Sunday’s reading for July 17, 2011, the short version, is the parable of the weeds and the wheat from Matthew 13:24-30. This parable is notable for its theology and the unanticipated outcome. Jesus tells us that “an enemy” sowed weeds among a field of wheat while the keepers of the property were asleep. When the servant realizes that weeds have been sown among the good wheat, he asks the Master for permission to pull up the weeds. Unexpectedly, the Master tells the servant not to pull up the weeds. Only at harvest time will the weeds and wheat be separated.
Last week I mentioned that chapter 13 of Matthew is, in its entirety, a discourse on the Kingdom of Heaven and a last judgment. The eastern church, taking an unsurprisingly mystical approach to this passage, has quipped that Matthew chapter 13 shows us both the mystery of grace and the tragedy of human freedom at work in the world (note 1). The ‘mystery of grace’ is the fruitful work of the word of God. The ‘tragedy of human freedom’ is the deliberate choice not to receive the word of God.
Jesus speaks somewhat indirectly to the great crowd about the Kingdom of Heaven. He concludes the parable of the weeds & the wheat by telling the crowd that, at the harvest time, the wheat will be gathered into the Master’s barn, while the weeds will be tied in bundles for “burning” (verse 30). The Greek term used is κατακαίω, which means “to burn down.” But Jesus does not explain to the great crowd who or what the “bundles of weeds” symbolize.
After the crowd has dispersed, Jesus explains the meaning of the parable of the weeds and the wheat to his own disciples in verse 42. Jesus tells his closest circle of disciples that the weeds are the “skandalon” (σκάνδαλα) and the “lawless” (ἀνομίαν). They will be βαλοῦσιν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν κάμινον τοῦ πυρός – thrown into the “furnace of fire.” He repeats the same warning in verse 50.
A quick digression. How do we translate skandalon – which literally means stumbling block? Strong’s Concordance proposes that the appropriate translation is not “scandalizer,” but rather “one caught by their own snare,” or “one caught up by their own device.” A “scandalon” is not someone who simply gives scandal. It is someone who is tripped up by their own sin, and for whom no fault can be attributed to someone else.
Christians can, and do, argue as to whether the stark words of Jesus – they will be thrown into the furnace of fire – are a certainty or a threat. I cannot, in the space of this post, do justice to either argument in a few paragraphs.
How is the parable of the weeds and the wheat actionable for believers? What then, is the practical take-away from the parable of the weeds and the wheat? Augustine, the Patristic Father, tells us that the weeds and the wheat are side by side in the church in Sermon XXIII:
For do ye think, my Brethren, that these weeds we read of do not get up into this seat? Think ye that they are all below, and none above up here? God grant we may not be so.
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you. I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and weeds, and among the laity there is wheat, and weeds. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world. Let us seek after good days, for we are now in evil days; but in the evil days let us not blaspheme, that so we may be able to arrive at the good days.
In our times, Benedict XVI says the same, reminding us that the weeds and wheat exist in close proximity. Here is the text of his comments on the parable of the weeds and the wheat:
“There is another aspect of St John Leonardi‘s spirituality that I would like to emphasize. On various occasions he reasserted that the living encounter with Christ takes place in his Church, holy but frail, rooted in history and in its sometimes obscure unfolding, where wheat and weeds grow side by side (Mt 13:30), yet always the sacrament of salvation. Since he was clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (cf. Mt 13: 24), St John was not shocked at her human weaknesses. To combat the weeds he chose to be good wheat: that is, he decided to love Christ in the Church and to help make her, more and more, a transparent sign of Christ. He saw the Church very realistically, her human frailty, but he also saw her as being “God’s field”, the instrument of God for humanity’s salvation.
And this was not all. Out of love for Christ he worked tirelessly to purify the Church, to make her more beautiful and holy. He realized that every reform should be made within the Church and never against the Church In this, St John Leonardi was truly extraordinary and his example is ever timely. Every reform, of course, concerns her structures, but in the first place must have an effect in believers’ hearts. Only Saints, men and women who let themselves be guided by the divine Spirit, ready to make radical and courageous decisions in the light of the Gospel, renew the Church and make a crucial contribution to building a better world.”
A little context is required. John Leonardi (1541-1609) and Philip Neri (1515-1595) were two humble priests committed to the reform of the clergy during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Neri founded the “Oratory,” a community of priests who lived according to a set of rules. Leonardi founded a religious order and a seminary, with the intent of reforming the clergy.
Leonardi and Neri were also courageous men. They both ministered to the people of Rome during not infrequent outbreaks of the plague and influenza. While Neri survived these outbreaks, Leonardi died from influenza in 1609.
There is a subtext to the Holy Father’s message: do not give up or quit just because there are weeds in God’s field! The Holy Father is, like Jesus, speaking parabolically and reminding us that as Christians, we should not become discouraged when we encounter those whom we might regard as weeds in our own ministry. If anything, we are called to minister to them.
And here is the parable of the weeds and the wheat, verses 24-30:
Jesus proposed another parable to them. “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.’
(1) “The mystery of grace and the tragedy of human freedom.” This phrase can be attributed to Bishop Radje Sladojevic Fotije of Croatia. He is borrowing themes from John Chrysostom, and, more recently, Fyodr Dostoevsky.