Who, or What, is Judged?

Jay: The parable of the Wheat and the Tares ends with a statement about judgment:

(New King James Version:) Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who 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 grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Unusually, Jesus took pains to explain this parable:

(New King James Version:) Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”

He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Matthew 13:36-43)

What did Jesus mean by all this, and in particular what did He mean by “things that offend” and “those who practice lawlessness?

David: The simple answer to the latter is that “things that offend” in the NKJV is translated as “stumbling blocks” in the NASB, and “practice” is translated as “commit.”

Jay: Does this help us understand better what “discernment” means in the judgment context?

David: Jesus defines the “field” as His kingdom of heaven on earth. We usually equate “heaven” with “paradise,” but this kingdom has evil (tares) in it, so cannot be paradise.

Jay: We tend to think that the kingdom of heaven comes after judgment, but in this parable, heaven precedes judgment.

David: It also refers to two heavens: The heaven on earth of Jesus, and the heaven of God the Father. I don’t recall seeing Scripture writ so clearly!

Jay: Yes. For once, Jesus says: “This is what I mean.” It makes the parable especially interesting.

Anonymous: It is not a judgment of people. It is a judgment of “things” that get between us and God. They could be buildings, jobs, titles, certificates, possessions, sicknesses, greediness, and so on. But these things are not to be removed while we live: They are to be removed at the end, when there will be nothing to come between us and God. So there is no judgment of people. We are the wheat, and will be saved for God. Ecclesiastes says that the deeds of good men are in God’s hands.

So if people do good deeds, who is practicing bad things? “Practice” implies having things to practice on and with. Paul said that God will test our works, and those that are built on straw will be burned. But the builder of the bad works will be saved anyway. What people practice is built on straw. It will be burned, but they will be saved. Judgment is not of people, but of the things that stand between them and God.

Jay: So it is things, not people, that end up in outer darkness?

David: Jonah said, in effect, that he would rather live in outer darkness than to be “shining forth as the sun in the kingdom of God” (to paraphrase slightly).

Michael: Parables like this seem to present things in black and white. People are presented as good or bad, and the difference is supposed to be obvious. This strikes me as simplistic and false (in the sense of irrational, not immoral).

Jay: The parable does talk about discernment, about who is capable of it, and about about when it should be exercised. It should not be done until the harvest and it should be done by angel reapers, not by field hands.

Anonymous: “Field hands” probably means humans. Reapers reap grain—a good thing.

David: Perhaps “lawlessness” is meant as an absolute; as the complete absence of any lawful, redeeming behavior whatsoever. Absent any smidgen of good, what’s left is pure, unadulterated evil.

The parable is about God’s judgment, so it’s not surprising that we should be denied the job of judging. The judgment is not of people but of good and evil. The wheat and the tares represent good and evil, not good people and bad people. People have varying degrees of both. What is being chased out of them at judgment is the evil in them, leaving behind only the good, which by definition is worthy of being saved and worthy of a place in the kingdom of heaven. It is barely conceivable that there is any human without at least some tiny shred of goodness in him or her.

Michael: I prefer to soften the black/white nature of judgment by applying principles of the Dao and yin/yang. I believe that in every good act, there is a seed of evil; and in every evil act, there is a seed of goodness. Good and evil cannot be separated completely, it seems to me. For instance, we’re bound to feel good after doing a good deed, no matter how pure our motive. We feel pleasurably rewarded, even though we did not do it for reward, and that then makes us feel guilty for feeling good about doing it—as though there must have been some slight evil in it.

David: Our tendency to selfishness is indeed a Daoist sin. The pure, perfect Daoist is selfless, period. If one is selfless, what is there to be judged?

Jay: Did Satan have the ability to sow bad people (tares) in the world (the field)?

Anonymous: The tares are perhaps the angels of the Devil.

Michael: We know the reapers are God’s angels, because Jesus said so. But He did not say who the servants/field hands are.

Anonymous: Perhaps they are anyone who tries to remove the tares—priests and all of us who think it is our duty to pluck out evil. Yet it seems we are just not capable of it.

Jay: Not without risking harm to the good—to the wheat. As Michael said, good and evil are so intertwined that it is hard to separate them cleanly. It takes a supernatural, a divine hand. And it cannot be done before the harvest. Why not? Is it because the fruit/grain is not ripe, not ready, until then?

Anonymous: At first, wheat and tares are hard to differentiate; but when ripe, the difference between ears of wheat and of tares is very obvious.

David: We are told we cannot discern good from evil, even though we gained knowledge of them in the garden of Eden. The difference between pre- and post-Fall Adam and Eve was in their self-awareness. Anything that has selfhood is incapable of complete discernment of good and evil. Our white lies use evil (the lie) to do good (to help someone). That we resort to telling white lies shows just how incapable we are of separating good from evil. We all have selves, until we die. That is our harvest time, that is our End of the Age.

Jay: If we replace the notion of judgment being about people with judgment of good and evil, then all Scripture of all religions perhaps needs to be reinterpreted in that light.

Anonymous: Could it be that the injunction to “Judge not, lest ye be judged” refer to Satan, who is always complaining about us to God? Jesus said He did not come to judge.

Eb: How does this relate to a school with good and bad students? How do we deal with them?

Jay: The good teacher does not separate but rather seeks to unite the two groups.

David: Scripture does indeed need to be reinterpreted. Religions focus on getting us and helping us to improve ourselves—our selves—so that we will be judged more leniently. But the self is the wrong thing to focus on! Selflessness ought to be the focus, as it was for Jesus and is for philosophical Daoism and (perhaps) for Buddhism.

Jay: Most religions teach personal piety. Selflessness implies a focus away from the self and instead toward others. This reflects the judgment scene, where those judged to be good and bad are equally shocked at their judgment. The good are shocked because, being selfless, they expect no reward; the bad are shocked because, being selfish, they expect a reward.

David: The inevitable and natural corollary to selflessness is humility, and humility was hammered home by Jesus in both His way of life and His teaching:

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5-9; KJV)

Jay: Scripture is full of burning lakes of fire, outer darkness, and gnashing teeth. This seems not to be the judgment that awaits us, but neither does the paradisaical heaven we balance it with.

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