The Wheat and Darnel Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 December 2020

Matthew 13.24-30, 13.36-43

Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus tells a story often called the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, from the word tares used in the King James Version to translate ζιζάνια/zidzánia, “darnel.” It’s a specific weed, Lolium temulentum, frequently called “false wheat.”

In ancient times darnel was constantly found in wheat fields. Some darnel always got mixed up with the wheat during the harvest, and it wasn’t until we invented separating machines that people finally got the darnel problem under control. Darnel looks just like wheat when it’s growing… but once the ears appear, any farmer will realize it’s not wheat at all. When they ripen, wheat turns brown and darnel turns black.

If it’s harmless, why did the ancients make a big deal about darnel? Because darnel is very susceptible to Neotyphodium funguses, and if you ate any infected darnel, the symptoms were nausea and a little drunkenness. (The temulentum in darnel’s scientific name means “drunk.”) And of course it might kill you. Hence people sometimes refer to darnel as poison.

So Jesus’s audience realized the serious problem these specific weeds posed. The rest of us, who only read “tares” or “weeds” in our bibles, not so much. Weeds are inconvenient, and use the water meant for our crops, but otherwise they sound kinda harmless, and it should be easy to sort them out, right? Um… not so much with darnel. And not so harmless.

Matthew 13.24-30 KWL
24 Jesus set this idea before his students,
saying, “Heaven’s kingdom is like a person scattering good seed in his field.
25 During his slaves’ sleep, his enemy came,
scattered darnel in the middle of the grain, and left.
26 When the shoots sprouted and bore fruit, then the darnel also appeared.
27 Going to him, the householder’s slaves told him,
‘Master, didn’t you scatter good seed in your field? So where’d the darnel come from?’
28 The master told them, ‘This was done by a person—an enemy.’
The slaves told him, ‘So do you want us to maybe pull them up?’
29 The master said, ‘No, lest pulling the darnel up uproots the grain together with it.
30 Allow them to both grow together till harvest.
At harvest time I will tell the harvesters, “Pull up the darnel first.
Bundle them into bundles for them to be burnt up.
Get the grain into my granary.” ’ ”

Later in the chapter, Jesus interprets his own story for his students. They really should’ve been able to interpret this story without his explanation—and probably did, but just wanted him to confirm their conclusions. I’ll get to that later.

Different End Times interpretations.

First I gotta point out, even with Jesus’s interpretation, various Christians view this parable very differently. It all depends on how they think the End Times are gonna unfold: Is there gonna be a millennium, or not?

The millennium refers to the thousand years of Revelation 20.4: After Jesus’s second coming, he’s gonna rule the world. Since Revelation consists of apocalypses, and ought not be literally interpreted, we don’t know that this is a literal millennium. Might be shorter; might be longer. But it represents the next era, the new age, the age to come, or Kingdom Come: Jesus is returning to take possession of his kingdom, rule it like it oughta be ruled, leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about how he truly is (us wayward Christians included), and save the world.

But historically, Christians haven’t believed in any future millennium. Most of us still believe this era, the Christian Era, is the millennium—where Jesus “rules the world” through the “Christian nations” of the world. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, that began the millennium; and once it ends, Jesus returns to judge the world, destroy it, and replace it with New Earth and New Jerusalem. To them, there is no future earthly reign of Jesus. Just the End of Days.

Hence historically, a lot of Jesus’s end-time parables have been interpreted End of Days style. And they’re still interpreted that way—even among Christians who recognize there’s a millennium first. Old traditions die hard.

To them, the Wheat and Darnel Story is the final judgment: Jesus returns, his angels rapture the pagans, and they get thrown into hell. It’s just like the way they interpret the Lambs and Kids Story, with the Christians on the right and the pagans on the left, and again the pagans get thrown into hell. Or the Five Stupid Girls Story, where the girls who left to get oil came back, found New Jerusalem closed to them, and now they gotta go to hell. It’s all about how unflinchingly strict Jesus is gonna be once he returns: Okay pagans, fun’s over; grace has run out. Time for hell.

It’s way too easy to leap to that conclusion if you don’t believe in any future millennium. Even if you do believe in a millennium… but you don’t understand why Jesus intends to rule the world before he ends it, and think he’s first gonna destroy all the non-Christians, then conduct a second purge of all the not-good-enough Christians before the very end. And this is the way too many “prophecy scholars” spin it. Those of ’em who carve up history into dispensations, assume this era is one of grace… but the next era, not so much.

So to them, this harvest, sorting, and burning takes place immediately after Jesus’s second coming: When he takes over the world, he’s gonna destroy all the sinners. Which pleases them a little too much: They’re holding a lot of grudges against those sinners. Jesus doesn’t return to save the world, but seek revenge, and fulfill all their dark Christian fantasies.

Jesus’s interpretation.

I should point out (or remind you, if you already know this) it’s against the Law to plant two different kinds of seed in a field. Lv 19.19 It’s why planters usually did try to get all the darnel out of their wheatfields. When the planter in Jesus’s story told his slaves to leave it there and uproot it later, this went against the common interpretation of this command. No doubt it bothered Pharisees; no doubt it also made this story easier to remember.

And no doubt some of Jesus’s denser listeners thought, “So that’s how you’re supposed to weed your fields: Wait till harvest.” No; weed ’em before the darnel drops its seeds and more darnel gets into your fields. Jesus wasn’t trying to teach agriculture; he was talking about End Times.

Don’t laugh; plenty of dense Christians are just as literal when it comes to parables and apocalypses. A lot of ’em claim if Jesus doesn’t decode the visions he gave his prophets, take ’em literally! Hence their insane “literal” interpretations of everything—adjusted to fit their timelines.

Matthew 13.36-43 KWL
36 Then Jesus allowed the crowds to leave, and went into the house.
His students came to him, saying, “Explain to us the analogy of the darnel in the field.”
37 In reply Jesus said, “The one scattering good seed is the Son of Man.
38 The field is the world.
The good seed: These are the kingdom’s children.
The darnel is the evil one’s children.
39 The enemy who scattered them is the devil.
The harvest is the completion of the age.
The harvesters are angels.
40 So just as the darnel is pulled up, and burned up with fire,
likewise is the completion of the age:
41 The Son of Man will send his angels.
They will get every offense, everything which violates the Law, out of his kingdom.
42 They will throw the offenders into the fiery furnace.
There, there’ll be weeping, and teeth grinding in rage.
43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.
Those who have ears, listen!”

Now. The harvest is the συντέλεια αἰῶνός/syntéleia eönós, “entire completion of the age.” Dispensationalists are gonna call it the end of the dispensation, but let’s ignore them. The proper question is: Which age? Which era is Jesus talking about: This age, or the age to come? The Christian Era, or the millennium?

Ah. Didn’t think about that, didja? Not enough do.

The millennium is humanity’s last chance. Christians and pagans will get to live in that era when every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus as Lord. We Christians are gonna get one more chance to share Jesus with them, be Jesus to them, and love them like Jesus loves them. And if they object, “Yeah, but the historical Jesus is nothing like you say,” we can point to the literal, historical, physical Jesus on his throne in Jerusalem, and say, “Okay, I may not be 100 percent right about him, but don’t look at me, and don’t refer to your imaginary Jesus; look at him.”

And no doubt a lot of those pagans are gonna act Christian. ’Cause humans conform. You may think we don’t; just look at all the non-conformists out there! But most of these so-called “non-conformists” are simply mimicking the behavior of their other “non-conformist” friends. It’s why all the punks in my high school dressed alike. It comforts people to fit in. And in Jesus’s millennial kingdom, there are gonna be a lot of people doing their darnedest to fit in. So, like darnel, they’re gonna look like the proper crops in a wheatfield. Till pressure finally makes ’em expose their own hypocrisy.

Uprooting them before the final judgment, Jesus figures, is gonna get in the way of those pagans who really have repented and are trying to follow him. So he’s gonna let pagans and Christians alike live in his kingdom. For now.

And yeah, there are parallels in our history of this kind of behavior. We Americans live in a secular nation, with both Christians and pagans living in it, despite how much certain Christians would really like to uproot all the pagans… and how much certain pagans wouldn’t mind being rid of all the Christians. But it’s best for them—and actually best for us too!—if we all live together, try to love one another, and we Christians share the gospel and be Jesus to them. Love ’em into God’s kingdom. And from there, they can help us love others into New Jerusalem.