Rich Man, Wheat and Tares, Ten Virgins
“But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” (Mark 4:34).
by Nathan Austin
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The teachings of our Lord and the lessons granted us by the writings of his apostles are all important to us. Comparing the various lessons and parables is like comparing our children. We love them all; one is not of greater value than another. And so,
we focus on three parables given by our Lord without claiming that these are in any way more important than the others. However, each conveys powerful lessons, and it is good to think
on these, even when the lessons are well-understood and familiar.
Consider the parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-43), and the Wise
and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Although these vary in their applications, each opens our eyes to a better understanding of the development of a Church class, and their importance grows as we see their impact at the end of the age.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
The challenge of a parable such as the Rich Man and Lazarus is that (a) it is more tempting than most parables to be lulled into reading it literally, and (b) without the proper interpretation, there is the possibility of misapplying the metaphors in an attempt to harmonize conflicting details.
Many of our Christian friends might read this and instantly grab
hold of the fiery torment as a justification of their concept of eternal torment in hell. Additionally, being gathered to Abraham’s bosom may very well fit with their idea of a “heaven,” with a clear void between the two that is unbridgeable. To them, we would ask — in what other parables are the components so literally understood? Is the parable of the Wheat and Tares literally about harvesting wheat? Is the Pearl of Great Price an actual pearl? Does Jesus actually speak about a literal fig tree that bore no fruit? If in no other circumstance does our Lord mean exactly what he says, then certainly it would be uncharacteristic to deviate in such a way in this passage.
Luke 16:14,15 shows that Jesus was speaking here to the Pharisees. When Jesus gave doctrinal instruction in such cases, he used parables. “Without a parable spake he not unto them” (Mark 4:34). This indicates that here also Jesus used a parable. Commentaries on this passage widely and correctly, recognize
it as a parable. In addition, Jesus identified the five brethren of the rich man as “having Moses and the prophets” (verse 29). This is very helpful as we search for a proper interpretation
of the parable.
Once we posit that the rich man represents Israel, while the poor man represents the Gentiles, the metaphors crack wide open. The strength of this interpretation is that it so neatly
addresses so many of the odd features of the story.
Odd Features of the Parable
Odd feature #1: Lazarus is mentioned by name. In no other parable does Jesus name one of the characters. However,
in this case, it foreshadows the reluctance of Israel to believe,
even when confronted with overwhelming evidence. Giving
the name Lazarus to the poor man makes the point of their
unbelief more strongly. It is difficult to put an exact time frame
to events, but it is likely this parable was told a mere week or
two prior to the actual raising of Lazarus!
Odd feature #2: The rich man seems to be punished for no sin, but just for being rich! Unless we are to gather that the act of being rich automatically made him a sinner, we must search for some other rationale for why he has fallen into disfavor. If we look at this from the standpoint that death indicates a
change of dispensation, and see that this rich man had previously been favored by God, this becomes a story about favor being withheld.
Once we consider that the rich man represents the nation of Israel, some of the descriptive terms fall into place. For instance, the nation of Israel was rich with God’s promises. His white
linen garment is a symbol of righteousness — a wonderful picture of the righteousness of God’s Chosen People reckoned righteous through their adherence to the Law. Furthermore, purple is a symbol of royalty, as they held the highest position of honor due to God’s favor. Despite this finery and these blessings, they fell out of favor and were replaced by the
Odd feature #3: Given our understanding that a fiery hell is unscriptural, how does the rich man’s torment fit into this picture? If we see the change of favor, the rich man losing favor and the poor man gaining, it pictured the transition from the Jewish Age to the Gospel Age. Because of unbelief, Israel lost its favored position with God and would see difficult persecution during the Gospel Age. This mistreatment is foreshadowed by the torment inflicted upon the rich man.
In our Lord’s day, Jews looked down upon Gentiles and considered them dogs. The Syrophoenician woman of Matthew 15:21-28 is a good example. Jesus, at first, ignored her and
his disciples begged him to send her away. Yet he did speak with her; first, he explained that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (verse 24), and continued by telling her that it was not good to throw children’s bread to the dogs (verse 26). In verse 27 she replied: “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (NASB). The parallel concept is conveyed in our parable. Lazarus is described as longing to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21). The connection then is that Lazarus pictured Gentile “dogs” who came into Christ.
This parable was to make it plain to the Jews that they had been given every opportunity and had squandered them. Though perhaps the full meaning was hidden, it would be hard for even the most antipathic to deny Lazarus’ resurrection and the implication that this was the Messiah they had been looking for. Those who did listen and understood the connection would
have their faith strengthened that much more. Furthermore, this is just one confirmation among many that the favor previously reserved for Israel had been passed to the Gentiles. It is an indication of the progression of God’s Plan and an affirmation that our understanding of that plan is in harmony with His will.
A Gulf Fixed
“And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence” (Luke 16:26).
The great gulf fixed between the rich man and Lazarus “represents the wide difference between the Gospel Church and the Jew” (Reprint 2604). Israel’s inability to see Christ for
who he is has created this great chasm between the position of favor and disfavor. However, this was not to be a permanent separation. In the Greek word for “gulf” (Strong’s 5490), there may be a hint of a time feature. Strong’s concordance defines the word as, “chasm or vacancy (impassable interval).” Though the definition more directly applies to the philosophical differences between the Church and Israel, Strong’s suggestion that is was an “impassable interval” may describe a time period in which the chasm could not be bridged. This could possibly be linked to the 1845-year period of Israel’s disfavor. It certainly would fit the point of the parable.
The ending of the Jewish double commenced in 1878 AD when the Berlin Congress of nations opened the way for Jews to purchase land in Israel. This marked the beginning of bridging
the gulf, with national favor gradually returning to Israel. The chasm will be fully bridged when Israel finally accepts Jesus as Messiah, as indicated in Zechariah 12:10. The rich man will then be fully restored to divine favor. This process is also indicated in Ezekiel 37 in the picture of a valley of dry bones gradually coming to life.
The Wheat and the Tares
In the parable of the Wheat and Tares, we examine some details relevant to the Gospel Age. We see the commingling of both useful wheat and unusable weeds (tares). The tares were sown by the adversary in an attempt to disrupt the growth and harvest of the landowner’s crop. This parable is easier to understand because Jesus went so far as to give his followers
an explanation (verses 37-43).
The field represents the world, and the wheat and tares are the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one, respectively. A
little more thought reveals some wonderful secondary pictures: that the wheat and tares largely look alike; that only by their fruits will one be able to distinguish them; that the fruitful,
heavy-laden wheat stalks will bow low in humility while the fruitless and upright tare stalks will be barren. This provides a meaningful lesson of the importance of cultivating our fruits and
talents in the service of the Master.
It is important to remember the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the brethren in Philippi: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8 NASB).
As we dwell on these things, foremost in our mind should be the fruit of the spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
self-control; against such things there is no law”
(Galatians 5:22-23 NASB).
Although this parable was spoken to the disciples by Jesus, the specific application remains for us to ponder. For example, during what time period is this actually taking place? Who are
the “sons of the kingdom” or the “sons of the evil one”?
One broad interpretation suggests that the wheat represents the Lord’s people all down through the Gospel Age, with false believers and teachers (tares) mixed in, difficult for us to discern without the ability to see their fruits. Looking back on the age, it appears that the wheat field had been overrun by tares. Those
who sought the truth despite all the besetments throughout the reign of Papacy, were part of the wheat class, literally growing amidst the tares.
In Reprint 4635, Bro. Russell suggests the reaping of the wheat class takes place during the harvest of the Gospel Age, a most appropriate time. This counts the wheat class as those “fit to be associated with Christ in the glory of his Millennial Kingdom.” Moreover, the gathering into the barn can represent the
resurrection change of those so harvested. Bro. Russell goes on to suggest that the gathering of the tares together in bundles is a picture of these “imitation” followers gathering together
into societies, sects, and parties. We are, therefore, reminded not to become a part of these types of organizations, lest we are swayed or dragged down into error with them.
One important lesson to take from this picture is the exhortation to remain strong and upright as the harvest continues, ever-ready for that day when the reapers will gather the fruit-bearing wheat into the garner, while the bundled tares are gathered for destruction (not a literal destruction of individuals, but the dissolution of these classes based upon error). Stand fast with your brethren, and seek to grow into his likeness, always building each other up in the most holy faith.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins
With this third parable we have come fully to the very end of the Gospel Age. All ten are virgins, awaiting the coming of the bridegroom. They all have their lamps ready and have gone
out to meet him, excited by his approach. But five were wise enough to bring extra oil and were spiritually prepared.
As the groom tarried, all ten virgins slept. This describes the Miller Movement, which looked for the Lord’s return in 1843, and subsequently in the autumn of 1844. This premature expectation led many to lose interest in prophecy. After this event, the parable describes a midnight cry proclaiming the actual return of the bridegroom. Bro. Russell suggests that
this midnight cry, “Behold the Bridegroom,” has been going out since 1874, along with the awakening of the virgin class from slumber.
Since that time, there has been the increasing light of truth, and a harvesting of the wheat field has progressed. Those that have heard the cry and obeyed the voice of Revelation 18:4 to “come out of her my people,” have been greatly blessed. These have been able to grow in the Spirit, while letting their light shine as they joined the voices proclaiming the Lord’s return. The foolish virgins, however, spend their time and attention on other pursuits, content in maintaining only a “sufficient” amount of the Spirit. When the time comes, they will realize they lack enough of the Spirit, and will come to the wise, asking for some of their oil. But it will be unavailable to them — not because the wise are unwilling to share, but because the holy Spirit can only come from God. No one can provide it for another.
Even now, despite the shout of his arrival, it may feel to us that he is tarrying. We are understandably anxious for the marriage feast and the kingdom to be established. Chronology can be an edifying study, and there are reasons some prefer one date for
the end of the harvest, while some prefer another. However, we must simply commit ourselves to patiently toiling forward. We hope the end of our journey is just over the horizon, but we
must continue steadfastly and be prepared for whatever the Lord has in store.
Throughout these parables, we have seen various features of God’s Plan. When taken consecutively, they march us through the development of the Church. The first sign of favor to the Gentile church was seen in Lazarus as he was raised to the bosom of Abraham and a share in the Abrahamic Promise. From there we saw the wheat of the Gospel Age commingled with the tares of the wicked one. Despite this corrupting influence, the wheat grew and is now being harvested at the end of the age. Finally, the Wise and Foolish virgins portray the test of the Bridegroom’s presence. Will the virgins have enough holy Spirit to be fully developed and faithful to the work of the Lord, letting their lights shine through an understanding of dispensational truth?
In each parable, there is also the practical lesson of faithfulness. The class depicted by Lazarus believed and were blessed. The wheat class bore rich fruitage and is harvested into the Lord’s heavenly garner. The wise virgins cherish the responsibility of carrying more oil and remain awake and ready to do the Bridegroom’s bidding. The Lord has shown us through these
parables the care and planning that has gone into the development of the Church class. Events continue to march forward in alignment with His plan and serve to build our faith and spur us on to greater effort.
Let us keep His plan foremost in our minds. Let us be reinvigorated when we recall why we are running this race and what the reward is for those who overcome. The full establishment of the kingdom is drawing nigh, and we want to be part of the class found ready to serve. Let us redouble our efforts in these last days, and encourage one another to seek more of the Lord’s Spirit.