We Don’t Know Who the Tares Are

One of the most commonly misunderstood and misapplied Biblical parables in the modern church is the parable of the wheat and the tares, found in Matthew 13:24-30. People who reference it often do so in such a way that they indicate that they’re certain that they’re the wheat and the people they’re criticizing are surely the tares. I’ve heard it referenced on anything from how to vote to how to treat people who don’t fit in at church to, most ridiculously recently, how or whether non-journalists should follow a journalistic style guide when discussing members of the church.

All of those things miss the point of the parable. The point of the parable is that only God knows which people are wheat and which people are tares. We don’t know, and until the harvest, we can’t know. We are not charged with separating the wheat from the tares, and when we try to do so, we are usurping God’s job and doing it poorly to the detriment of the saints.

In the parable, once it has been discovered that there are tares in the field, the servants ask the master whether they should go and root out the tares. The master says to leave the tares alone because attempting to root them out would damage the wheat. His explicit instruction – “Let both grow together until the harvest.”

The reason for this is twofold. The first is that until it’s time for the harvest, wheat and tares look so similar that it’s not possible to conclusively tell one from the other. The second is that the wheat and the tares are growing closely together and their roots are intertwined such that pulling out tares, even if we’re certain they’re tares, will also pull out wheat.

This has application to the modern church. In our wards and stakes there are people who practice the faith differently from us. We might be so sure that our way is the “right way”, so therefore, anyone who disagrees with us or with our favorite policy must be a tare and must be sent packing to spare the saints. But we’re wrong. We don’t know if they’re tares, and even if they are, the collateral damage to the surrounding wheat would be high, and souls might be lost due to our careless self-righteousness. And God told us to “let both grow together until the harvest.” God will judge, and we might be surprised at the results.

We should also take care not to design policies that push people away.  And if we do find that our policies push people away, we shouldn’t throw up our hands, claim “well, that’s just separating the wheat from the tares” and go on about our business. We should repent of our harm, fix things, and lovingly welcome people to the fold of God.

Jesus also cautioned us against judgmentalism in the Sermon on the Mount. “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Matthew 7:1-2. If we go around accusing people of being tares for being different, then at the day of judgment, when the tares are truly identified, we may be dismayed to find that we’re among them.



  1. Great post. The more I read about how the human brain works, the more it seems this is rooted in instinct. It feels good to be in good with the tribe and to be able to say, “look at those others!” with disdain feels good. I feel that God asks us to make our “tribe” all of his children.

    • Yes! The fact that it’s sometimes horrible and hard is why he asks it of us. Until we can learn to love like he does, we can’t progress.

  2. If the parable was about the church your comments would be useful. However Christ tells us that the field is the world, not the church.

    We live in a world with those not of our faith. Or policies are meaning less to them, their practices however are, or can be, a stumbling block to us.

    However, in Matthew 18 we are told to remove offending parts of the body (if the church). Those that don’t conform.

    Interesting thoughts.

    • Wondering why, I think the original post gets it right according to reading The Who,e of the parable. The tares were planted by an enemy in the master’s field. The master’s very own field. Now, if you consider our church our master’s field, rather than all his neighbor’s fields, then the tares are part of our church, not the rest of the world, not “them”, but “us”. People within the church often wonder, or expect God to zap the unrighteous out of the church, so when a bishop disappoints them, they wonder why God allowed that bishop to stay in place when he is so obviously a tare. The whole point of the parable is that we cannot always tell who is good and who we just misunderstand. So, if we imperfect servants of God went around in his church casting out those we think are evil, (those who offend us) we are going to make mistakes and cast out the wrong people.

      That parable you quote about casting out parts of your body if it offends you, does not refer to the church, but your own habits. So, if your eye causes you to sin, and you can’t control that sin and still keep your eye, then get rid of your eyes rather than continue sinning. So, if your pride is causing you to sin, cast it out. If your judgement of your neighbor is causing you to sin, then cast it out. Parts of your body, in this case, are your own habits and behavior, not parts of the body of Christ, which is the Church.

      • You are entitled to your opinion.

        However, the field in the latter days is the world (D & C 4). And is where the church is taken from in the harvest that is happening now.

        So we do have tares in the church because we harvest them .

    • Oh, Wondering Why. I have zero surprise that (1) you’re sure that you can identify tares, and (2) you’re also happy to interpret Jesus’s instructions as requiring you to do so so that you can kick them out. You love your boundaries so dearly.

    • Yes, where the scriptures say “the field is white and ready to harvest” the field refers to the world. But when it specifies, “the master’s field” that symbol has a different meaning. Just as the “field” is an individual in the parable of the sower, where sometimes the seed falls among rocks or sometimes in the field. Symbols have different meanings because they stand for a thing and are not the thing itself. The same symbol can mean one thing in one situation and something else in another.

      But it takes understanding the parable to get that, and Jesus said there would be those who refused to understand and that was part of why he spoke in parables. Let he who has ears hear.

    • Wondering Why, I understand why you’ve interpreted the parable this way. From Matthew 13:

      36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.

      37 He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;

      38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;

      This seems to suggest that it is the church against the world. We are admonished to in the world but not of it.

      However, when you read the rest of Christ’s explanation of the parable, you see that the tares are in his kingdom:

      41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;

      42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

      43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

      We are taught that the kingdom of God will roll forth until it fills the whole earth. (Daniel 2:35, 44) There must necessarily be a sorting of those who are the children of the kingdom and those who are not, including those very elect within the church who will be deceived (Joseph Smith–Matthew 1:22).

  3. Ziff I said no such thing. Please reread.

    I said that the world, not just the church has those who follow Christ, and those who follows Satan. The world is being harvested by the missionaries bring what and tares in.

    The parable about removing those who offend pertains to sinners. And we follow that. I assume you would be happy that a convicted child abuser would be excommunicated.

  4. So often Latter-day Saints feel so certain of who are the wheat and who are the tares. But D&C 10:37 tells us we cannot always know: “But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.”

  5. This is such a powerful truth. Thank you for teaching it to us.

    Now that you mention it, I did notice a huge drop-off in convert baptism statistics after the church “raised the bar” on worthiness standards for missionaries. Almost as if the Lord was telling us that church leaders shouldn’t be so judgy when deciding who is and isn’t fit to declare His word. After all: who better to call sinners to repentance than a fellow sinner?

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