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Matthew 13.3 Parables_The Tares of the Field Alford.jpg

Parables: The Tares of the Field

Parables:  The Tares of the Field

Matt. 13:3

“He spake many things unto them in parables.”

In considering and applying the sacred Doctrines relating to our blessed Lord’s Person and office, one of the chief sources of our knowledge must of necessity be found in His own discourses. He Himself said to the Jews, “I am, that which I speak unto you.” He is His own best expositor.

Now in studying His discourses, one peculiarity cannot fail to strike us, which they have even amongst the sayings of inspiration itself. All these sayings are equally true, but they are not all equally deep and manifold in their meaning. Some sayings, for example, of the Apostles, are very simple and plain, and clearly have but one reference, which everybody can perceive. Then again, if the Apostles’ sayings are difficult to understand, it is very often a difficulty of this kind: do they mean this, or do they mean that? or, out of three or four possible meanings, which shall we take? And one man understands them in one way, another man in another way; or perhaps in the course of time some laborious student hits upon a meaning which all agree upon afterwards, and so the difficulty is solved. I do not mean to say that such is always the case with the sayings of the Apostles: but it is beyond doubt their general character. If we now turn to the sayings of our Lord, here again we meet with many which are very plain and simple, and with many also which seem difficult to understand: but, easy or difficult, they all have this about them, that they are inexhaustible in their depths of wisdom, and in their applications to man and to man’s world. In the one case, the divine treasure was in earthen vessels: in the other, in a heavenly. In the one case, the Holy Spirit spoke by those who were limited in their powers and knowledge, and He adapted His divine inspiration to their human characteristics, and styles, of thinking and writing: in the other He spoke by One to whom the Spirit was not given by measure: who knew all things from the beginning; and to whom, even in the emptying of His glory, to which He submitted Himself in his humiliation, all the realities of things lay open. And hence too it is that, while we speak, and truly, of the peculiar style of writing of St. Paul or of St. John or of St. Peter, no one ever thought of attributing a style of speaking to our Lord. Our very feelings shrink from such an expression; which is no mean test of its being an improper one. The reason is, that His sayings are the very expressions of endless and fathomless truth; in human form indeed,—spoken with the tongue and written with the pen,—but spoken as man never spoke before,—written, when written down, as faithful remembrances of what He said, and unmodified by the individual style and character of those who recorded them. And pursuing the same thought, it is interesting and instructive to note, how the holy Evangelists have been guided to follow their individual bent, not in composing, but in choosing among, the discourses of our Lord: St. Matthew, who loves to write of Him as the King, and of His Gospel as the Kingdom of the heavens, giving us more those discourses which set forth his glory and majesty;—St. Luke, who presents Him to us as the gracious and immortal Savior, giving us mostly discourses full of his rich mercy and loving-kindness;—while St. John, whose object it is to set Him before us as the fullness of light and sustenance and life to man, as coming to his own and rejected by them, but as loving and loved by his disciples, follows his great scheme regularly onwards, by recording for us those discourses in which all these points are one after another brought forward.

After what has been said, another matter regarding our Lord’s sayings naturally comes to our thoughts. He who knew all truth in its purest and holiest forms,—what was His method of teaching? Let us first ask, whom had He to teach? And the answer is, He had various classes of persons, very differently affected towards Him, and very differently endowed with power to understand Him. First, there would be his own disciples, willing indeed to listen to and appreciate what He said, but mistaken in their view of that which He came to do, and quite unable as yet to take in any explanation of it. Then there were the common people, variously disposed;—for the most part hearing Him gladly, but dull of comprehension, and ready to be influenced by his enemies. Then there were these last, the Scribes and Pharisees, learned in the outward science of the law, eager for his halting, ready to catch hold of and press to the utmost against Him anything falling from his lips which should at all violate their formal and superstitious maxims of interpretation and practice.

How should the Allwise one, in his humiliation, and condescending to be as man among men, proceed in one way of teaching for all these so widely differing hearers? Should He lay before them naked spiritual truth, such as in the unfathomable depths of his own divine Being He contemplated? Alas, to say nothing of what those hearers were,—what human ear could hear, what human soul could bear it? Should He anticipate the teaching of the Spirit who was to come upon the Church, and set forth the mighty doctrines of atonement for sin, of justification by faith in Him, of sanctification by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost? Again, should He declare himself the fulfiller of the types of the law—the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world? Who among them could receive these things? When we hear, late on in his course on earth, that His very disciples questioned among themselves what the resurrection from the dead should mean, we may well imagine how hopeless, in the ordinary human methods of teaching, it would have been to introduce topics of this kind among his audience, before He had been lifted up on the Cross,—had risen from the tomb, or had sent down His Spirit from the Father. Once more;—should He become the stern and lofty moralist, and lay down to them the eternal limits of purity and of vice? Doubtless this was his office in a sense; and this He has done as none other ever has; but if it chiefly molded the form of his discourse, how were they to be gained to this teaching? He came to teach all, as He came to bless all, and to die for all. How many, think you, among those He addressed would have gathered round him to listen to the purest and truest of moral disquisitions? He, remember, was not one set to teach by institution of man’s device: one sure of an audience, and privileged to be dull: He came with a mission higher than that from men, to seek and to save: He was to draw men with the words of interest and sympathy;—to attach them, so that they would rise up from their occupation, leave their fishing and their tax-gathering, and go after Him.

Again then, what method of teaching did He choose? How did He produce the wonderful effects of which we read? Before we fully answer, let us take into account one more circumstance very essential to be remembered. Never man spake like this man. Doubtless it was a spirit-penetrating and heart-stirring thing, to sit and hear that Teacher speak. O what it must have been to look but for once on that brow, calm as the evening sky; to hear but one saying uttered in that voice, whose every tone sunk with gentle persuasion into the very depths of the being! Well might the Lord Himself say to His disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see the things that ye see, and the ears that hear the things that ye hear.” Still we know how variously even excellencies of speech and manner are interpreted, according to the feeling towards the speaker. What one enjoys and feels in his heart as simple earnestness, another turns away from and loathes as affectation: what one finds attractive, is repulsive to another. And doubtless so it was also in the case of our blessed Lord himself: His enemies, in order to remain his enemies, must have had their minds poisoned against him; and even his divine benignity, and his loving wisdom, can only have exasperated them more from time to time in their predetermined enmity to him. It was when this spirit of implacable hatred first began to manifest itself, when the Scribes and Pharisees began to ascribe to the influence of Satan our Lord’s gracious miracles, that He saw fit, in his wisdom, to adopt that peculiar method of teaching of which my text speaks. “He began to speak to them many things in parables.”

And what is a parable? I am not going to lay down all the distinctions which separate it from the fable, or the proverb, or the allegory: this has been excellently done by those who have written on the subject: but I will only say, bearing these distinctions in mind, that a parable is a fictitious story intended to convey spiritual truth, and is of a nature such that it is always taken from what might be actual life among men. Its form is grave, as its purpose is serious. It enters into the relations of life,—father and son, husband and wife, master and servant, king and people; into the operations of agriculture and commerce, the pursuits and ways of living among men, their differences, and their affections. In the highest sense of the word, but One Person could ever have worthily taught in parables, and that One was the Creator Himself. For it is required in such a story, that it should enter into the deep spiritual meanings which lie under all the relations and employments of life: and who knows these but God only? A mere man might make the parable fit the truth here and there: his applications of his tale might be doubted, might be criticized: he is commonly obliged to take a lower form for his instruction, and to put it into the mouths of unreasoning beings, as in the fable; thus leaving the region of reality, and missing all the deeper purposes of the other. But when our Lord spoke the parables in the Gospels, He himself tells us that He did it with the view of their carrying various shades of meaning, according as men’s hearts were or were not disposed to receive, or capable of apprehending them. They were in fact in this respect just what that world of beauty and truth is from which they were taken. The child rejoices in the flower that he has plucked: its gay colors delight him, its sweet scent is pleasing to him: the botanist makes the same flower a study, and classifies it, and examines its structure: the moralist, and the poet, and the painter, also claim it for the uses of instruction and of art. And so it may be with the parable. First there is the simple story, which may interest even the heart of an intelligent child. Which of us is there that does not remember his fresh interest when a father’s or a mother’s voice first told him of the sower going forth to sow, or of the lost sheep, or of the prodigal son, or of the wise and foolish virgins? Nor is this the case only with the young at one time of their lives: it is so with the simple and half-educated all their lives:—with often this exception, which will lead us on to the next step in those that hear,—that ever and anon some real event in their own lives, some joy or sorrow,—some overflowing of mercy, or some bitter drop of anguish in their cup,—seems to bring out new meaning from that which they fancied they knew before. As with the Æolian harp that has long sounded one chord only in the gentle breezes of ordinary life, at times like these the strong wind of God’s Spirit rushes over the strings and awakens new and higher harmonics, unheard before. And if this is so with them, what is it with those who love to think, and to weigh, and to delve into the deeper senses of those wonderful revelations of truth? Evermore by them are the Lord’s parables seen in many and shifting lights, evermore are they heard speaking to them new and rich counsel as their need requires. None have ever exhausted their depth, none have ever so discovered their reference and connection, that there are not new references and new connections left for others to discover. Not unfrequently, as for instance in the parables of the unforgiving servant who had himself been forgiven, and of the good Samaritan, great Christian doctrines lie beneath the surface of their tale: sometimes, as in those of the wicked husbandmen and of the barren fig-tree, they are pregnant with prophetic meaning which time shall bring out: sometimes again, as in those of the lost sheep, and of the rich man and Lazarus, they open to us glimpses into the unseen and unknown world: still more frequently, as in the great first parable of the sower, and in that of our gospel to-day, they describe to us the state of the Church of God, in the world, and at the end of the world. And as we study each of these, and place it in new lights and connections, more and richer meanings continually open to us, and will do so as long as we are in this realm of imperfect and still to be completed knowledge.

With these remarks before us, let us spend the remainder of our time in considering the parable which is contained in our gospel to-day; that of the Tares of the Field. It forms, as we well know, one of the most important of our Lord’s parables. Of itself it would take this rank, owing to the great and worldwide interest of its subject: and its importance is increased by its being one of those of which the great Teacher Himself has vouchsafed to give us a full and minute interpretation.

First let us notice what the parable is about. It is a likeness setting forth to us the kingdom of the heavens:—by which name the Christian dispensation, or the state of the Church of Christ on earth, is generally known in St. Matthew. It represents to us a field, which is explained to mean the world;—and a man who has sown good seed in it, who is said to be the Son of man, i.e. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Savior. This exactly agrees with what our Lord Himself tells us of His gospel;—that it should be preached before the end, in all nations. This preaching He himself began; and in His strength, and by His commission, His Apostles and those who have followed them have carried on, and still are carrying on. And that which is sown, the good seed, is the word of God;—the good news of the Holy Gospel. No one need be surprised, that this very seed should be said in the explanation to be the children of the kingdom, i.e. the true servants of Christ. For it is here, as in the parable of the sower: when the seed has fallen into the soil, and taken root, it becomes the plant, transforming the soil into itself: so that they into whose hearts the seed is dropped, when the seed grows, become themselves the plants which that seed produces. The main principle of life and action which we follow, is not part of us: we are part of it; and it is the root and center of our being. Thus then, and with this purpose, the good seed is everywhere dropped by the Great Sower and His servants.

But this is not the only sowing that takes place. The sower of the good seed has an enemy. His enemy came while men slept, and sowed the seed of noxious weeds over the field. This wicked act is an exercise of malice not without example even in our own times. I have myself known such a thing willfully done, and made the subject of legal damages.

Now notice the doctrine herein contained. This enemy, our Lord expressly tells us, is the devil. While men slept,—not, while the Son of man slept,—while, not the Great Head of the Church, who never slumbers, but they who were His infirm and imperfect ministers, slept,—came this enemy, this arch-enemy of God and man, and sowed his evil seed. I told you last Sunday that if you believed in Christ at all, you must also be prepared to believe in a spiritual world;—in good and evil spirits, both employed in us, and around us. And observe here His own distinct assertion of this:—of the good by and by;—of the evil here. These children of the wicked one,—these tares that spring up in the field of the Church, are the sowing of God’s enemy, the devil:—of him who is ever counterworking the blessed work of the Son of man and His agents. Nothing can be more plainly declared as a truth for us by our Lord, than this.

But we proceed. When the wheat came up, and put forth its fruit, then appeared the tares also. And now comes the difficulty felt by the servants of the owner of the field; “Didst thou not sow good seed? Whence then came the tares?” And so it ever is and will be in the Church. The Gospel is good; its preaching is good; the ordinances and sacraments are good; good seed is sown, and Christ sows it. And yet how is it, that evermore in the Church there are multitudes of bad men, unholy men, unbelieving men, growing among good men, looking like good men, partaking of all the rich privileges of membership of Christ? How, and whence, came they? Hear the Lord’s answer: “An enemy hath done this.” “They are the children of the wicked one:” none of Christ’s sowing: no growth out of the sacraments and means of grace: no result of men trying to be righteous overmuch: nothing of the kind: but distinctly, and as matter of fact, the result of the devil’s work counteracting Christ’s work. And yet silly shallow men, with all this taught and forewarned them, stand and look on upon the Church, and in the spirit of an unbelief they have not the courage to profess, whisper about, “What is the use of all this stir about the Church,—all this praying and preaching and sacraments and ordinances? We don’t see that men are made much better by it: we can point out as bad men among Churchmen, even among ministers, as any that are found in the world outside.” And suppose you can. Did He who founded the Church, and who saw all her course before Him, ever lead you to expect otherwise? Nay, has He not here expressly told us it would always be so? That this is no excuse for the sins of Churchmen, we see by the awful end of the parable; but it is an accounting for what will ever be found in the Church,—the mixture of good and bad men.

But we now come to another feature. The servants are not only surprised, but offended, by this state of things: scandalized, that their lord’s field should grow evil weeds with the wheat: “Wilt thou then that we leave our work and go and gather them up?” Now this question represents the mind of a very large party in Christ’s Church in all ages. Its acts are stamped on her history: and not only so, but they are among us in our own time also. Make the Church pure, say they: count those only the Church, who are converted to God, and live by faith in Christ: let us have a close communion; none at our Table, who answer not to our test. O how prevalent is this spirit; not among one party only, but among all parties: and how busy it ever is in men’s hearts and practices.

But let us hear the answer. He said unto them, “Nay: lest while ye gather together the tares ye root up with them the wheat also.” Memorable and blessed words! How do we know, how does any man on earth know, the good from the bad, so as to be able to say, as between two men of outwardly correct life, which is, and which is not, a servant of God? What folly it is, as well as sin, to make the use of certain religious words and phrases, or the use of certain devotional practices or postures of outward reverence, the test of inward spiritual good in a man! What hypocrite cannot put on either of these, as much as may be required of him? And is not every age full of sad examples of hypocrites who do, and end by bringing open disgrace on the party which adopts them?

But look on the other side. “Lest ye root up the wheat with them.” How many genuine servants of God have been discouraged, dejected, robbed of their hope, and perhaps of their faith too, by this narrow and unchristian zeal! “He is not one of us: his words and gestures and religious practices are not ours: therefore he does not belong to Christ.” This is what our religious leaders and writers on either side think and say every day. And what is the effect? Discouragement, coldness of hearts, deadness to Christ’s work, general distrust of one another. But what does our Lord command? “Leave both to grow together till the harvest.” Feed both, love both, anathematize none, exclude none: make tares into wheat if you will, but destroy not God’s wheat by making it into tares. For there is not the slightest fear that any tares will ever be gathered into God’s barn at His harvest. Vex not and fret not yourselves. He knows His own; He knows those who are not. At the season of the harvest, He will say to his reapers, “Collect first the tares and bind them in bundles in order to burn them.” “So,” our Lord tells us, “will the holy angels go forth at the end, and will collect out of His kingdom all the causes of offence, and will cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the great weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Let not us then anticipate that final separation, but rather take care above all things that at that time He find us bringing, or having brought forth, good fruit to His praise. Blessed are they who shall be thus found at His coming. For He who is all mercy and grace, and who spoke this parable, not to denounce judgment, but that place for repentance would be given to all, ends it with gracious and joyous words: “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”[1]



[1] Alford, H. (1862). Sermons on Christian Doctrine (pp. 120–133). London: Rivingtons. (Public Domain)

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