THE USE OF THE WORD "KINGDOM" IN THE PARABLE OF THE TARES
by Wayne S. Walker
We are all, no doubt, familiar with the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43. The basic meaning of the parable is that, "The Lord is saying that sin and evil can never be removed from the world." (1) However, many have misunderstood and misapplied it to mean that good and evil must be allowed to remain side by side in the church until Jesus returns. (2) And some therefore assert that we must not attempt to discipline the evil. One alleged reason for this interpretation is the use of the word "kingdom" in the parable, especially in verse 41. The reasoning is that since the kingdom is the church, we must wait until Jesus comes to gather the wicked out of the church. But is there another logical explanation which better fits the context? I believe there is.
The first time the word "kingdom" appears is in verse 38: "The good seed are the children of the kingdom," in that they are the source of all influence in the world for good (Matthew 5:13-16). Actually, we might say that the product of the good seed is the children of the kingdom, and then it spreads from them. But to what kingdom does Jesus here refer? Well, we know "The seed is the word of God" (Luke 8:11). When sown in good ground–good and honest hearts–it yields fruit. I think we will all agree that this fruit would be Christians, members of the Lord’s church which is the kingdom of God on earth; that is, "the sphere in which, at any given time, (God’s) rule is acknowledged" (3) (cf. Luke 17:20; see Acts 2:36-47 and Colossians 1:13).
Now we come to verse 41. Here, "They shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend." It is a common rule of hermeneutics that we let a word used twice in the same passage mean the second time exactly what it did the first unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise. In this instance, I believe there are compelling reasons to understand "the kingdom" of verse 41 to mean something else than in verse 38. Note that the tares are to be gathered "out of his kingdom." But where were they sown in the first place? Not in the church, but in the field–and "the field is the world." (4) If I were to put a ball in a bowl and say, "Take the ball out of the dish," you would understand me to mean that the bowl and the dish were one in the same. Why not understand Jesus in a similar manner here?
Thus, "the kingdom" in this verse must denote, not only the church, but all of God’s creative domain, or at least all humanity (cf. John 3:16). "The field in which the seed, both good and bad, were sown, and the kingdom out of which both were gathered, are evidently the same; but the field is the world, and therefore the kingdom is the world…his kingdom in reality includes the whole earth" in this verse. Furthermore, since the good seed represents the children of the kingdom, which all of us agree is in the church, then whoever is represented by the tares–i.e., the children of the evil one–must of necessity not be in the church, but in the world. (5)
But what about verse 43? "The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." Here, the word "kingdom" cannot be explained by either the whole world as the area of God’s sovereign rule, or the church as the sphere of Christ’s rule on earth, but the kingdom as it will exist finally in heaven. "This is the eternal state of the kingdom as described elsewhere in the New Testament." (6) Two passages demonstrate this. "The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom" (2 Timothy 4:18). "For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11). Thus we can see that this word evidently has three different meanings in this passage–a different one each time it is used.
Recently, I heard of another explanation which attempts to harmonize the first two uses of the word. It was suggested that verse 38 means that the good seed of the kingdom (i.e., the world) is the children (i.e., of God). The problem I have with this is that the text does not say that. It says that "The good seed IS the children of the kingdom," and the phrase "children of the kingdom" no doubt refers to Christians. In addition, I would ask, on what basis would one understand the use of the word the third time to mean heaven instead of the world? If it is because of the language of the parable, why cannot we understand the first two passages to mean something different for the same reason? I mention this interpretation, not because I believe it to be either right or absolutely impossible, but simply for study as one alternative.
"Of supreme importance is the statement that the field is ‘the world,’ and, therefore, not ‘the church’! This is so vital becaue it excludes two serious errors: the one, that the sons of wickedness may remain undistrubed in the congregation (no church discipline, no expulsion); the other, that the sons of wickedness may be removed from the world (the use of the sword against heretics, either by the church or by her use of secular power). When Jesus forbids his (servants) to go out into the field and pull up the darnels, he does not forbid church discipline; what he forbids is that these (servants) do what is reserved for the angels and at the final judgment." (7)
So here we have the true meaning of the parable. Evil and good will coexist in the world (the field) until the end of time. The servants of Christ have no right to use force (arms, politics, social pressure, etc.) to root out the evil (Isaiah 2:1-4, Matthew 26:52, John 18:36, 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, Ephesians 6:12) as many have tried to do–witness the Inquisition, the Crusades, and so on. This is something that only Jesus and His angels can accomplish when He comes again to judge the world. Any attempt at forcing the usage of the word "kingdom" in this passage to exclude obedience to such plain commands as 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 and 2 Thessalonians 2:6 simply ignores the context of the parable and the intent of Jesus’ teaching.
1. Jones, George T. "The Parables, No. 3." Faith and Facts, 10/75; Vol. 3, No. 4; p. 46 (274).
2. See Barnes, Albert. Notes on the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, p. 198.
3. Vine, W. E. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 294.
4. From McGarvey, J. W. Commentary on Matthew and Mark, p. 123.
6. Jones, op. cit., p. 47 (275).
7. Lenski, R. H. C. Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, p. 536.
(—Taken from Faith and Facts; April, 1977; Vol. 5, No. 2; pp. 79-82)