The Wheat, the Tares and Looking at History

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a story.  A few verses later (vs 36-43) he tells his disciples what that story means.  The story is about a man who sows good seed in his field.  While he is sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares (or weeds) in that field and went away.  As the wheat begins to grow, the weeds begin to grow up along with the wheat.  The servants of the man who sowed good seed want to pull up the weeds.  But the sower of the wheat makes an interesting decision.  He says, “no, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.”  He tells them to “let them both grow together until the harvest”.  At harvest time the weeds are gathered first, bundled together and thrown into the fire. The wheat is then harvested and gathered into the barn.

When Jesus explains the story to his disciples, he identifies himself (the Son of Man) as the one who sows the good seed.  The field is the world. The good seed are the sons of the kingdom.  The weeds are the sons of the wicked one.  The enemy who sowed the weeds is the devil.  The harvesters are the angels and the harvest is the end of the age.  In verse 41, Jesus states that thus “the Son of Man will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers”.

Great, what does this have to do with church history?  Glad you asked. One of the most frustrating realities in looking at church history is how muddled the picture can be.  The same characters in the drama are capable of often both capable of amazing devotion to Christ and actions which go horribly wrong.  Constantine is just one example.  He ends the persecution of the church and is concerned that the church be unified and strong.  He seriously studies Christian doctrine and changes the laws of the Roman Empire to greatly better the position of women and slaves while abolishing some horribly evil practices.  He also ruthlessly executes his enemies (including his wife and one of his sons) and continues other evil practices of Roman law.  So who is he, really?  Like wheat and tares, it is often hard to tell.  Wheat and tares greatly resemble one another in their early stages of development.  The plants have to begin to mature before you can really tell them apart.  I am not just picking on Constantine, either.  All of biblical and church history are filled with characters with profoundly mixed records.  David, the man after God’s own heart, commits adultery and murder.  The list of examples in nearly endless.  History, it seems, is like a field filled with both wheat and weeds.  The fact that Jesus states that at the end of the age he will “gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers” lends itself to the obvious conclusion that in this present age a lot of sin and law-breaking exists in His Kingdom, which includes you and me.

What conclusions can one draw from looking at history through the lens of the story of the Wheat and the Tares?

1.  We need to re-think our role in resisting evil.  This means we need to be careful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  To quote Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, “even the wise cannot see all ends”.  Just war theorizing and pacifism both are fatally flawed.  It is easy to point out “just wars” that have gone horribly wrong.  But nonviolent resistance cannot be idolized either.  For every apparent success there are numerous failures. Gandhi’s nonviolence movement resulted ultimately in the independence of India from British colonial power.  It also unleashed a bloody civil war that killed over one million people and left generations of simmering hatred.  The civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in the end of legalized segregation and generations of voting disenfranchisement.  But a generation later, the African-American community still lags behind in every measure of poverty and over 70% of African-American children in the United States are born out of wedlock. The nonviolent movements in the former Soviet bloc in the late 80s and early 90s were successful in throwing off the yoke of Soviet oppression in countries all over Eastern Europe.  But a similar movement in China was crushed in Tiananmen Square.  Earlier movements in Europe (such as Hungary in the last 1950s and the Prague Spring in the last 1960s) met similar fates.  The Arab Spring movement that we see in Egypt, Syria and other countries may or may not result in anything of lasting value.  We cannot make idols of methods and always assume the purity of our motives or the rightness of our cause.  Even our best intentions can go horribly awry.

2.  The Wheat and the Tares are intertwined and it is beyond our power to uproot the Tares on our own.  In fact, on our own strength we are powerless to uproot evil even out of our own lives, much less the lives of others or the course of nations. In the story, the Tares are removed by angels, not by the sons of the kingdom.  We are utterly dependent upon divine action to uproot evil.  This is as true of individuals as it is of nations. This isn’t an excuse to do nothing.  But it is a call to humility.  I can’t uproot sin out of my own life, but I can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in obedience as He pulls the weeds.  Likewise, we are not in charge of history. When we look at the actions of the past, it is not our role to be judge and jury of past characters, groups or nations in the drama of history.

All history is revisionist.  To state the obvious, we weren’t there, we don’t know all of the facts and we can’t say with certainty what we would or wouldn’t have done in the same circumstances.  We all read, write and think with our own biased point of view.  So why read history?  Why think about and examine the actions, motivations and characters of the past?  It isn’t about the past, it is about the present.  It isn’t about them, it is about us.  It isn’t to judge the past.  It is to discern the present.  Most of the problems we face as individuals, as families, as churches and as nations have been faced by someone before us.  They made decisions and took actions that resulted in consequences that we have the privilege to see and examine.  It is a gift we should not take lightly.  It should not be wasted by the taking the easy path of categorizing the world into “victims” and “oppressors.   In looking at church history it is just as big of a waste to view the story in the terms of “Constantinianism” and some sort of glorified “remnant”.  The same person or nation can be both a victim and an oppressor (often at the same time).  The same Christian or church can be faithful and unfaithful (again, often at the same time). We can’t change the past and the future isn’t written yet.  What we have is today.  What we have is the opportunity to hear God and obey in our own circumstance. What we have is the influence that God has given to us.  Most of all, what we have is the promise that although we aren’t in charge of history, we can play a part in serving the One who is.

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