16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Parable of the Wheat and Tares

SCRIPTURES & ART: God lets the wheat and tares co-exist, but not indefinitely. There is a moment of judging and separating. There is a heaven. And there is a hell.

Abraham Bloemaert, “The Parable of the Wheat and Tares”
Abraham Bloemaert, “The Parable of the Wheat and Tares” (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, the Sunday Gospel began reading Matthew 13, a chapter that contains multiple parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. We began with the Parable of the Sower and Seed, discussing the fate of God’s Word amid various situations of human life.

This week, Jesus turns to the problem of good and evil. Last week, the sower planted good seed in his fields, though what happened to that seed varied. This week, as the seed begins to sprout, the slaves report to the Master that not only is wheat growing, but there are weeds, too. 

Traditionally, the English words used to describe those weeds (ζιζάνια) are “tares” or “darnel.” Tares or darnel demonstrate the deliberate and malevolent nature of the “enemy’s” counter-sowing: when those kinds of weeds sprout, they mimic wheat in appearance. They thus infiltrate the field under the appearance of good wheat. It’s clear this is not an accident, an unfortunate cross-pollination of crabgrass. This is an intentional deed.

The slaves want to take immediate action: they ask if they should go and pull up the weeds. Probably to their surprise, the owner of the field says “no.” He doesn’t want to lose any of his wheat by accident: “if you pull up the weeds, you might uproot the wheat along with them.” 

The field owner takes a calculated risk. Last week, we learned that some seedlings get choked off as they try to grow amidst weeds and brambles. But that’s our world after Adam’s fall: spiritual life must be lived in the field of the world, not a protected greenhouse. And that generally makes you stronger.

Our world calculates risks differently. Why worry about a few stalks of wheat, when you have the whole harvest? Why go off in search of one stupid, lost sheep, when you have 99 left? 

But God doesn’t reckon by utilitarian calculus. Every one of his wheat plants, every one of his sheep, is precious. 

That’s not to say wheat and weeds are the same. The harvest — the end of the world — is a time of separation and judging. The wheat goes safely into the barn. The weeds are bundled for burning.

(Jesus offers two other parables today, reminding us that great things — including the Kingdom of Heaven — begin with small steps. Mustard seeds are among the smallest seeds, but produce tall shrubs. Yeast is a tiny but essential ingredient in making bread, thanks to which the whole loaf rises.)

Jesus, of course, explains the parable of the wheat and tares to his Apostles. As we saw, the wheat is God’s good seed; the weeds are the devil’s work. God lets them co-exist, but not indefinitely. There is a moment of judging and separating. There is a heaven. And there is a hell.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by the Netherlandish artist Abraham Bloemaert (1566-1651). Though the Protestant Netherlands eventually won independence from Catholic Spain, Bloemaert remained Catholic. During his long life, artistic styles changed and Bloemaert changed with them. 

Bloemaert painted the Parable of the Wheat and Tares at least once, though an Indian priest — Father Walter D’Souza — assures us that Bloemaert painted the parable again. I’ll take Father D’Souza’s assurances, because I prefer the second painting, even though I can find it in no other source. I’ll also use it to comment on the first.

I prefer the second painting because it makes explicit just who is the “enemy” (Ἐχθρὸς) [who] has done this.” It is the devil. This deserves to be clear because, as many popes have made clear, one of the devil’s best ruses is to convince people he doesn’t exist. Once that happens, sin is usually the next casualty: people don’t think sin exists, either. It becomes an “error,” a “lack of understanding,” a lapse in human “fragility” — everything except the deliberate, intentional, and malignant choice that it is. The sowing of weeds is, as noted, no accident: it is a deliberate act to injure God’s creation. That it is a futile act detracts neither from its reality nor its deliberateness: like it or not, persons do things out of hate and spite.

In this painting, the diabolical identity of the evil sower is clear. He has the devil’s wings, horns and cloven hooves. He is no “angel of light.” In his wake come the birds — identified last week by Jesus as the devil — still feasting on good seed. In the foreground is a slumbering servant, whom the devil passes both stealthily and jeeringly. Slumbering versus watchfulness is not unique to this parable. It is a New Testament motif. St. Peter (1 Peter 5:8) warns Christians to “be sober and awake” lest the devil, like a roaring lion, find you as prey. St. Paul (Romans 13:11) stirs us that “it is time to awake from sleep, because your salvation is closer at hand” and the Kingdom of Heaven — the theme of this parable — is coming. Jesus himself presses his sleepy Apostles to keep watch with him in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:40-45). The master’s more elegant mannerist manor house is in the background. It looks as if there are some folks on the front porch but they, too, are more caught up in their own revelries to notice the enemy in the field.

Compare this painting with Bloemaert’s work most often displayed as “The Parable of the Wheat and Tares.” Like the other painting, we have sleepy servants; unlike the other painting, they are more prominent. They are nude, with the remains of their eating and drinking scattered on the ground, perhaps alluding to 1 Corinthians 10:17: “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to revel.” They lie at the base of their ramshackle slaves’ quarters, adjacent to the Master’s house. The buildings and the pose of the servants all point to mannerist elements in the painting. A goat — traditionally a symbol of obstinate evil — stands on the left, staring at us, bringing us into the picture. 

Unlike the other painting, the evil sower here is in the background, making his way across the field. Bloemaert takes care to identify him: note the horns protruding from his head. If the other painting makes clear who the enemy is, this painting accentuates the devil’s preferred modus operandi: doing his thing in the background, unnoticed. Here, too, the birds are ready to peck at the good wheat seeds still left. The fact that several perch on the slaves’ shack perhaps reflects a judgment on their complicity, at least by omission, in the evil about to befall the field owner.

The field owner, of course, is God. We’ll come back to this image in other parables, e.g., the owner of the vineyard who sends his representatives and then his Son to collect what is due him, only for those designees to be manhandled and murdered. Elsewhere, Jesus reminds us that our doing God’s Will is not some favor we do God: we are “useless servants” who only do what we are commanded to do.

The more common Bloemaert painting is in the Walters Gallery in Baltimore. I cannot locate who holds the painting Father D’Souza identifies.

If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Plato, Aquinas, or Aristotle?

What Was Then and What Is Now

COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’