The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

A Sermon by James P. Cooper

So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ (MAT 13:27)


The parable of the Wheat and the Tares is the second of the major parables about heaven in the gospel of Matthew, following immediately after the Lord’s explanation of the parable of the Sower.

The basic story of the parable is quite simple. It has a farmer sowing good seed, that is, seed that has been properly sorted and cleaned so that there are no other seeds mixed in. A spiteful enemy comes and secretly sows tares, a noxious weed, in the same field. When the plants begin to sprout and grow, the field workers are very distressed to see that there are weeds mixed in with the wheat, and they ask the farmer what they should do. The farmer’s decision is to let the tares grow with the wheat until the harvest because it would do too much damage to the wheat for the workers to walk through the field pulling out the tares. However, once both have matured and been harvested, it will not be difficult to separate the wheat from the tares. The wheat will be put up in the barns for safekeeping, and the tares will be burned in the fires.

A farmer would see this as a wise way to manage his fields

In the literal sense, this is an example so unmistakable that even those of us who have not grown up in a farming community can see the wisdom of the farmer. He wants a good crop, and he knows how to protect his fields so that he can get the best yield from them. We can imagine that it must grieve the good farmer to look out on his field and see the weeds growing in the midst of his wheat, and being reminded daily of the spiteful actions of his enemy, but his good sense prevails, and the tender, growing wheat is not trampled for the sake of the view.

Three Reasons why the Lord taught in Parables: First

By teaching in parables, He prepared people for the idea that the whole of the Word, both the Old and the New Testaments, is a parable, full of symbolic meaning that can be consistently interpreted in a way to bring God closer to mankind by showing that every chapter and verse speaks to the states of human need that exist today.


The good people of that time simply did not have enough knowledge about spiritual things to understand Him if He spoke plainly. They were child-like in their spiritual development, and He had to accommodate His teaching to their states.


By speaking the truth in parables He both protected the truth from being twisted by the evil, and the evil people from being compelled by the truth. If the Lord had simply said, “I am Jehovah. I have come to end the Jewish Church and start a new church to take its place,” it would have removed all doubt. All people would have had to choose, then and there, to either accept or reject God. There would be no opportunity for learning, repentance, reformation and regeneration. Also, with the truth stated so plainly, it could be attacked directly by the hells.

Instead, by teaching in parables, the Lord presented the truth in such a way that it was absolutely self-evident and obvious to those who had faith in Him and were searching the Word for personal guidance. Those who were skeptics, who had no faith at all, would search the Word and find only “folk tales” and “children’s fables,” and as such unworthy of attack.

The meaning of a parable is only the first of many levels of meaning

But the disciples were the men who were to carry on with the new doctrines, and they had to have a deeper understanding of what the Lord was teaching, and so we are told in the gospels that He would take the disciples aside to explain what the parables meant.

The Parable is about the end of the age, the battle between Good and Evil

The Lord taught them that the parable of the Wheat and the Tares was about the end of the age, and the battle between good and evil. The sower is the Son of Man, that is, Jesus Himself (for He had frequently referred to Himself as the ‘Son of Man’ to them before). The good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, that is, good people, while the tares are the evil people. At the end of the age, the angels will go out and reap the harvest. Then the evil people will be separated from the good people, and the evil will be burned with fire, while the good people will shine forth in their Father’s kingdom.

But the disciples could only understand so much at that time

That was as much as the disciples were ready to hear. It gave them some important, basic ideas about the spiritual world. It taught them that Jesus was the king of heaven (whether they actually realized it or not), that hell was the cause of evil in the world, and that although the good may have to endure hardships during life in this world, that it may appear that the evil are equally rewarded, they can be sure that true justice will win out in the end, with the evil being punished, and the good at peace with God to eternity.

The Field represents the Jewish Church

The Science of Correspondences allows us to open up deeper layers of meaning. There are more than 60 references to this parable in the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church, and most of them tell us that this parable contains within it the story of the final states of the Jewish Church, the reasons why it had to be brought to its end, and how that judgment would take place.

In this deeper sense, then, the field represents the Church. This can be clearly seen from the lesson from Joel where the prophet, in mourning the terrible state of affairs in the nation, has created images of destruction (the wasted fields, the dried-up vine, and other images of despair) which are clearly symbolic of the fallen state of the Jewish nation and Church under a succession of wicked kings who led their people into idolatry and every other sin forbidden by the laws of Moses.

As a symbol of the Jewish Church, the good seed stands for the truth Divine that comes from the Lord into His church through the Word. The tares stand for the falsities that are introduced into the church through the self-justifications of those who wish to do evil. The field with wheat and tares mixed then represents the state of the Jewish Church at the time of the Lord’s coming into the world, a church sown with truth from the Lord, but contaminated by falsities introduced from hell.

As the church failed, the Good were contaminated

The real problem, from the spiritual point of view, was that as the Jewish Church declined, as its forms and worship drew farther and farther from the ideals that had been given to them by the Lord through Moses, not only were the evil drawn away from true worship, but those people who were inwardly good were drawn away as well. Those who wished to serve God did so according to the rules and regulations set forth by the rulers of the Jewish Church, and so were led to live a life of relative evil, even though they wished to serve God and do what was good. It was tragic, but because of the spiritual ignorance, many good people were doing evil things as a matter of conscience!

When a Church fails, the Good and the Evil become confused

The question was, how could the good be separated from the evil under such circumstances? If asked to take sides, many who were good at heart might be loyal to their traditional beliefs, and so associate themselves with the evil pharisees and sadducees.

In this context, the main difference between the good and the evil is the fact that the evil are in external forms of worship without any thought of internal worship. They make a show and simulation of the holy things of the church with what they say and what they do, but this is not from the heart. But since their external forms are the same as those of the the good people, they communicate with them through these. The good, on the other hand, see the external forms of worship as a means of expressing their internal feelings of love to the Lord and the neighbor, and for them, the internal and external are one.

Since the good assume that others who worship as they do also believe as they do, there is a feeling of fellowship, however misplaced or misguided. If the Lord had made the judgment on the Jewish Church too early, many of the good people would have, in ignorance, associated themselves with the evil, and suffered greatly for it.

Only the Lord can see the internals and make truly just judgments

The problem is that no person can judge the spiritual or internal state of another person from the light of the world. The only way we can see spiritual things is from the light of the spiritual world. And so, the separation of the good from the evil in the Jewish Church had to be done in the spiritual world, for it is a law of the spiritual world that no one there can speak or act contrary to their own ruling love, thus evils cannot be hidden by a pleasing outward manner. The true light of the spiritual world shows the honest character of everyone. There, the external forms of everyone’s worship accurately reflects their internal, spiritual state, and those who are internally good are easily separated and gathered together apart from those who are internally evil.

What is said in the Word about the Church is also true about the individual

On a more interior level, we can see that the same thing is true for each of us as individuals as is true for the church–that while on earth our minds are a confusing mixture of truth and falsity, at least in part because we are not fully sure of who we are and what our character is, for its true nature remains hidden from us. However, once we die and enter into the spiritual world, all such confusion will end, for the truth will be easily seen in the light of heaven, as will the falsities, and we will be able to easily sort through them, and collect and keep only those which agree with our genuine internal states. If we are good, then the falsities that plagued us during life in the world will be cast away, and destroyed, never to bother us again.

What is the origin of evil?

On a still more interior level, this parable also tells us something about the Lord’s Divine Providence, and answers the question of where evil came from, and why the Lord permits it to remain in the world.

The Lord tells us in the parable that He used good seed, that is, God created only good people. But we, like his servants, observe that not all is well in the field, we see that there are evil people, and we ask Him, Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares? (MAT 13:27) The Lord’s simple and clear answer to us is that An enemy has done this. (MAT 13:28) God did not create evil, but He created people who had true freedom of choice, which means that they had the freedom to turn away from good, and thereby to invent evil themselves.

Two reasons why the Lord permits evil to continue in the World?

But even if we can understand why He allowed man to invent evil, why yet does it seem to thrive in the world? Could He not somehow weed it out? There are two reasons why He does not.


The first is that the evil serve a use as an example. Nothing is quite so helpful in keeping us from falling into some evil as to see the suffering of someone else who has chosen that evil and has been found out.


The second reason is that it would be harmful to the good, for everyone makes mistakes from time to time. If the farmer had sent his workers out to weed the field at the first indication that there were weeds mixed in with the wheat, no doubt mistakes would be made, good plants would be mistakenly pulled out as weeds. The Lord allows the weeds to grow to maturity because they may yet turn out to be good plants that just looked like weeds at first. At maturity, wheat is easily distinguished from tares, for the wheat produces a head full of grain that is useful for food, while the tares produces nothing of value.

Conclusion: The Doctrine of Use

Each of us faces the reality of our own eventual death. The Lord frequently taught that that part of our lives is represented by the harvest. We know that the harvest is coming. We know that there will be a judgment. It is therefore simple prudence to prepare ourselves for the inevitable by listening to what the Lord teaches in the Word.

The symbolism of fruitfulness, or, to put it another way, the Doctrine of Use, is universal in the Word. The prophet Joel warned of the falsities of the church through symbols of drought and pestilence and failed crops. The Lord Himself taught over and over that the kingdom of heaven is like a farm or a vineyard, and that those who produce good fruit will be put safely into the barns, while the chaff, the tares, the unproductive will be cast into the fire. The Doctrine of Use tells us that heaven is a place of use, where all love to serve others in their own unique ways, and the true, eternal happiness comes only through service to others.

Let us then prepare ourselves to meet death prepared by deciding to change our lives now, by looking for opportunities to be truly useful to others, to follow the command and example of our Lord.

Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (MAT 13:40-43) AMEN.



3rd Lesson: AC 9295.

[4] From all this it can seen what is signified by “the harvest” in the following passages; as in Matthew:- He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; the seed are the sons of the kingdom; the tares are the sons of the evil one; the enemy that soweth them is the devil; but the harvest is the consummation of the age; and the reapers are the angels (xiii 37-39); “the good seed” denotes the truths of faith from the Lord; “the Son of man denotes the Lord in respect to the truths of the church; “the world which is the field” denotes the whole human race; “the sons of the kingdom who are the seed” denote the truths of faith of the church; “the sons of the evil kingdom who are the tares” denote the falsities of faith of the church; “the devil who is the enemy and soweth them” denotes hell; “the consummation of the age which is the harvests denotes the last state of the church in respect to the reception of, the truths of faith in good; “the angels who are the reapers” denote truths from the Lord. That such things are signified by the above words of the Lord, can be seen from their internal dense, as set forth in these explications From the above words it is also manifest in what manner the Lord spake when He was in the world, namely, by means of significatives to the end that the Word might be not only for the world, but also for heaven.


Copyright General Church of the New Jerusalem, 1982 – 2008
Author, Rev. James P. Cooper, M. Div.
Page last modified October 21, 2008

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