Sunday, July 20, 2008

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Last week we heard a parable from Jesus about sowing —
and saw that in the kingdom of God how one sows
might not be what we would normally expect.
Today we hear a parable from Jesus
about tending crops once they sprout —
and see that how one tends crops in the kingdom of God
is also not what one might expect:
rather than pulling up the weeds
that have been maliciously sown in the field,
and risk pulling up the wheat as well,
the owner of the field says to let the wheat and the weeds
grow together until harvest time
when they will both be pulled up and can then be separated.

Later in the section of the Gospel of Matthew from which we read today
we find an interpretation of this parable
in which the field represents the world,
the enemy who sows the weeds is the evil one, the devil,
the weeds themselves are the children of the evil one,
the wheat is the children of the kingdom,
and the harvest is the final judgement,
at which point the children of the world
will be separated out from the children of the kingdom
and cast into the fire of perdition.

This interpretation of the parable reminds us that,
while good and evil are realities in this world,
we should not judge too quickly and be too ready to uproot
what we perceive to be evil
because in doing so we may in fact harm the good.
We have seen in our own lifetimes the result of utopian schemes
to create a world free from those
whom one particular group perceives as the "weeds":
cultural revolutions, ethnic cleansings, and killing fields.
The parable shows us that,
while we must make judgements about good and evil,
we ought not act on such judgements too quickly,
because our perception is too often clouded,
leading us to pull up the wheat as well as the weeds.
It is God’s task to cleanse the world of evil,
to make the field free of weeds,
and God, whose "mastery over all things makes [God] lenient to all,"
as our first reading puts it,
chooses to leave the judgement to the harvest time,
because what at first appears a weed
just might, with God’s grace, ripen into wheat.

This interpretation has served Christians well through the centuries,
helping them to understand
how Christians should practice forbearance toward others
as we await God’s final judgement.
However, this interpretation is not the only possible one.
As Pope Gregory the Great said,
scripture "grows through reading" (Moralia 20:1),
and as Christians have read this parable in new times and places
they have discovered new aspects of it.

One such new interpretation arose in the 4th century,
in the midst of a controversy in Northern Africa
between St. Augustine
and a group of Christians known as Donatist
(not because they had any great love for donuts,
but because one of their early leaders was named Donatus).
The Donatists understood the holiness of the Church
to be constituted by the holiness of her members,
and thus, in the terms of our parable,
saw the Church to be wholly made up of the "wheat."
Thus the members of the Church,
while they may have had to live
surrounded by the weeds of the world,
could at least have the consolation of knowing
that they were part of a community of holy people.

Augustine, in contrast, saw the Church not as an enclave of purity,
but as what he called a "mixed body" of saints and sinners,
saints and sinners who could not always
be easily distinguished from one another.
Appearances can be deceiving,
and someone who appears saintly
can in fact be the worst of sinners
and someone who seems to be a sinner
could be destined by God to become a great saint.

For Augustine, the field in which weeds were mixed with wheat
was not simply the world
but also the Church in which saints and sinners grew up together.
And the forbearance shown in uprooting the weeds from the wheat
must be applied within the Church as well as in the world,
because the holiness of the Church
depends not on our goodness but on God’s grace.
Just as we can succumb to utopian schemes
designed to create a perfect world
so too we can succumb to utopian schemes
designed to create a perfect Church.

I sometimes say that the only thing worse than the Church as she actually is,
is the Church as I would have her be if I but had the power,
a Church consisting of only "good Catholics,"
as I would imagine "good Catholics" to be.

I suspect that for some of us,
we imagine a certain sort of "conservative" or "traditionalist" Catholic
as being particularly subject to this temptation:
the sort of Catholic who is enthusiastic
about excommunicating the "bad Catholics,"
meaning the ones who dissent from,
or simply struggle with,
certain Church teachings
or who vote for the wrong candidate
or who fail to be enthusiastic soldiers in the culture wars.
Such a person can succumb to thinking
that the Church would be better off without the "bad Catholics."

But I don’t think anyone is really immune from this temptation.
Those who see themselves as "progressive" Catholics
can be no less enthusiastic
about declaring their own vision of the Church to be the "true" one,
the one that embodies the spirit of Vatican II,
or the discipleship of equals,
or the Church of the future.
They can be no less quick to write off their fellow Catholics
as weeds among the wheat of progressive Catholicism
simply because they love the Tridentine Latin Mass or the rosary,
because they have large families
or think the issue of legalized abortion
is a non-negotiable in casting their vote.
Someone who thinks of themselves as liberal or progressive
can also succumb to thinking that the Church,
the Church as they would have it be,
would be better off without such people.

My point is not to single out any one group within the Church
but to point out the temptation that we all have
to think that the Church would be better off
without all the "bad Catholics," whomever we think they might be.
These thoughts are the seeds sown by the evil one
in the field of our heart.
From these thoughts spring the weeds of malice and division,
when we claim for ourselves
the ultimate judgement that belongs to God alone.
The weeds that need to be uprooted are not our fellow Catholics,
but these weeds of malice and division
that we find in ourselves, in the field of our own heart.
This does not mean that we ought to deny
that there are weeds among the wheat;
there is good and evil, right and wrong,
in the world and in the Church.
But we ought not to presume that our judgements in these matters
are God’s judgements,
that the person we see as a weed,
suitable only for uprooting and casting into the fire,
has not be chosen by God to bear much fruit.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.