When Bible Teachers Are Ignorant of Natural Philosophy

In 1862, it is reported that over 90% of Americans were farmers.  Today that number is said to be closer to 2%.

Let that sink in for a minute.

In 1862, 90 of every 100 people you might have met in America would know the ins and outs of life on a farm.  Today, only 2 of 100 would have that knowledge and experience.  We’re talking about what the agricultural year feels like, when crops are planted and harvested, what the habits of all of the farm animals are, what it feels like to sit at table and eat food that you planted, grew and put up yourself.  98% of Americans today have no idea about the life that 90% of Americans took for granted 150 years ago.

One of the more disturbing manifestations of this ignorance is found among those who are supposed to be teachers of the Bible.

It is clear that ancient Israel was an agriculturally-oriented nation.  The great patriarchs and prophets were shepherds, King David was also a shepherd.  Our Lord taught in agricultural terms to the people the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.  Why?  Because those mysteries are mysteriously present in the daily experiences of ordinary farming people!  The “dumb farmers” are handling mysteries in the ordinary work of farm life–whether it’s sowing wheat, kneading bread, dressing grapevines, keeping sheep, catching fish, or just sweeping the house.

These teachings, however, and the hundreds of teachings drawn from farm life are now left in the hands of “teachers” who don’t have this assumed knowledge and experience and that leaves the door open for all kinds of misleading interpretations of them, which can create all sorts of problems that appear to have some “biblical” foundation.

Let’s consider an example that has arisen often in my experience as a Christian–the parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

The Wheat and the Tares

Is this what we should think of when we read the parable of the wheat and the tares?  No.

In Matthew 13, we read of a parable of a man who had sown wheat in his fields, and later learned that after he had done so, an enemy had sown “tares” (or “cockle”) among his wheat.  Now, the modern Bible teacher who knows nothing about “tares” and “wheat” will interpret “tares” to mean weeds.  So, it’s supposedly a parable of a man who sowed weeds in another man’s wheat field and what happens to the wheat and weeds.

A Google search on “Wheat and Tares” will yield pages and pages of links to homilies, sermons and blog posts that will almost all say the same thing.  Pulling an example from them, a priest from the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) commented:  “The cockle in the parable was allowed to grow together with the wheat because uprooting it would certainly also destroy the wheat”  He then quotes St. Thomas, but what St. Thomas (who understands natural philosophy) says about the parable has nothing to do with the priest’s explanation at all.  St. Thomas never says that the wheat would be endangered by the pulling up of the tares.

Furthermore, he says, “The wheat resulted from the good seed sown by the farmer and the cockle from what was sown over the wheat by his enemy, so Christ’s word brings into His Church those “who are born… of the will of God” but the devil through his blandishments seduces some in that Church from their allegiance to Christ.”

This is full of confusion.  The parable says nothing of Christ’s “wheat” being turned into tares by the devil.  In the parable, there is good seed sown by the good man and bad seed sown by the bad man.  The attempt to turn this parable into an encouragement to judgmental Christians that call other Christians “frauds” has no support in the parable, yet the false reading of it is used to do exactly that.   The priest’s goal is to argue that  we can patiently endure with the fact that we know that the Church is filled with false Christians, and that Jesus will separate them from us–the real Christians–on Judgment day.

Now, this is dangerous doctrine that has more to do with Protestantism than anything found in St. Thomas’s teaching.  The Protestants taught that the invisible Christian Church (i.e., the Church as God alone sees it) was one thing and that the visible Christian Church (the Church we see on earth) were two different things.  The Protestants used this to justify their rebellion against Church authority, saying, “We aren’t rebelling against the Church at all…only the visible Church, which isn’t the real Church.”  The Protestants believed themselves to be the “wheat”, and the non-Protestants to be the “tares”, and this is the common use of this parable by modern Christians.

This, however, cannot possibly be the meaning.  St. Thomas explains, most importantly, that one reason why the tares and wheat cannot be separated by man is that we don’t know who’s who because the harvest, that is, the time when the plants are all fully formed and clearly identified, has not yet come.  Thus, the picture above that clearly shows weeds (flowers) among the wheat is not at all the image Our Lord had in mind when He spoke this parable.  In Our Lord’s mind, the wheat and the tares were so similar in appearance that one would be likely to pull out true wheat thinking it to be the tares.  Thus, the message is not that “those so-called ‘Christians’ whom we know to be frauds will get what they deserve from the Lord.”, but rather, that “We don’t know for sure who the true and false Christians are. Many who seemed to be tares will actually prove themselves to be wheat, and many that we thought to be wheat will be seen in the end to be tares.”

Farmers, or true natural philosophers like St. Thomas, would understand this because “tares” are not simply weeds.  The picture above, which was included on the FSSP page, is not a picture of wheat and tares, for there would be no danger at all of someone misidentifying wheat and tares in such a field.  A farmer would also know that wheat would not be harmed when weeds were pulled out from the ground around it, for it is very hardy and bounces back from all kinds of disturbance.

Wheat on the left and tares on the right.

Wheat on the left and tares on the right.

No, the real problem is that men cannot separate the wheat from the tares because they cannot accurately determine who’s who on this side of eternity.  The real image in the parable is not one of heads of wheat contrasted with flowers or clover or some other obvious, ugly weed.  The image is one of a field in which the enemy sows seed that appears to be wheat–but isn’t.

Knowledge of the ancient languages can also protect us from these errors.  In the Greek text, the name of the plant sown by the enemy is “zizania”, that is “wild rice”.  The problem caused by these plants growing together would be that until they mature, when the wheat heads form and whiten, the plants would be indistinguishable–especially if growing together in a field.  Wheat is planted in the fall and looks like grass except that it stays green while dormant over winter before growing in the Spring and finishing in early Summer.  There would be no way to pick out the tares from the wheat until then, when the time of harvest comes.  That work is the Lord’s to do, and when He does His work, the wheat and tares will be easy to distinguish and His judgment will be perfect.  St. Thomas explained that many young plants are thought to be zinzania, but grow to prove themselves to be wheat in the end.  The thief on the cross, or a converted sinner like St. Augustine provide clear examples of wheat that might have been torn out by men, but will not be by Our Lord.  Many of us are such plants!

So, it’s clear that ignorance of natural philosophy can lead to misleading doctrines.  All the Christians who think that they know who the “real” Christians are and who the “fake” Christians are find no support from this parable unless they are ignorant of these plants and therefore read the parable falsely.   The parable, in fact, condemns these very people who imagine themselves to know the difference between wheat and zinzania before the end of each plant is visible.

We would do well whenever we hear this divisive talk among Christians to remember the parable the wheat and the tares–that we don’t who the good and bad plants are yet.  Our Lord made this perfectly clear when He told us, “You will know them by their fruit.”  The ancient Greek philosophers and historians taught this moral rule, “Never judge a man happy until you see his end.”  Once again, modern Christians can learn from the pagans…or by studying ALL that Christ has commanded.

William Michael, Director
Classical Liberal Arts Academy


This entry was posted in Philosophy, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to When Bible Teachers Are Ignorant of Natural Philosophy

  1. χλόη says:

    Unlike the internet sites you came in contact with, the many protestant sermons I’ve heard preached on this passage (having grown up in protestant world) ALL said the reason for not removing the tares before fruiting is because one can’t tell the difference. The first time I heard that the tares were a metaphor for fraud-Christians was in a Catholic church. So…it cuts both ways.

    • wmclaa says:

      You mean the Protestant sermons preached in divided, splintered denominations? Obviously Protestants’ entire situation contradicts this parable.

      • χλόη says:

        Actually, yes. I heard your interpretation in several different protestant denominations. I’ve only been a Catholic for 6 years, but due to several moves I’ve been a member of several parishes. Although they all go under the name of Catholic, they are certainly no more cohesive in their theology than the various protestant “splinters”.

        I agree with you about the Protestants’ situation, but I don’t blame them. Even now (having the Catechism) Catholics can’t get it together.

      • wmclaa says:

        That is because, as Jesus told us, the wheat and the tares must grow together until the end of the world–both within and outside the Church.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s