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.”‘”
St. Matthew focuses largely on what scripture scholars call the “Eschaton.” Eschaton is the 50-cent word that refers to the time of the return of Christ, the final judgment, the end of the world and the dawning of the new age. In Matthew, Jesus speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew’s is the only Gospel that mentions wise and foolish virgins or the separation of sheep from goats or in today’s lesson, the separation of weeds from wheat. Note the reference to harvest and weeds, the burning of the weeds, and the ingathering of the grain into the barn. This all speaks of the Day of Judgment, the Eschaton, the day in which people will be deemed faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed.
It all is something that is clearly in the teaching of the Church but there is a particular emphasis in Matthew. In this Gospel, Jesus speaks of those who have ears to hear and those who do not. In this day and age when there seems to be a great preponderance of weeds in the ripening field of the Lord, this whole theme is causing a great deal of reflection and conversation.
Matthew in particular seems to depict Jesus as saying that there are only two kinds of people in the world: wheat and weeds. Each of us can ask “What am I—wheat or weed? Am I blessed or am I cursed? Am I faithful or am I among the wicked?”
In pondering this, it must be said that there is more than one way to deal with this stark question. One of the lovely and mysterious aspects of parables is that they prompt us to ask such questions and yet they give no clear-cut answers. You see, parables are not mathematical formulas. The Catechism tells us that Parables are simple images or comparisons which confront the hearer or reader with a radical choice about [Christ’s] invitation to enter the Kingdom of God. (p891) The Catechism goes on to say that Words are not enough; deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for [us]; will [we] be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use [have we] made of the talents [we have] received?…
The catechism then tells us that [one must become] a disciple of Christ in order to “know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. For those who stay “outside,” everything become enigmatic. (CCC #546)
To remind you, an enigma is somebody or something that is not easily explained or understood. It’s a mystery. However, the Church is clear: the way we live out this mystery is to identify with Christ, confess him as Lord and follow him as a disciple. This is the backbone of all parables, in fact of all the faith. And those who choose not to follow will be mired down in the confusion.
We much prefer explanations over mysteries, particularly in matters of faith. And yet here we have these wonderful stories of Jesus, these parables that wash over us like a wave full of light and life, but not giving explanation. A parable confronts us as a tool that enables us to grow in the faith and to improve the conditions of the world; they don’t directly answer questions, however much we may want “yes” or “no” answers. This speaks to their unique, timeless power. They usually teach us something different, however small, each time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and even understanding.
In short, parables help us become better disciples. In contrast, an explanation gives us something to put in a Church bulletin: a short, snappy answer to life’s most compelling issues. Explanations may deal with the short answer, but they often offer little challenge for taking up our crosses and following Christ to Golgotha.
But we can look and reflect on some of the possible answers the parables offer. For example, we can look at the slaves in today’s Gospel reading. They are so eager to please. They know something is awry in their Master’s best field, the wheat is overrun with weeds and they offer to fix it. They say to him ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
In this parable, our Lord was not talking about weeds plural. Rather he was referring to a specific plant, a particular weed, zizania in Greek. It has a Latin name, “Lolium Ter-mu-lentum,” and in English its name is Darnel. It is a particularly nasty, noxious plant, a weed with poisonous seeds and roots like nylon cord. And while growing, Darnel is almost impossible to distinguish from the wheat.
The householder replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with it. Let them grow together until the 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 the barn.’”
Now Jesus’ explanation of this parable to the disciples is clear. This is about the final judgment. There will be those who will be included in the Kingdom as represented by the wheat and there will be those who will not be included, represented by the Darnel.
As we look more closely, however, we find there are some more subtle implications to this parable for us to consider.
Upon reflection we can see that the servants weren’t skilled enough to separate the Darnel from the wheat, the faithful from the unfaithful. I reiterate, it is really hard to tell Darnel from wheat. These slaves probably would have gotten frustrated and jerked on something that looked like Darnel, only to discover that it was a wheat plant. Or, as Jesus points out, the roots were intertwined and carefully pulling out a weed probably would have brought a wheat plant with it.
According to the householder, it is more important for the wheat to live, than to kill the Darnel.
This does speak to us Catholic Disciples. We frequently have done significant harm when our intent is to be agents of God’s judgment. An example is in the first crusade over a thousand years ago when the goal was to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land. Hundreds of knights and thousands of other warriors set off from Western Europe to Jerusalem to do the Lord’s bidding as they understood it.
These men of war blew through the territories of the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately they had a tendency to make assumptions about the inhabitants of some of the communities that they found there. On several occasions they would raze a village or town, thinking it to be Muslim, only to find that when they turned over the bodies that the corpses had crosses fastened around their necks. It never occurred to these crusaders that Christians would come in colors other than white.
An effect of this is that people remember. A thousand years later, what we now call Eastern Orthodox Christians still remember the atrocities done to their ancestors by these crusaders from the Latin Church. Many of these descendents are still angry. At the root of much of our ongoing problems in the Middle East is the fact that many Muslims suspect that “Westerners” are engaging in another crusade. Those folks also remember and are suspicious of our motives.
This leads to another observation. An added reason to let the weeds grow is that they may be useful in unexpected ways.
Listen to the words of the Master: “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles…” This speaks of the final judgment, but there is more. Let me suggest a further interpretation. In first century Palestine, fuel was hard to come by. Wood was scarce, so folks had to make do. A primary source for heating and cooking was dried weeds. They were tied tightly together in bundles that gave size and density, so that they would be more efficient as fuel.
Here’s an irony. By letting the weeds and wheat grow together, farmers had two of the major ingredients for making bread: wheat for the flour and weeds for the fuel to bake the bread. For us, this has clear Eucharistic implications.
This metaphor of weeds and wheat also speaks of God’s wonderful ability to turn evil and pain and rebellion into something useful. It speaks most clearly to the fact that God is in control and we are not. When we get impatient and frustrated, we need to know that God does have a master plan, and when we are faithful, we help implement his plan, and when we are not faithful we become impediments.
This has a finer point, as St. Augustine observed, “many at first are weeds and then become good seed …[and if the slaves had] not endured with patience, they would not have attained the praiseworthy change.” This is the purpose of Evangelization, sharing the Good News of Jesus with folks, a sharing that may bring about conversion, often miraculously turning Darnel into wheat.
God does not want us to weed too recklessly—or too soon— and consequently destroy the wheat along with the weeds, knowing that some of the noxious Darnel is being transformed into the finest wheat.
Jesus wants his followers to live with the tension of believing that the kingdom was indeed arriving in and through his own work. He wanted them, and now us, to know that this kingdom will come, will fully arrive, both with a bang, and with the process of the slow growth of crops in the field, in the time of bread dough to rise and then to be baked in celestial ovens. Such is the nature of the Eschaton, the final judgment. And such is the Kingdom of God.