with the parable of the sower, the disciples came and asked Jesus to explain it to them. It was a good thing to do. I wonder if, in doing it, they had an image in their minds of the evil one in the guise of a thieving crow, hopping along the hard ground waiting to snatch away seed that was not understood. An image like that can knock a little fear into you, of the good kind.

It takes humility to admit that you don’t understand something, especially when that something has been transmitted in story form and you have already been told that the purpose of the story is to keep something hidden from the masses that has been revealed to you — “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them” (Matthew 13:11).

I imagine it was tempting, if you were a disciple, to pretend to know exactly what Jesus was talking about and hope the others had gotten it and would explain it to you later — without, of course, having to admit that you didn’t know it all along.

But if they suffered from that temptation, they got over it. They asked: “Explain the parable to us.”

It’s good for us that they did, and equally, it would benefit us to learn from them in this regard. Let’s all remember that crow in the parable of the sower, throw pride to the wind, and start pressing Jesus, “Explain this to us.”

Wheat, Tares, and Final Judgment

In answer to their question, Jesus retold the story of the wheat and the tares as a picture of final judgment. As we saw in the previous post on this topic, there are two primary sowers in the world: Jesus himself, and the devil. What Jesus sows results in “sons of the kingdom”; what the devil sows results in “sons of the evil one.”

In other words, each brings forth after his own kind — the words of God contain the life of God, and the words of the devil contain the nature of the devil. What we receive will grow in us and ultimately determine whose likeness we bear.

(In the same passage in John where Jesus called the devil “a liar, and the father of it,” he also connected the enemy’s lies to his offspring: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do” (John 8:44, NKJV).)

These two crops would be allowed to grow together in the field (which, Jesus says, is the world) until the end of the age. At that time he would send out his angels to harvest the earth. The wheat, the sons of the kingdom planted by God and grown into maturity, would come home. The tares, the sons of the devil planted by the enemy, would ultimately be thrown away.

The Part Nobody Expected

Recall that the parables are specifically about the “secrets” (or mysteries) of the kingdom — those characteristics of God’s kingdom that were not expected by anyone until Jesus came.

It was not a secret that God would eventually judge the world; this was a well-established expectation. What appears to be different about Jesus’s teaching is the idea that “the sons of the kingdom” — the righteous — and the wicked would grow up together until the very end of the age.

Thinking about this in the context of Jesus’s contemporaries, the implication is that the kingdom of God would come, just as they expected — but unlike their expectations, it would not result in the immediate expulsion and overthrow of the wicked.

Against expectations that the Messiah would purge Israel of unfaithfulness, of pagan and Gentile cultural influence, and of the Romans and Greeks themselves, God’s king would instead allow his people to live right alongside of them all. Everyone would grow, everyone would continue to advance, everyone would go right on living and prospering.

The separation wouldn’t come until the very end of the age, and then it wouldn’t be human beings forcing the purge through warfare, but angels sorting out earth’s harvest at the very end.

The question asked by the workers in the parable — “Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?” — is our question. “Stamp out the problem immediately, before it gets any worse” tends to be our preferred solution to issues like this.

But Jesus had a very different view — “‘No,’ he said. ‘When you gather up the weeds, you might also uproot the wheat with them” (Matthew 13:29). He knew that premature judgment would result in widespread destruction, and he wasn’t willing to cut off the wicked at the expense of any child of God who had yet to reach harvest.

He was not willing to bring judgment until the world had come to full maturity, and apparently, from his standpoint 2000 years ago, that was still a long way off.

But this wouldn’t be a problem: despite the assumptions of human beings, the kingdom would not need the ground to be cleared in order to grow. It could do just fine right in the middle of the wicked world.

This does, I think, have implications for us. We also tend to be very concerned with the godlessness of the world around us and to feel that it must spell the end for the church, or at least very serious danger; and we also tend to think that if we could just somehow purify everyone else, the result would be faithfulness to God.

Jesus would seem to be saying this is not the case — that our “solutions” might come at far too high a cost.

He also seems to be saying that we can have faith in the resilience of his kingdom. After all, it’s not really a normal thing for a landowner to let weeds proliferate in his fields. Most farmers would clear them. But Jesus was so confident in the ability of his seed to grow under adverse conditions that he felt it was better to let those conditions remain.

Final Destinations

In its conclusion, the parable of the wheat and tares picks up imagery used in other places in Matthew to describe the final end of humanity.

One end is destruction, being thrown into the furnace like weeds that lack any purpose or use. This was the warning of John the Baptist, way back in Matthew 3:12: “His winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn. But the chaff He will burn up with fire that never goes out.”

The other end is glory: “The righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” This too is an old promise:

Those who are wise will shine
like the bright expanse of the heavens,
and those who lead many to righteousness,
like the stars forever and ever.
(Daniel 12:3)

John the Baptist also said, in the instant before he warned that some would burn up like chaff, “He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

The transformation begun in us when the kingdom of God arrives in our hearts is not a small one. We don’t go from this ordinary, mundane existence to an equally mundane (but longer) existence in heaven. Ours is a journey of fire, and it ends in fire: the pure presence of holiness and unimaginable love, the radiant glory of the everlasting God.

The mystery, of course, is that all of this begins with a single seed: a word from God, falling on our hearts, beginning to take root, beginning to grow.

Conditions aren’t perfect.

Evil is growing too.

But in the end, it is the kingdom of God that will prevail.

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This is Part 226 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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2 responses to “Wheat, Weeds, and the End of the Age: What the Parable of the Tares Says About the World Today”

  1. Jerry Rogers Avatar

    Very insightful entry, and i enjoyed many of the practical insights, such as we have to realize there will not be an immediate expulsion of the wicked until God’s timing is correct, for example. Thanks for writing post.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thank you, sir!

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