July 19, 2020: The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.” Matthew 13:24-30
This weekend Jesus resumes His agricultural parables with the story of the wheat and weeds. Just as the Parable of the Sower (and the four soils) of last week helped us to reflect on how we can receive God’s Word as good soil, so too, the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds gives us insight into the nature of good and evil in our lives. We remember that when it comes preaching parables, Jesus both narrates and then later explains their meaning with some detail. This dual task of narration & explanation shows that familiarity of the basic outline of the parables actually hides their deeper spiritual significance. In order that we might “have ears to hear” Jesus’ words, let us consider three details of today’s parable: (1) the enemy sower, (2) the striking similarity between the wheat and weeds during growth (3) the command not to root out the weeds until after the harvest.
1. The enemy sower. Unlike the story of the generous sower who cast seeds far and wide, this parable begins with an enemy deliberately sowing weeds under the cover of darkness. Jesus says: “the enemy who sows weeds is the devil.” Evil exists. The devil is real. Jesus calls the devil a liar and the greatest lie that the devil tells is that he does not exit. For this reason, Jesus is straightforward in naming the devil as active in sowing “weeds” in our world and hearts. The first step towards spiritual growth and fruitfulness is to be aware that the forces of darkness are real and active. Thus, we have to have a plan for facing evil.
Recently I have been reading C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In fact, Fr. Isaiah and I have been doing a limited series, analyzing each letter in depth. (You can view or listen to this series on our St. Dominic’s YouTube channel or St. Dominic Weekly podcast.) Though this is not the first time that I’ve read these letters, I have been struck by the subtly of temptation and its power to twist and subvert even good actions. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. Reflecting on the strategies of Satan has been helpful to identify when temptation whispers in my ear. Jesus wants us to be aware. Evil exists. The devil is eager to activate our downfall. We have to be intentional in cultivating the soil of our spiritual life.
2. The striking similarity between the wheat and weeds during growth. The implication that the weeds are not discovered until the crop “grew and bore fruit” means that the weeds looked like wheat during their growth. Sometimes the translation of “weeds” is “tares.” It has been suggested that Jesus is referring to a particular type of “tare” that looks like young wheat in its first stage. If we understand the wheat and tares to be metaphors for good and evil, then this gives us insight into dynamic between good and evil in our own lives.
In principle, good and evil are opposites. Goodness is correlative to being. To the extent that something exits, it is good. Moral goodness is the activation of the best version of who someone is. Evil is the absence of this reality. It is a privation. Evil is the lack of something that should be present but is not. Although good and evil are philosophically contradictories, this parable highlights that in practice, they are intertwined. Evil is parasitic, and so wherever there is good wheat, there are evil weeds which are intertwined in the same crop.
For example, if we consider our strengths, we will notice that, upon reflection, they can also be the source of weakness. If I am blessed with intelligence, this is a wonderful strength and my life will bear fruit as I use this gift towards preaching. On the other hand, this intelligence can easily be twisted to be used towards selfish and manipulating ends for self-aggrandizement and ambition. The Wheat of Intelligence may be fruitful, but it can also be twisted into the tare of infertility. Again, patience and generosity are powerful, if rare, virtues. Yet, even these can be robbed of their potency when the patience person allows themselves to be a doormat and enables bad behavior in the name of longsuffering. Or the generous person gives to the determent of their own good and responsibilities when motivated by the need for affirmation. St. Augustine wisely observes that there is no action so good or loving that it is immune to impotence by the original sin of pride. For whenever we do something good, even heroic, pride will always be temptation’s whisper in our ear. The wheat and tares are not distinguishable during growth precisely because goodness is can always be twisted into evil. Jesus’ parable is a caution not to be complacent with gifts that we’ve been given. We ought not to assume our actions are on the side of the angels, for our motivations are easily a mixed bag of both self and service. The good seed of wheat has to be continually cultivated with perseverance in order that it bear fruit come harvest time.
3. The command not to root out the weeds until after the harvest. This is a surprising moment in the parable. Naturally, we would want to root out weeds the moment that they become apparent. When we see a threat, we are compelled to act. There is a reason why one the largest expenses and cares of the famer is to rid the crop of anything that would damage it. So, it is shocking that Jesus cautions against the immediate destruction of the weeds. We can identify two reasons why Jesus gives this caution. First, the ultimate judgment of the person is reserved to God alone. The harvest time (which reflects the end of the world in this parable) is the only proper context for identifying wheat from weeds. God alone know our hearts. It is not for us to say to who is “cast into the fire.” Though the Church recognizes saints through their heroic action and present intercessory blessings, there is no analogous list of the “damned.” It is not for us to identify the weeds from the wheat. We leave that judgment to the Lord. Second, when it comes to the weeds in our own life, God can allow them to exist in order that they might be the unexpected occasion for goodness. Just as within every good action, there is the possibility towards some vice rooted in selfishness, so too, in every bad action, there is the possibility toward repentance, sacrifice and the flourishing of grace. There are countless saints who are now living in the presence of God who lived in the struggling grip of one of the deadly sins. The saint is the sinner who falls down and, with God’s grace, rises up. The best example is salvation itself. Jesus’ loving sacrifice transforms the cross from a symbol of death into the sign of eternal life. Rather than trying to root out the weeds of our lives directly, Jesus invites us to consider how such weeds might be transformed into wheat. God allows us to struggle with the weeds in our lives in order that we might appreciate that this struggle might be the means to bearing good fruit for others. During these difficult days of the pandemic, when we are not able to gather in person, may we continue to grow spiritually. Aware of evil’s activity, may we be eager to persevere in goodness, to struggle with our selfishness and, by God’s grace, to bear fruit in the abundance of God’s harvest.