The Gospel reading for sixteenth Sunday of ordinary time is the parable of the weeds and the wheat, traditionally known as the parable of the tares. This Gospel passage is fairly straightforward, however I am occasionally baffled by the contemporary interpretations of the story. Here in Matthew 13, Christ tells the crowd a story in which a land owner sows wheat in a good field. His adversary later surreptitiously sows weeds in the field, potentially undermining the integrity and the productivity of the field. When the workers tending the field note the weeds, the workers ask the land owner if they can pull up the weeds, whose appearance can mimic that of the wheat. The land owner proposes that the wheat and weeds – the combination of good and bad harvest – be left undisturbed. At the time of the harvest, everything will be pulled up. The wheat will go into the storehouse, the weeds into the fire.
Years ago a friend of mine – a priest – taught in a Catholic high school. He told me the story of a relatively challenging student who was a student in one his classes. Throughout the first semester, my friend had some difficulty managing the student. He spoke to the student’s coach, and asked how he might be better prepared to manage the student. Because the student had had encounters with other instructors, he asked the administration why the student remained in the Catholic school, given that his conduct was not exactly Christian. The administration explained that it was not their policy to judge students but rather to invest time bringing about their success.
Realizing that the he had no choice but to work with the student, the priest tried various tactics to engage the student. Three quarters of the way through the school year, an opportunity presented itself. Ash Wednesday came around and the young priest was asked to preach to the entire student body. Reading the situation at the school, the priest chose to throw out the play book. Rather than talk about giving up chocolate or ice cream, and rather than delivering a more serious message about conversion during Lent, the priest decided to talk about charity and fraternal love. The priest began the homily by telling a story, and then said, “you know, the faculty and staff here loves you.” Then he gave examples of all the times where he had observed teachers and staff go out of their way to support their students. Then he challenged the students to receive, mirror and share that charity. The auditorium fell silent. He wasn’t sure whether the homily had been well-received.
Whether an unintended consequence of the Ash Wednesday homily, or perhaps by sheer coincidence, the challenging student that the priest had in his class asked one of his classmates to go on a date. They started seeing each other throughout the balance of the year. A few weeks later, the priest asked the students in his class to do a project. They would break up into teams of two, choose a famous Renaissance or impressionist or modern painter, and give a presentation about the artist in class. One reason for the assignment was that many Renaissance painters used biblical themes as the subject of their work. Other nineteenth century painters, such as Vincent Van Gogh, were practicing Christians.
That day, the student who had been difficult manage went home and complained to his mother, “that priest asked me to a presentation on Claude Monet!” His mother responded, “Claude Monet? You mean the painter?” Her son said, “Yes, can you believe it!” His mother responded, “he’s my favorite impressionist painter.” She explained his life story, that he had been a painter his entire life, had his career interrupted to serve in the military in North Africa, and returned to France to study art. He was unhappy with the sterile approach to art and he developed his own approach, which his contemporary critics called impressionism. Impressionist art was created plein air (outdoors), used evident brush strokes, employed a bright color palette, and tried to capture the changing effects of lighting on the subject.
Given his mother’s enthusiasm for the subject, the student happily prepared the presentation with his new friend. For whatever reason, the priest’s homily on love, and the decision to ask the student to do a presentation in Claude Monet, changed the temperament of the student.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we have no authority to pull up what we perceive to be weeds in the field, a field that encompasses the entire people of God. The wheat in the field symbolize those destined for the kingdom of heaven. The tare or the weeds symbolize those who systematically reject God’s message. Christ tells us that we should not judge for ourselves, who among us, and in our community, are weeds and who are wheat. Principally, we can be mistaken in our judgment. Particularly if we base our judgment on rumor, innuendo, or first or superficial impressions, we may lack the ability to differentiate weeds from wheat. Secondly, because the conversion of the sinners (and our own reconciliation with our neighbor) is – aside from participation in the Sacraments – the highest calling of Christian ministry, our primary mission as disciples of Christ is to bring about the conversion of others, rather than to write off those whom we might judge. That judgment – the separation of the wheat and tares – is left to God.