The fatal flaws in the evangelism of the Pharisees were that it was specific and exclusive. It was offered primarily to fellow Jews and it specifically sought to turn them into Pharisees. Jesus condemned this in His comments about the “woes” of the Pharisees and gave us the principles of proper evangelism in the parable of the Sower and the Seed (see last week’s article).
They are the very opposite of the Pharisees’ principles: God’s Word is to be spread broadly, indiscriminately, and without care for the consequences. The seed is like grace: Ubiquitous, in unlimited supply, and self-propagating. Grace begets grace, and it falls everywhere, oblivious to boundaries.
There are further clues about the principles of evangelism in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, and the explanation Jesus gave for it:
Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matthew 13:24-30)
Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” And He said, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:36-43)
In this Parable (in contrast to the Parable of the Sower) the ground on which the seed is sown was all fertile and productive. However, it was vulnerable to contamination by bad seed, which is exactly what happened when the farm hands failed to keep watch. They slept, as the disciples slept and failed to keep watch over Jesus when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of His arrest. Failing to remain watchful is evidently a loophole through which the devil climbs.
What does all this mean as far as our evangelism is concerned? The appearance of tares—weeds—in the field came as a surprise to the field hands. “Did you not sow good seed?” they asked the farmer, rhetorically, and were at a loss to explain the weeds. They did not realize their own inattention was enough to let them in. It seems that our lack of attention to something allows contamination of God’s kingdom. The farmer’s purpose is to have a clean field, but the enemy’s purpose is to contaminate it.
Thus, the parable provides both some explanation and an indictment. It appears we are more eager to clean up the mess than to prevent it in the first place. It might be an important message for evangelism that watchful attention to the field is better than trying to clean up a mess; that in soul-winning, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As well, since the contamination comes from a supernatural source (“the enemy who sowed them is the devil”) the cleanup must also be handled by a supernatural entity. As we learnt in the Garden of Eden, the discrimination of good and evil is not for us. Only the divine can discriminate accurately and reliably. The risk of error from human clean-up would be too great.
Based on these two seed parables, how does the evangelism of Jesus differ from the evangelism of the Pharisees?
Donald: It would seem to me that our job is to reflect Christ’s kindness and graciousness. That is the seed we must sow. The tares get in the way. They are a distraction. They ruin the crop. There are many distractions within a church—debates, conversations, and more.
David: The parable worries me. As a metaphor for evangelism it might be construed as a justification for mounting crusades: When Christianity was asleep, Islam crept in to infest the kingdom of heaven. God clearly says “Leave crusades, if any, to Me” but evangelists pick and choose bits of Scripture to justify anything they want to do. I must be missing something.
Jay: Anonymous talked last week about the different soils in the Parable of the Sower representing different stages of receptiveness to enlightenment within the individual. It is indeed interesting to consider the parable from this personal, individual, perspective. If we apply that same perspective to the Parable of the Wheat then it removes any concern about it justifying an organizational call to arms.
When we define the fruit the seed should produce, as the Pharisees did, then evangelism is bad. In the parables, the fruit is not defined. In the Parable of the Wheat, the human helpers think they can distinguish between good fruit—wheat—and bad fruit—tares. In the parable, God clearly tells them they cannot.
Donald: What is the fruit we are expected to produce through our evangelism? Is it conversion?
Jay: Isaiah 55 tells us that the seed produces what God wants it to produce, devoid of any human intervention, and that we are not capable of understanding what God wants. In that sense, we are not intended to “produce” anything. But we don’t like that. We want to have some say in the matter, to be in control. Then, we feel compelled to define what we want to produce. The Pharisees defined wheat very narrowly and very specifically as fellow Jews who were like them—hence their woes. God clearly says they—we—cannot accurately and reliably define wheat or tares.
Donald: Faiths use doctrines to define themsleves, and there is danger in that. They add doctrines over time, spinning a wider web in hopes of netting more converts to their faith. There were very few doctrines in the early Adventist Church, compared to today’s Church.
Don: This is Mankind’s natural and almost irresistible tendency. We want to clean up the mess. It’s as though we think God is not up to the job Himself, that He can’t get by without our help.
David: It seems to me significant in that regard that Jesus began the Parable of the Wheat with “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to [a farm]”. He was talking about spiritual life, while we are talking about religious life. They are different, but we treat them as synonymous. Spiritual life is God’s business alone.
Donald: Why are we so eager to clean things up? Things seem clear enough in the beginning. Why do we keep adding laws?
David: Because in our fallen state we think we are like God.
Don: Can we develop an evangelism strategy around this perspective, or is it an anti-evangelism perspective?
Donald: What is the purpose of evangelism if not to show Christ’s graciousness? Is it to define things so narrowly that we become like a club and compete for members of a certain sort?
Jay: Is the Great Commission given by Jesus at the end of Matthew evangelism? If so, what does it mean to go and make disciples?
Mikiko: Matthew 28:19 Jesus commanded the disciples to go and tell the good news of the kingdom of heaven to the world and to baptize the people. Matthew 13 tells us about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. When people hear the message about the kingdom and do not understand it, the Evil One comes and snatches away the seed that was sown in their hearts. These are the “rocky path” people, but those who do retain and nurture the seed are rewarded with joy.
Don: In these two parables, the Evil One thwarts evangelism in two ways: One by grabbing the good seed before it can germinate, the other by polluting the field of germinating seed with unfruitful weeds. What does that imply?
Donald: We talked last week about our role having to do with the husk but not the kernel of the seed. But do we have any role to do with the seed at all?
David: The perspective we are discussing is indeed anti-evangelism, but the Great Commission is pro-evangelism. So the question is: Has our interpretation of the Great Commission mis-defined evangelism as Jesus meant it? Does our wrong interpretation invalidate most if not all of the evangelism practiced since at least the Council of Nicaea?
Don: Is our evangelism at risk for being like the evangelism of the Pharisees in trying to bring others into our church and be like ourselves?
Jay: It might be at risk, yes. But I don’t think that means we should stop evangelizing and I don’t think that means we should stop sharing with others how our current situation helps us to achieve the Great Commission (to put it rather vaguely!) Can being a Seventh Day Adventist—or a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Methodist or a Catholic or a Muslim—help me to achieve it? Can it help me to love God with all my heart? Can we evangelize without claiming the exclusive right to do so?
David: There’s more to it than that. Evangelism in these parables is the devil. Evangelism is going and snatching good seed out of the hearts of those in whom God has already planted it, be they fertile or barren soil. Evangelism seized the seed—the Word—of love for one’s fellow Wo/Man and warped it to launch the Crusades. The Crusades were the work of the devil masquerading as evangelical Christianity.
We may have moderated the practice, but have we moderated the principle of our religious evangelism? To this outside and therefore ignorant observer that principle seems still to be to take away the seed, the inner light, the eternity planted in every wo/man; albeit with the very best of intentions. We may devoutly believe we are ridding the garden of weeds while actually uprooting what might turn, at least in God’s eyes, into beautiful flowering plants if left to grow unmolested.
Don: The real question is: What is our business? Is it sowing, or is that God’s business? What about reaping? Tending? Watering? Weeding? Are they all God’s business and if so, what is our business in this whole enterprise?
Donald: I agree with Jason that our faith helps give us a role. But if the purpose of a faith is to convert people to that faith, that would seem to be problematic.
Jay: Some might argue that the purpose of evangelism is salvation and that conversion is the first step thereto. That would seem to be even more problematic, because there is no doubt that salvation is God’s business, not ours.
Don: We need to discuss further the end product, the fruit, of evangelism, and to determine our role vs. God’s role.
David: It would be interesting to design a new-age evangelical program.
Don. …followed by a new church… 🙂
David: …with a very small Bible… 🙂
Don: …written by David. 🙂