The following was originally posted on Uncommon Dissent.
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. (Matt. 13:24-30).
Jesus was a story teller.
For practically two millenia, people have been mining his stories for deep, hidden truths. His parables are known throughout much of the world and are the focus of books, articles, web pages, and sermons.
There is both beauty and frustration in Jesus’ stories, because his stories are typically classified as parables. Unlike the parable’s cousin the allegory–for which the correct interpretation is generally believed to be the author’s intended interpretation–the parable can mean different things to different people. For that matter, a parable may mean different things to the same person at different times. Parables are, by their nature, vague and polymorphous. Like Play-Doh, a parable can be shaped to fit the needs of a situation or of a particular person.
The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, which I read earlier, is the second of seven parables given in that chapter. And those seven parables definitely had a theme. The Wheat and the Tares is the first of six parables to be prefaced with the words “the kingdom of heaven is like unto.”
Something unique about this parable is that it is one of few parables that Christ interpreted for us. So, we could make this a really short talk and just read Christ’s interpretation. The wheat are the righteous and will be saved; the tares are the wicked and will be burned, yadda yadda yadda…but how boring. So I’m going to argue that at best, this interpretation is useless; and at worst, it is wrong.
The ‘at best’ qualification involves interpreting the parable at a general level. Although Christ eventually gave the interpretation, he only gave the interpretation to his closest associates. We understand that, at the time, there were a number of Jews looking for a savior to redeem Israel from Roman rule. They wanted a savior that would release them from political bondage and restore Israel as a political force in the region. For them, the parable of the wheat and tares would have been an early introduction to the idea that perhaps there wouldn’t be a political savior; and that the Kingdom of God could still thrive under foreign rule. To His closest associates, the parable may have been an early introduction to the idea that the Gospel would be taken to all people, not just those of Abraham’s lineage.
This general level interpretation isn’t very useful to us. We as a church, and Christianity as a whole came to terms with this interpretation nearly two thousand years ago.
The ‘at worst’ interpretation involves assuming that each person in the world is either a wheat or a tare. And this, I believe, is a flawed and dangerous interpretation. It runs contrary to many of Christ’s other teachings. And based on the fact that this and several other parables were prefaced with “the kingdom of heaven is like unto,” I don’t think Christ ever thought of individuals as either wheat or tare.
The problem with that interpretation is it assumes that some people were wicked the moment they were born into the world. We know this isn’t true: “For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil” (Moroni 7:16).
This interpretation also bars the possibility of change. But Nephi tells us, “I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ…He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved” (2 Nephi 31:13, 15).
It’s time we moved past the wicked/righteous dichotomy.
Now, if the kingdom level interpretation is useless to us, and the individual level interpretation is wrong, we need a new interpretation. We need an interpretation that fits our needs, our culture, our unique challenges.
Fortunately, Christ offered us some insight into how we might reinterpret the parable. A woman was brought before him, and her accusers challenged Christ to make good on his parable. “Destroy this tare,” they dared him. The woman caught in adultery was thrust before him and they asked if she should be stoned.
After a brief moment of quiet contemplation, he dispelled her accusers. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” As the accusers dispersed, hopefully having seen a bigger picture, Christ turned to the woman and comforted her. “I do not condemn you,” he said. “Go, and cultivate your wheat.”
The power that comes from our parable is not in seeing individuals as a single wheat or a single tare, but in seeing each individual as a field full of both wheat and tares. We are each rich, fertile soil full of both of right and wrong choices; of good and bad ideas.
I learned a valuable interpretation of the wheat and the tares a few years ago when I was attending the sealing of my best friend. It is one of only a few opportunities I’ve had to see two people sealed to each other in the temple. We were ushered into the sealing room, my friend and her husband came in after and before the ordinance, the man performing the sealing spoke to them. For ten minutes, he spoke to the groom about his responsibility to protect, provide for, uplift and teach Marie and their future family. And then he turned to Marie and said, “All that applies to you too.”
I. was. livid. Livid isn’t a strong enough word, but I do believe we’re discouraged from using the language that would accurately describe how I felt at the time. Marie had served a mission, earned a doctorate degree, was brilliant, accomplished, generous. And in what is said to be one of the most exquisite moments of our lives, she got six words for no reason other than she was the wife.
Yeah, I was livid.
So after the sealing–and a few (or 30) minutes outside in the parking lot to calm down–I went back into the temple to do an endowment session. In the presentation of the endowment, the creation of the world is presented and some of God’s rationale behind His creations are stated. And at one point that day (and I admit, I might have still been brooding over the sealing), I remember the Spirit slapping me in the back of the head and saying, “Hey, pay attention here. You’re about to learn something.” And that was when the narrative explained that the earth would be created with mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, and streams, “that there may be beauty and variety on the face of the earth.”
In that moment, I was taught that people have different ideas. People have different beliefs. People have different interpretations. And all of that diversity gives beauty to our church. All of that diversity gives beauty to the kingdom of heaven.
I’ve spent the years following that experience trying to learn more tolerance and appreciation for ideas and opinions that differ from my own. I’m usually wildly unsuccessful, but I’m trying.
And I don’t mean to say that all ideas are good. Certainly, I think there are a lot of bad ideas out there. If you talk to me for any length of time, you’ll hear a lot of griping about politics, the Church, and people in general. Some of my thoughts are wheat, some are tares. And some of those things I gripe about are wheat, and some are tares.
Now here’s the really, really hard part. We must not pull up the tares. Remember, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a field of wheat and tares. Our task is to build the kingdom of heaven. But when we engage in crusades to root out disagreement and dissent, we root out the wheat as well. And keep in mind, sometimes the disagreement and the dissent are the wheat.
Our task is to build the kingdom of heaven. That means studying both the wheat and the tares. That means we need to be more open about our thoughts, beliefs, and experiences, as well as more sensitive about how we present them. We need to speak with the intent of building the kingdom of heaven.
For the past several years, I’ve taken to observing Lent. Lent is a traditional Christian period of fasting that lasts 40 days leading up to Easter. In one of my first years observing Lent, another Mormon, apparently bothered by my observance, made a snarky remark about how Mormons do it better because we fast all year round, not just one time a year. This person was then bothered that I defended the practice. Keep in mind, Mormons may fast throughout the year, but as an organization, we fast for twelve days a year, less than a third of the time of Lent. But to this person, it seems that Lent wasn’t ‘Mormon enough,’ and so I was in need of correction.
What’s important to recognize, though, is that there is value in both of those traditions. The Mormon fast has applications in charity and sacrifice as it is tied to fast offerings. The Christian Lent has applications in self improvement, as forty days of giving up something is long enough to establish a habit. Sure, both traditions have their weaknesses, but both traditions also have their value. We should look to identify the wheat in both of them, and cultivate those aspects. And rejecting one because it isn’t ‘Mormon enough’ does nothing to build the kingdom of heaven.
On the other hand, when I say things like, “I don’t like Mormons enough to vote for one to be president” – yes, I really said that. And I regret it, because even though it may bear some resemblance to how I might actually feel, the way I said it is divisive and hurtful. It does nothing to build the kingdom. We desperately need to stop doing these kinds of things to each other.
Instead, we need to see that even when we may disagree about how to build the kingdom, we are all committed to building it together.
So, there it is. We need more kingdom building. We need more debate with friendship. We need more discussion with less preaching. We need more disagreement with laughter. We need more time together. We need more compassion. We need more empathy.
In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare that I am convinced that this is the Kingdom of God. As frustrating, backwards, and unpleasant as I sometimes feel it is, I am still convinced that we are building God’s Kingdom–that we are all building God’s Kingdom. And I believe that the authority and the keys to bring individuals to exaltation lives here.
So here is the challenge I leave for all of you (and all of me). Let she who is a field of pure wheat pull the first tare. Otherwise, go. Cultivate your wheat. Build the Kingdom of God–do extraordinary things; think extraordinary thoughts; build extraordinary friendships–that there may be beauty and variety on the face of the earth.