I was in a church the other day and there was a reading that jumped out at me. It was The Parable of the Tares from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13. Here it is in the King James version, with an engraving by Crispijn de Passe the elder for your viewing pleasure:
(‘Parabolarum: The parable of the Tares’, 1604 – source)
The same day went Jesus out of the house, and sat by the sea side.
And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore.
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying […]
The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 13)
Now, this is my first attempt at biblical commentary so you’ll have to bear with me. Where shall we start?…
It strikes me as a rich metaphor, placing the Christian philosophy deeply in the context of an agricultural society, along with the parables of the Sower, the Mustard Seed and the Leaven which were all supposedly aired at the same seaside event, all related in the same chapter. Naturally, as one who identifies with the plant and animal species maligned as ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’, I get all hot under the collar when people dismiss them as worthless, evil (the work of the devil, no less!) and deserving of total destruction. For me this points immediately to the pathology of monoculture – the farmer’s problem based on his insistence that the land produce only one species of his choosing and nothing else. Consulting the footnotes of the Wikipedia page, I see that Jesus knew his audience and deliberately spoke in terms they would understand:
[…] while the color is local, the protagonist of the story is not a peasant like many of Jesus’ hearers; he is a wealthy landowner, whereas the farmer in the parable of the sower could easily have been a tenant farmer, a fellow peasant. Against some interpreters, peasants would not necessarily resent the figure, although they would not fully identify with him; they might recognize in the protagonist a benevolent local patron on whom they might be dependent. Peasants might even prefer to identify with characters of status greater than their own if those characters were benevolent; we often tall stories as a means of escaping and reflecting on our own social reality.
The protagonist’s authority suits him as an analogy for God. A well-to-do man would easily be a “head of household”, which figured as an illustration in rabbinic parables, and even Greek philosophers could employ a householder as an analogy for God. Given the agrarian character of much of ancient life, it should not surprise us that fields figure prominently as settings in rabbinic parables, but that their meaning is entirely ad hoc rather than standard. (Craig S. Keener, ‘The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary‘ pp.385-6)
There is general agreement that [the parable] describes a large estate run by slave labour. We need not presume that the owner is a foreigner. Jewish landlords too were quite capable of acquiring and running large estates. The intimate relationship portrayed here between the slaves and the owner, with the slaves concerned for their masters, perhaps makes Jewish slavery more likely.
‘A Jewish slave had an interest in his master’s affair, if for no other reason, because he himself was affected by the prosperity or otherwise of his master’s business. But quite apart from that, owing to the enactments of the Jewish Law and the tradition of centuries, the relations between a Jewish master and his bond servants was generally speaking, more than merely tolerable.’ (Ramesh Khatry, ‘The Authenticity of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and Its Interpretation‘, p.387)
The ‘tares’ are thought to refer to a plant called darnel, which closely resembles wheat until past the point where you could weed it out without damaging the roots of the crop plants. According to Keener:
Despite their willingness to try – workers regularly uprooted weeds before their roots were entangled with those of the wheat – it would be difficult for the workers to root out so many tares without damaging the wheat at this stage. They had grown enough that their roots were already intertwined with those of the wheat but not far enough that it would be easy to distinguish them from the wheat; uprooting thus might endanger the wheat. After the wheat and the darnel were grown, they were easily distinguished and reapers could gather the darnel, which did have one use: given the scarcity of fuel, it would be burned. Wheat was normally gathered and bound in sheaves, then transported, probably on donkeys, to the village (or, in this case, the large estate’s own) threshing floor, then stored. (Keener, p.387)
This growth habit earns darnel predictable abuse from those ensconced in the monocultural society, such as ‘pestilent enemy among the corn’ (Culpepper), ‘a bastard – a degenerate form of wheat’ (rabbis paraphrased by Khatry, p.37, footnoting Kingsbury: ‘This view of the Rabbis is best reflected in haggadic etymology, according to which the Aramaic word for darnel, zunin… is derived from the verb zanah, which means to “commit fornication”.’) and these lines spoken by Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear:
“He was met even now
As mad as the vex’d sea—singing aloud;
Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow weeds,
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.” (link)
::Shudder:: We know about this: in order to destroy something outside yourself you first have to destroy that part of yourself which relates most strongly to it. Disavowal and denial of responsibility: “This plant has nothing to do with me; nothing to show me or teach me. It has imposed itself upon my designs totally without provocation, and my actions of cultivating the soil to favour its close cousin do not indicate any responsibility on my part or suggest any alternative course of action that I might take to procure my food. It is an evil, worthless plant and it is my duty to destroy it to the best of my abilities.” Terms of abuse of course facilitate the process of eradicating something that is seen as fundamentally Other…
Darnel hindered the growth of crops and made them fruitless. Darnel seeds ground up with wheat made the flour bitter and spoiled bread. Fungus in the darnel could cause poisoning, giddiness and vomiting. If too much of the darnel existed in flour, death could follow. It took up valuable space; but hardly had any use at all, being used mainly as chicken and pigeon fodder. Even this was not recommended. Since forests do not abound in Palestine, fuel was scarce. The darnel could be used for fuel, but it made less heat than noise! So, economically, the landowner had nothing to gain; but much to lose. The darnel-adulterated wheat would sell with difficulty. (Khatry, pp.33-4)
So, in agreement with Keener’s interpretation, when the master in the parable casts them into the fire he’s not doing it necessarily to destroy them out of spite, but potentially getting some use out of them as fuel. I’m not sure if that makes me feel any better – for the darnel or for myself on the other end of the metaphor… Is God using the burning bodies of the Damned to heat the many mansions of his house? The Problem is the Solution! Khatry continues:
Why do the servants ask about their master’s ‘good’ seed? Does not every farmer sow the best seed anyway?
The servants most probably had a hand in ensuring that the seed the master sowed was free of darnel-grains. The fact that darnel abounded in Palestine made good seed hard to come by. The following observation valid for Syrian scabious applies also to the darnel.
‘…the grains are similar to those of certain wheat varieties, and since they are reaped, threshed, and sieved together they continued to be sown together year after year, producing bitter flour and bitter bread. Sometimes the weed overwhelms the wheat, so that the farmer is forced to harvest it instead of the sown plant. This is a classic example of the conversion of a weed into a crop…’
Sieving was the most obvious way of making sure that the wheat seed was as pure as possible. The servants could have probably done it repeatedly for the sake of their master because bad seed was usually the result of insufficiently cleaned wheat grains. […] To servants who had probably sieved the seed themselves or bought the best they could find and had prepared the soil by careful ploughing (which would normally bury and kill the weeds), the emergence of the darnel would naturally surprise them and cause the to question the ‘good’ seed their master had sown. (pp.33-4)
And what of the master’s certainty that ‘an enemy hath done this’, ie: sown the darnel seeds in his pure wheat field? Is this more disavowal and denial of responsibility? By analogy does the Christian God wash his hands of the behaviour of sinful humanity even though he created us that way? I’m sure I must be missing something… Anyhow it seems in Jesus’ time this was known to happen at least in the literal sense:
[A]lthough sowing darnel is not something very common in modern, western farming, such sabotage does belong to the local Palestinian colour in which the parable abounds. We have in mind the usual village quarrels when ‘it is not uncommon for a man to have his private enemy, and for trees to be cut down and crops burnt as a result of such feuds.’ Almost as a proof of this, a man of antiquity has described how he took revenge against his neighbour.
‘I went to Abu Jassin’s kitchen garden. It was freshly ploughed. There I scattered the kusseb-seeds. The new year had scarcely come before the garden was thick with kusseb. From that day to this – it is now some twenty years – he could not plough a single furrow in it for the mass of kusseb. The olive-trees withered away…’
Sowing tares was also done elsewhere, as Oesterley reminds us, ‘Even at the present day in India one of the most terrible threats that a man can make is: ‘I will sow bad seed in your field…’ However, the most striking evidence lies in the existence of a Roman law dealing with such incidents. This law clearly assumes that sowing tares could happen ‘secretly’, possibly through a nocturnal act, as in our parable; and was not infrequent.
So, how does the master know an enemy has done it? Answer, simply because sowing darnel was a common act of revenge in his culture. It was an educated guess conditioned by the environment the master dwelt in. Although it is true that the enemy is later allegorically identified as the devil, the fact of an enemy sowing darnel is historically plausible and need not be seen as a secondary accretion to the parable. (Khatry, p.35)
(Detail from Abraham Bloemaert – ‘Parable of the Wheat and the Tares‘)
It reminds me of my half-serious, slightly silly suggestion that seed bombs might be used in clandestine operations on arable fields in order to ‘diversify the monocrop’ – not something I’ve yet attempted, for revenge or any other reason(!) That would make me The Enemy, for sure. But would it be such a bad thing to have a farmer denounce you in that way? If it interrupted or even sabotaged his operation wouldn’t that create the space for some of the nondomesticated plants & animals to start coming back in? You know, the ones whose global population has halved in the last 40 years, mainly through the direct & indirect effects of agriculture? Sounds more heroic than spiteful in those terms, but I don’t know if darnel or other resourceful arable weeds particularly need any help from wild-minded humans to do their work. The farmers have already created perfectly adequate conditions for that.
Does this analogise further into Christian morality and restrictive notions of ‘sinful’ behaviour? What seeds might The Enemy be sowing in the moral fabric (tattered though it may be) of the civilised societies? Or has the attempt to banish these behaviours and attitudes created the same perfectly adequate conditions for them to thrive and multiply? I’ll leave it there and let you think about it. Feel free to leave your tuppence in the comment section. I’ll just say that I am burdened and saddened by the knowledge that the society I was born into does not view me or the things I create with the best parts of me as a worthy ‘crop’, but rather (when expressions of this come to light) as a pernicious weed which must be attacked on sight for the threat it poses to the careful, ongoing cultivation of the social field*. I must ask, though, that even if you don’t make use of these fruits at least refrain from hacking the whole growth down and casting it into the furnace. That’s my life you’re talking about.
To finish with here are a few stories from Maude Grieve’s Darnel entry in the ‘Modern Herbal’ of 1931:
[I]t may be of interest to relate an experiment made by a friend of the writer. She procured some ears of Palestine wheat and also some of Palestine ‘Darnel’ (‘tares’), for the purpose of illustrating the truth of the Parable of the Tares to her Bible-class. After sowing both kinds in a patch of ground she asked her scholars to watch the appearance of the respective ‘blades’ as they appeared. They attached small strands of wool to distinguish each. In many cases wheat grew from the tare seeds, and tares from the wheat.
a quotation from an old newspaper: ‘The Country of Ill-Will is the by-name of a district hard by St. Arnaud, in the north of France. There tenants, when ejected by a landlord, or when they have ended their tenancy on uncomfortable terms, have been in the habit of spoiling the crop to come by vindictively sowing tares, and other coarse strangling weeds, among the wheat, whence has been derived the sinister name of the district. The practice has been made penal, and any man proved to have tampered with any other man’s harvest will be dealt with as a criminal.’
What’s that Fukuoka quote about those who cultivate the soil literally sowing the seeds of their own misfortune†? The question becomes: What has the landowner and slavemaster of the parable (or by extension, God) done to earn himself such a dedicated Enemy? Sorry Christians but evil deeds don’t exist in a vacuum. Either he did something to piss off the people working for him (and what self-respecting slave wouldn’t get annoyed at their master, no matter how benevolent he was?), had a row with a neighbour, or simply mistreated the land (as monocrop farming does by definition) and reaped the consequences of his own actions.
*** Addendum the morning after ***
Second thoughts on ‘that’s my life you’re talking about’: I seem to be taking this rather personally, don’t I? It’s a bit rich coming from someone who earns his living by fostering monocultures of grass and removing unwanted plants in peoples’ gardens. Nevertheless it’s the weeds I identify with, and I have undergone something of the same experience (though not resulting in death obviously) at the hands of parents, educators, bosses, clergy, policemen and even just random acquaintances who perceived Unacceptable thoughts or behaviours in me and stepped in, unasked to weed them out. This can happen in a more gentle way, with permission granted (someone at a Charles Eisenstein seminar I went to described the empathic listening he was trying to encourage as ‘being gardened’), but most often it comes as a violent intervention, leading to trauma and a long, slow recovery. Like a dandelion yanked out and having to regrow from a segment of root left in the ground.
Referring this back to Christianity, I see there has been an attempt to stress the interpretation of this parable as one where God is left to judge and condemn sinners, with the implication that humans shouldn’t appoint themselves reapers, gathering the tares and ‘bind[ing] them in bundles to burn them’, (as one might expect from people whose entire subsistence depends on a take-no-prisoners attitude to food production coupled with the outgrowth of cut-throat competition in the market economy) but rather allow dissenters and heretics to live alongside the True Christians. For example here’s a passage from a sermon Martin Luther preached on the parable:
Again this Gospel teaches how we should conduct ourselves toward these heretics and false teachers. We are not to uproot nor destroy them. Here he says publicly let both grow together. We have to do here with God’s Word alone; for in this matter he who errs today may find the truth tomorrow. Who knows when the Word of God may touch his heart? But if he be burned at the stake, or otherwise destroyed, it is thereby assured that he can never find the truth; and thus the Word of God is snatched from him, and he must be lost, who otherwise might have been saved. Hence the Lord says here, that the wheat also will be uprooted if we weed out the tares. That is something awful in the eyes of God and never to be justified.
From this observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus outroot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do. But by murder we separate the people from the Word, so that it cannot possibly work upon them and we bring thus, with one stroke a double murder upon ourselves, as far as it lies in our power, namely, in that we murder the body for time and the soul for eternity, and afterwards say we did God a service by our actions, and wish to merit something special in heaven.
Therefore this passage should in all reason terrify the grand inquisitors and murderers of the people, where they are not brazened faced, even if they have to deal with true heretics. But at present they burn the true saints and are themselves heretics. What is that but uprooting the wheat, and pretending to exterminate the tares, like insane people? (link)
I suppose I should be grateful – instead of getting burned as a heretic in this life I get to wait until the angels do it after I die… (!) There’s still no recognition of the ‘tares’ as valuable plants in their own right. A few sentences later there’s an interesting description of how ‘the field of itself yields nothing but tares, which the cattle eat, although the field receives them and they make the field green as if they were wheat’. He’s talking about the ‘false Christians’ he perceived as predominating in the established church of his time, but I like the idea of the field ‘receiving’ the tares, even if the farmer doesn’t. It reminds us that we’re not the only ones permitted to exist on this planet, that other creatures might make good use of the plants we consider undesirable; that people left to their own devices might create beautiful things – in service of the living world, not the Monoculture.
Okay, we’ll finish the sermon with a song by George Brassens, ‘La Mauvaise Herbe’. Go here for a decent translation & interpretation.
“Je suis d’la mauvaise herbe,
Braves gens, braves gens,
C’est pas moi qu’on rumine
Et c’est pas moi qu’on met en gerbe…
La mort faucha les autres
Braves gens, braves gens,
Et me fit grâce à moi,
C’est immoral et c’est comm’ ça !
La la la la la la la la
Et je m’ demand’
Pourquoi, Bon Dieu,
Ça vous dérange
Que j’ vive un peu…”
* – For a description of how this happens in latter-day secular societies see Media Lens’ brilliant two-part ‘Anatomy of a Propaganda Blitz‘ which shows how dissenting figures and official state enemies are attacked, ridiculed and marginalised in the major media outlets, the purpose being to delegitimise criticism of – and opposition to – the corporate, neoliberal hegemony dominating the western so-called ‘democracies’.
† – ‘[W]hen you cultivate, seeds lying deep in the soil, which would never have germinated otherwise, are stirred up and given a chance to sprout. Furthermore, the quick sprouting, fast-glowing varieties are given the advantage under these conditions. So you might say that the farmer who tries to control weeds by cultivating the soil is, quite literally, sowing the seeds of his own misfortune.’ (One-Straw Revolution, p.38 – pdf)