When I was ten years old, growing up on a farm in north central Ohio, I had my first summer job, working for my dad. Already by that age, I was accustomed to helping in our family’s large vegetable garden and with various other small chores around the farm, like looking after our sheep. This was different, however. For the first time, my brother Tom and I were being paid for our labour. Our job was to pull milkweeds from the soybean fields that my dad had planted. If left to mature, these weeds would clog the combine during harvest. Worse, they would propagate by spreading their seeds—making the problem more severe in subsequent years. So, for a few weeks in early summer, my brother and I pulled milkweeds—at a rate of pay of one cent for each ten or 10 cents for each 100 weeds we removed. We were proud of our contribution to our family farm and we were happy with the very first wages that either of us had ever earned. Later that same summer, through the mail order catalogue, I sent away for a small telescope—paying for it with my earnings. Seeing the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the craters on the surface of the moon opened another new chapter in my life.
From this story of my childhood, you can imagine that I was a bit confused a few years later when I first began to grapple with today’s parable of the weeds in the wheat. Certainly, the parable makes it clear that the weeds are a not a good thing—an enemy has sown them—but the owner of the field won’t let his laborers remove them. What is going on? Apparently, things are not so crystal clear as it seemed to my father when he decided to pay me and my brother to remove those milkweeds.
As we hear in the longer version of the Gospel passage selected for this Sunday, it was not entirely clear to Jesus’ disciples either. Later, when they were alone with him the disciples ask for an explanation. Jesus explains that the story does not aim to provide advice on farming practices. Rather, it is an allegory for how God will deal with the mix of good and evil doers who have lived together in the world throughout all of history.
But even a moment of reflection reveals a fundamental question about this explanation. Who are the doers of good and the doers of evil? From early in our childhood we begin to learn that anyone may seem to be either good or evil from moment to moment. As we grow in self-awareness, we see that this is true of ourselves as well. We are all—each one of us—a hopelessly entangled mixture of sinner and saint. How will God decide in the end whether I am weed or wheat?
The first reading from the Book of Wisdom and the Responsorial Psalm both provide an answer to this question. The passage from Wisdom says, in part:
But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; for power, whenever you will, attends you. And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.
And the Psalm says, simply:
You, O LORD, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.
You, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in kindness and fidelity.
And so, we count on the never-ending kindness and fidelity of God as we return regularly to seek the grace we need to discern what is good and to live it. When we depart from that good, we can seek God’s forgiveness and God will readily grant it.
But even this is not simple. St. Paul speaks for all of us when he says in Romans, “ I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)
A week ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a global retreat organized by L’Arche La Ferme in France and delivered online. During one talk the main speaker recounted the story of the disabled man at the Pool of Bethesda. When Jesus asks if he wants to be healed, he does not say “Yes,” but rather explains that he has been waiting for 38 years for healing and has had no one to help him into the water. It seems that the man has become resigned to his situation—perhaps even comfortable in it.
Our retreat speaker challenged us to pray over this passage, asking whether we too may have grown complacent with our own weaknesses, failings and patterns of sin. Do we truly want to be healed or has it become more comfortable to stay as we are? As I reflected on my own patterns—a real mixture of weeds and wheat—I realized that this question is very relevant. Like the man beside the pool, I am often reluctant to ask Jesus for healing—to really change my patterns so that I may live more like God wants. It’s easy to say—I’m not so bad…and I can count on God’s mercy. Since that retreat, I continue to wrestle with this question—Am I afraid to change? Do I want to be healed?
This weekend in Ontario begins the third phase of relaxing the restrictions that are needed to keep us healthy until a vaccine for COVID19 is available. It has been a long four months since this pandemic reached us and many more months are likely to follow. During this time, we have learned a lot about the faults and the strengths of our society and of ourselves as individuals, families, and communities. The parable of the weeds in the wheat has never been more relevant. This week let us remain grateful for God’s continued mercy as we stumble forward. Let us pray for wisdom, compassion, and courage for our leaders. And let each of us pray for the courage to ask for and accept the grace of healing our own brokenness; that we may be “a little less weeds and a little more wheat!”
July 18, 2020