“Let both grow together until the harvest”: The Kingdom Parables and the Fallacy of Exclusion

“It is not possible for man to sever the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the other frie; that must be the Angels Ministery at the end of mortall things.”—John Milton, Aeroipagetica

The Kingdom of God is the ultimate ineffable concept: a kind of society that has never existed before and that contradicts every established theory of social or political development. Even its name, “kingdom,” implies a human domination structure that is completely alien to the thing described. To inspire his followers with the possibilities of this society, Jesus must first find ways to describe something for which his audience has no point of reference. This is the central narrative problem of the New Testament: how to eff the ineffable.

The solution to this problem comes in the form of the “Kingdom Parables,” a subset of New Testament parables designed to illustrate some element of the Kingdom. The thirteenth chapter of Matthew is the mother lode of Kingdom Parables. In this one chapter, Jesus gives eight parables, fully interprets two of them, and explains the reasons that he speaks in parables in the first place.

As Matthew presents it, the Kingdom of God great many things. It is like a mustard seed, because it starts out very small and eventually becomes large and nurturing. It is like leaven, because it improves everything that it interacts with. It is like a treasure in a field, because anyone who really understands it will sacrifice every other thing to obtain it. And so on.

These parables can be tricky if we try to carry interpretive assumptions from one parable to another. Do the seeds in the Parable of the Sower become the wheat in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares? Or are the seeds really mustard seeds? Does it then follow that the Kingdom of Heaven should not be allowed to grow at all because it tastes better ground up and put on (kosher) hot dogs? And what do we do with the fact that the rescued lost sheep ends up on a plate with rice and mint jelly?

But the Kingdom Parables were not designed to be interrogated in these ways. They work more like the elephant parts in the Indian parable, The Blind Men and the Elephant. Each parable gives a metaphor that illustrates one element of the kingdom, and we have to try to piece all of these elements together to get a complete picture. Every metaphor will break down if we try to use it as the basis of a comprehensive definition of the Kingdom of God.

So, with all of this in mind, let’s look at two closely related kingdom parables in Matthew 13: the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and the Parable of the Net. The first of these is more developed and even comes with its own separate interpretation. It goes like this:

Another parable put he forth unto them, 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. (Matthew 13: 24-30)

The apocalyptic connotations of this parable are chilling. To the extent that “wheat” and “tares” represent kinds of people, which they certainly appear to, we get the sense of an immanent eschaton, which will involve some people being chosen for salvation and other people taken away and consigned to flames.

Jesus confirms this interpretation himself a few verses later, when he says that the wheat represents “the children of the kingdom” and the tares as “the children of the wicked one” (38). Further, he identifies the reapers in the parable as angels and says that”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” (41-42).

Here’s the important bit: the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is not ABOUT what will happen at the last judgment. Its purpose is not the educate the faithful about the end of times so they can be prepared. Like all of the Kingdom Parables, it gives us instructions about how to behave now, on earth, as we try to build the Kingdom of God. And the instructions are staggeringly clear on one point at least: we are not authorized to exclude anybody. That is not our role.

We don’t get to decide who the tares are because we lack the knowledge and the spiritual sensitivity to make that call. If we try, we will get it wrong. Even at the end, when wheatness and tareness have been clearly manifest, the job of separation falls to angels, not mortals. When we set out to build the Kingdom of God on earth, we carry the explicit instruction to assume that everybody belongs in it.

Matthew gives us a second iteration of this message with the parable of the dragnet, which bundles the interpretation with the parable.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:47-50)

All of the essential elements are here. The comparison of the Kingdom of God to some aspect of the food industry; 2) an judgment of “good” and “bad” intended to apply to people; 3) a caution to avoid trying to make that judgment while gathering people into the kingdom; and 4) a specific statement that angles, not humans, are responsible for making the separation.

We must avoid reading these parables as mere static descriptions of the Kingdom of God. They are, rather, instructions on to build that kingdom here and now. This is why each of the parables has a character or character type that Jesus intends for us to inhabit. We are not the angels in these stories who are charged with separating wheat from tares or good fish from bad. We are the farm workers and the net casters who have been instructed to gather everybody into the fold without excluding anyone. Our job is to “let both grow together until the harvest.”


  1. Interesting, I never quite thought about these parables this way.

    Will have to think on this more.

  2. IMO, the “wheat and tares” parable has more to do with timing than anything else. The reason it would be wrong to remove the tares too soon is because it would be bad for the wheat–because there’s a risk that they too might be uprooted. In real time it would be like saying that cleansing the earth too so would be bad for the faithful because it wouldn’t give them time to become a sanctified people.

  3. The parable of the wheat and tares is found also in a few places in revelations captured in the D&C. The two primary places are Sections 86 and 101, though it is also alluded to in a few other places like 38 and 88.

    In those two sections specifically (86 and 101), some changes, corrections, context, and clarifications are made by whomever is speaking to/ through Joseph that I think are important. Here are a couple relevant examples:

    First, in both 86 and 101, the gathering details or instructions to the angels are changed. As opposed to the corrupted bible version where the tares are first gathered, it is actually the wheat that will be first gathered out by the angels. This makes sense given other imagery of an end times gathering and judgment, particularly the words of Jesus to those at Bountiful as recounted by Mormon. The righteous-wheat will be called and gathered out from among the tares-wicked, going up as calves to the stall with the wicked left behind to be bound in bundles and burned along with the field (i.e., the earth, as I interpret it).

    Second, the attitude of the angels at the situation of the wheat and tares is addressed. In 86, the angels are described as crying day and night, waiting for the opportunity to reap down the fields. The additional allusion in 38 further describes the state of the earth (in 1831) is one in which all flesh has been corrupted, and ‘all eternity is pained’ as a result. I think Enoch’s vision as captured in Moses 7 might have some context for the pain and sorrow, as well as desire for righting the wrongs the righteous endure, that the angels and other heavenly beings have for mankind and the earth in our present situation. The time still hasn’t come to right those wrongs, but it will at some point.

    I don’t think the OP is correct when he states that the parable of the wheat and tares isn’t about end times, judgment, or the manner in which God’s kingdom will be permanently and completely established on earth. It is squarely about those things, and, in my opinion, serves as reassurance that through miraculous means – angels among them – the righteous will be saved, through learning that they are in fact righteous and good and receiving the gift of being restored or brought home to that goodness.

  4. I think it’s interesting to note that the JST includes “messengers of heaven” along with “angels” as those who will separate the wicked from the righteous.

  5. Thank you for this post and this series.

    We actually talked about the wheat and tares in EQ last Sunday. A gentleman who grew up on a farm told us that it’s impossible to tell the difference between wheat and tares until they’re mature. Something Jesus’s audience would’ve known perfectly well.

  6. Tim’s comment reminds me of one other observation.

    I don’t think the wheat and tares parable has anything to do with misidentification of the wheat or the tares. I know that in many instances, including this post, this is made as a primary point of this parable – that the wheat and tares are to grow together because one can’t tell the difference.

    The wheat and the tares grow together because the 1) the enemy planted them there, and 2) the tares cannot be removed or weeded out without injuring the wheat (this is stated more specifically in the Section 86 version). They don’t grow together not because someone might get it wrong or accidentally pull out or exclude the wheat also, but because the faith of the wheat is not yet mature or strong enough for such an action to occur. So, rather than pull the tares, the plan is to let both grow until the wheat is mature, has produced fruit (maybe meaning their faith is sufficient at this point), and then to gather out the wheat. It is a necessary evil that must be endured for a time for the sake of the wheat.

    The OP states that the instructions of these parables are staggeringly clear that we are not to exclude anybody because we can’t tell the difference. I am not actually arguing whether that is true or not in this comment, but only take issue with the fact that this parable actually doesn’t say anything of that nature – it isn’t about that at all. It is something that has been read into these passages from other sources, I suppose. Joseph Smith made the comment regarding religious teachers of his day that they could make the bible pretty much saying anything that they wanted to. This post and the others in this series seems to verify that this is also true today.

    The angels, messengers, and I think many people with discernment can tell the difference between the wheat and the tares because they don’t go by how they look on the surface anyway.

  7. I took Michael’s statement that it’s not our job to identify the wheat and tares and then act accordingly, not as saying we aren’t capable of accurate identification (although really, we probably mostly aren’t) but that it’s not our job. Full stop. It’s above our pay grade and the consequences of misidentification are bad for all concerned, so leave it to the people whose job it actually is.

  8. Thanks for this, Michael. I love your close readings, and I love the focus you’ve found on our responsibility to actively build a world where the Kingdom of God belongs, rather than just waiting for it to appear.

  9. “angels, not mortals”

    The Greek isn’t at clear whether the messengers are mortal or immortal.

  10. I’ve been thinking and reading more about this all weekend. So far I find more persuasive the view that the OP’s reading isn’t the most accurate in terms of purpose of the parable. If one can’t tell which are tares, then the story is, itself internally inconsistent: how can the servants ask where the tares came from once they have sprouted, if one can’t tell the difference until they are mature? It just doesn’t add up. Rather, I think there is more support for the interpretation that it is a question of the maturity of the wheat as others have talked about.

    That said, can’t we sidestep this and just assume that anyone that touches our faith community in a positive way can and should be viewed as the wheat, whose roots are worth nurturing? We let our emotions imperfectly get in the way if we assume that any that think differently/act differently than us and our limited cultural interpretation of the Gospel life leads us to view any around us as tares.

    Or, to say it yet a different way, perhaps we should be focusing our efforts on cultivating and caring for the entire field (the world) while the plants grow, with the knowledge that while it might be feeding the tares, it is certainly feeding the wheat also – and leave the rest to God and those He deliberately sends when the time is right to sort things out.

  11. Kristin Brown says:

    The comments have contributed to this post. Thank you for the added research found in the remarks.

  12. The parable of the wheat & tares is my favorite, and it’s why we named our blog Wheat & Tares; it’s always dispiriting how often misunderstood this parable is, and used as a weapon towards those people deem to be “tares.” I think some folks conflate it with the wolf among the sheep. Not the same vibes at all.

    I had a friend who worked on a fishing boat in Alaska in which they had the unpleasant task of going through the fish in the nets. He said that even when a fish looked big and beautiful, like something fit for a nice restaurant or fish market, it might be rotten inside, and you had to sniff their butts to know the difference. He’d spend hours sniffing fish butts. That’s why they paid em the big bucks.

  13. can’t we sidestep this and just assume that anyone that touches our faith community in a positive way can and should be viewed as the wheat, whose roots are worth nurturing?

    I agree that it’s shortsighted to assume that your nominal group affiliation is what makes you a wheat or a tare or even that you can be described as just one or the other. I reckon we are always both wheaty in some ways and tarey in others.

  14. One additional thought for consideration: I don’t think it is just wheat and tares that populate this field.

    This view might – hopefully – take away some of the angst and valid concerns other commentators have expressed around trying to bucket or fit people, or ourselves, into one category or the other. Let me explain at least as how I think on it (just my opinion or sketch in my mind … feel free to shoot whatever down or take it and come up with your own view and see where it takes you).

    The Wheat is Israel. They are Jesus’ covenant people, a known quantity to him based on who they were and what they have done before the creation of this earth. They are the sheep that are numbered to him (meaning there really is a set number of them), and Jesus promised them that he would redeem them. That is his promise to each member of Israel – not just a general collective, but each individual. Consequently, Israel has little to do with who your birth parents are here on earth (a point John the Baptist was making to those claiming lineage from Abraham, if that story is accurate, at least), but is rather something that you are and, at least currently, they are scattered across all nations and earthly families.

    The Tares are children of the devil, also a known quantity to both the devil and Jesus based on their own choices and actions before coming here. They are the eternal enemy of Israel, and serve the devil here in trying to make Jesus break his promise that he will redeem them. Where there is Wheat you will find Tares planted with the purpose of choking them out.

    Then there is a third group… the Gentiles. This group is not Israel, and so do not have the promises or covenants to be redeemed, but they were also not servants of the devil in the Great Before and so are not assured a roasting. In my belief, in the great gathering of Israel/ Wheat and in the burning of the Tares, it is and will be up to the Gentiles to choose for themselves where they want to be. The invitation is extended to be numbered among and gathered with the house of Israel (see Jesus’ invitation that he commanded Mormon to write in 3 Nephi 30), or they can choose otherwise.

    To summarize, I think there is a greater than zero chance that you and those you know are neither a wheat nor a tare.

  15. ” we are not authorized to exclude anybody. ”
    Who is we in this statement? Does it include the Lord’s authorized servants?

    Who are the reapers if not authorized servants? D&C 4 takes it a step further. If you desire to serve God you are authorized. Disagree? The reapers in D&C 4 are written as thrusting in their sickle.

    When is the harvest time of gathering into the barn?

    Again D&C 4 answers that question. It is now. Or rather, it started almost 200 years ago: ““For behold, the field is white already to harvest;”

    Can you rewrite your fine interpretation in light of D&C 4?

    Verses 5 and 6 make it pretty clear that the work needs to be done in a certain way, but the fact that the harvesting started 200 years ago would suggest we need to expand our understanding of the timing of the wheat and tares, wouldn’t it?

    After all, it’s the Lord giving the parable in both instances. Surely he gave the latter reference some 1800 years later with an understanding that we’d be familiar with the original wheat/tares reference.

    Section 86 adds an additional dimension to this, blending past and present (to Joseph that is). So I think to understand this parable fully we need to consider the timing in the Lord’s mortal life, the timing of the parable when the apostles were building up the kingdom without the Lord on the earth, the many years in between then and the restoration, the start of the restoration, from that time up until present day, and then of course, from now until his return.

  16. Angela C –
    Sniffing Fish Butts would make a good blog name as well.

  17. “I reckon we are always both wheaty in some ways and tarey in others.”
    Peter – that is certainly true. But the purpose of a parable isn’t to encompass all truth. So that’s somewhat besides the point. If the Lord wanted to discuss the dichotomy that exists in mankind, he would have done so. Not saying it’s not a good observation, but I think we often do a parable disservice when we expect it to say all things — not accusing you of doing so.

    But in this case, the Lord wanted to say something specific. It’s not that we can’t recognize the weed, but it seems that focusing on the weed while the field is growing would detract from growing of the field. So grow the field, he says, to the original apostles.

    Later, he says the field is white and ready.

    What specifically that means, is elaborated on — go out in love and charity and virtue and bring them to Christ. The exclusion process would seem to be part of that gathering in one way or another. It seems it’s mostly self-selection exclusion but according to the parable, the wheat is being separated after being cut down and gathered isn’t it? In light of modern revelation specifically referencing this parable, I think both admonitions still apply. Some fields are white and ready to harvest. Others are tender and still growing.

  18. Sute, you seem to be falling into the trap that Michael warns about (that is, importing the meaning of one parable into another). It’s true that D&C uses field-harvesting imagery, but it doesn’t strike me as relying on the parable of the wheat and tares. In fact, D&C 4 seems to be referencing, not wheat and tares, but John 4:35-36. D&C 4 is speaking specifically to missionary work, while the parable of the wheat and tares is not. John 4 is also speaking to missionary work and, importantly, uses the precise same language as D&C: the field is “white already to harvest.

    Since the parable and D&C 4 are doing different work, since the imagery and topic of D&C 4 and John 4 are the same, and since the parable and John 4 have no relationship, I feel pretty comfortable not using one to interpret the other.

  19. Sam,
    Literally in section 86, the Lord literally says, “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servants, concerning the parable of the wheat and of the tares…”

    Maybe the article could incorporate that. That being said, sec86 says the blades are still tender, at least in the early days of the restoration.

    Still tender? Maybe some places, maybe all places,
    maybe none . I can support any of those readings. They all disagree a little with DC4 that says the field is white.

    That’s why I think bringing them all into coherence would be nice.

    If you look at 86:3, and the earlier verses, the tares are actively harming the church, or at least harmed the early church, according to the time frame you want to apply.

  20. Kristine says:

    Sute–there’s nothing in D&C 86 that suggests that it is related to D&C 4. “Bringing them all into coherence” might be nice, but it would require a pretty whimsical hermeneutic.

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 )

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: