Saturday, July 19, 2014

Caring for the Weeds

Included in a collection of essays entitled A Maryknoll Reflection on the Liturgical Year is this story from Father Ken Tesing, a Maryknoll priest who spent decades serving in East Africa:
I came back to the United States from my mission in Tanzania, and I was visiting my brother and his family at their farm. As farmers always do, we went out to look at the fields and crops. My brother asked me, “Look, do you recognize those weeds?” I replied, “No, I don’t think I have ever seen them before; how did they get into your fields?” He said, “Some years ago herbicides were developed; the weeds and grasses we struggled with in the crops when we were just growing up have all been eliminated. All these seeds were just lying dormant in the ground; they could not compete earlier with the dominant weeds and now they have sprouted and come forth.” We talked about this.
My brother said farming is like life; there will always be challenges, always be differences. We need to be patient and tolerant, to recognize the problems, the evil amid the good, and find ways to work with it and around it.

This simple, practical explanation by an observant farmer is ultimately what Jesus’ parable of the “Wheat and the Weeds” is about: it is a lesson in acceptance, humility, and mercy.

This particular parable, which only appears in the Gospel of Matthew (although an abbreviated version appears in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas), can be troubling, especially when placed against other, better known parts of Scripture. In essence, Jesus tells the story of a farmer whose crop of wheat is attacked by an enemy who sows the seeds of weeds along with the grains of wheat. Once this act of violence was done, there was no going back. The wheat and the weeds had to be allowed to grow up together. It would only be at the time of the harvest that the separation would finally take place. The weeds would be burned up.

In many ways, the language and imagery of this parable lead to many questions (and it is worth reading the entire text), but they also provide helpful directions toward finding answers. This parable isn’t concerned with backstory or trying to understand the presence of the destructive weeds. It focuses on the response of the landowner. And so, when the slaves suggest uprooting the weeds, the landowner refuses: pulling up the weeds might uproot the wheat.

To most of us, this might seem like a reckless decision. After all, won’t the weeds be absorbing valuable nutrients and water from the soil—the very resources needed to make the wheat flourish? Plus, how will the wheat and weeds be separated at harvest time? But, these aren’t Jesus’ concerns. Jesus is teaching an important lesson about God’s mercy and how mercy is at work in day-to-day life.

A 19th century etching depicting the
Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds ("Tares")

In Jesus’ parable, there is a distinct difference between the wheat and the weeds, but to get the full impact of the picture that Matthew the Evangelist is painting, we have to take a look at the word that is used for the “weeds.” The word used here is zizania (ζιζανια) which is sometimes translated as "tares" or "darnel." Rather than just being a general word for "weed," this is a specific plant  (ryegrass) whose scientific name is lolium temulentum. What makes this detail so important to the story is that zizania looks like wheat as it is beginning to grow and it is only when it is nearly mature that you can tell the difference.
Jesus makes it clear that the determination as to what is zizania and what is wheat will only be made at the time of the harvest (the eschaton), when the reapers (whom Jesus says are the angels), will gather up the wheat and the weeds. The point of all of this, however, is not some sort of predestinationism with some people being born evil and others being born righteous. Instead, Jesus is trying to illustrate that the Church is made up of a mixture of sinners and saints. And, as Professor John W. Martens observes, “It is impossible to know who represents the wheat and who represents the weeds, and human attempts to judge someone a ‘weed’ in advance of God’s judgment are bound to fail because of the partial nature of our knowledge and decisions.”

In this parable, we are being cautioned against judging those around us. (After all, each of us is a “mixed field” of good and bad characteristics and habits with our own particular sins.) But we also have to be careful that we don’t take the “wheat” and “weeds” language too far. After all, Jesus is using a metaphor here and we have to let the metaphor be just a metaphor. We are not plants. We are capable of much, much more.

Saint Augustine brings this point home when, in a sermon on this passage, he explained:
Consider what we choose to be in his field; consider what sort of people we are found to be at the harvest. The field, you see, which is the world, is the Church spread throughout the world. Let those who are wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds change themselves into wheat. This, you see, is the difference between people and real ears of wheat and real weeds, because with those things growing in a field whatever is wheat is wheat, and whatever are weeds are weeds. But in the Lord’s field, which is the Church, wheat used to be grain sometimes changes into weeds, and what used to be weeds sometimes changes into grain; and nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.
And so, we are left with mercy and a spirit of patience and acceptance of those around us. But mercy is a difficult topic in our overly politicized times. Many see mercy (and compassion) as letting someone “off the hook.” We find this mentality at work in the debates surrounding immigration reform, government assistance for low-income families, the mentally ill, addicts, and many others who might not comfortably fit our theological, political, and economic worldview.

To gain a fuller understanding of what true mercy—God’s mercy—is really like, we can read the First Reading for this Sunday: “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 (Wisdom 12:16-19). God’s majesty and power are most especially manifest in leniency, clemency, and kindness, and we see this embodied in Jesus’ own willingness to offer forgiveness and acceptance.

In our crazy, mixed-up world of wheat and weeds, none of us has the authority or even the luxury to judge another—that right and power are reserved to God alone. After all, as Scripture reminds us, “I, the Lord, test the mind / and search the heart, / to give to all according to their ways, / according to the fruit of their doings” (Jeremiah 17:10).

Who are we to accuse anybody?  
It is possible that we see them do something we think is not right, but we do not know why they are doing it.
Jesus encourages us not to judge anyone.
Maybe we are the ones responsible for others doing things we think are not right.
Let us not forget that we are dealing our brothers and sisters. That leper, that sick person, that drunk, are all our brothers and sisters. They, too, have been created by a greater Love.
This is something we should never forget.
That sick person, that alcoholic, that thief, are my brothers and sisters.
It is possible that they find themselves abandoned and on the street because no one gave them love and understanding. You and I could be in their place if we had not received love and understanding from other human beings.
I will never forget the alcoholic man who told me his story. He was a man who had surrendered to alcohol to forget the fact that no one loved him.
Before we judge… we have the duty to look inside ourselves.

Mercy is God’s gift to us, providing us with that time and space which allows for conversion and renewal so we can experience reconciliation, healing, and growth. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a reminder that each of us is called to extend mercy to those around us and to recognize that we, ourselves, are in need of mercy. We cannot judge and we cannot put our politics, ideologies, and agendas before the needs of our brothers and sisters who, regardless of their race, language, religion, orientation, education, or health, are just as deserving of love, care, and understanding as we believe ourselves to be.

A Prayer for a Productive Faith +
O Lord,
increase my faith
and let it bear fruit in my life.
Let it bind me fast to other Christians
in the common certitude
that our Master is the God-Man
who gave his life for all.
Let me listen with faith
to the divine Word that challenges me.

Help me to strive wholeheartedly
under the promptings of faith
in the building of a world ruled by love.
Enable me to walk in faith
toward the indescribable future
that you promised
to all who possess a productive faith in you. Amen.
(taken from The New St. Joseph People’s Prayer Book, 573)  

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