Homily July 23rd, 2023

Sunday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time – Year A Wis 12:13, 16-19, Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16, Rom 8:26-27, Mt 13:24-43

Some of you might know this, but before I entered seminary I did different things in the medical field. One of those things brought me to a small hospital with an even smaller emergency room where I worked. It was pretty calm, as far as emergency rooms go, anyways, and most of what we saw were the local residents who had small problems. However, there was a group of fairly regular patients, and these were prisoners from the large corrections center down the road; we were the nearest medical facility. Most of the time the prisoners would come handcuffed, with two guards, and everything would be fairly calm. However, there was one time that really stood out: a prisoner had been injured in a fight and, although his wounds weren’t serious, he had to come to be checked out. As soon as he entered, all of us knew that something was quite different. Not only did he have handcuffs, but he also had leg chains, and these were, in turn, chained to his handcuffs. Furthermore, he had a large steel bar, about a foot long, between his wrists, which prevented him from putting his hands together. As we began our work, I noticed that every time he moved enough to rattle the chains, the guards put their hands on their guns. The guards were strict even with his meal: of course, they wouldn’t let him have the plastic knife, but they also kept the metal can of ginger ale; I ended up having to feed him. When everything was finally done, the little group headed back to the prison, and we went to update his records on the prison’s database. The nurse showed me his profile; he was about my age, and we saw the list of his convictions and the corresponding sentence. It was sort of long list, but nothing really stood out as that serious . . . until we got to the bottom. There were three instances of the same crime with the same sentence: homicide . . . life; homicide . . . life; homicide . . . life. All of a sudden, things made sense.

The point of this story is not to make you think about the characters that I hung out with in college. No, the point is that it should make us think about today’s Gospel, and, in particular, The Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat. The world is filled not only with the children of the kingdom, the good, but also with people who do bad things, evil things; yet, for some reason, even though God is good, He permits this to go on. Finally, at the harvest, they will be separated, and the good will go to heaven, and the evil, to the fiery furnace. This mystery of the co-existence of good and evil and of God’s patient waiting becomes clearer if we consider, first, what Jesus’ listeners would have understood when they heard and if we apply it, first to our dealings with other people in our lives, and then to ourselves. So, let’s consider the historical context, then others, and then us.

First, the historical context is important, because it sheds some light on what Jesus means. As odd as it might seem, sowing weeds in an enemy’s field was not unheard of. On the contrary, it was a common enough tactic that Roman law specifically outlawed it and set down a punishment.[1] It was a devious way to cause a lot of extra work and problems for someone you didn’t like and so if your field produced an overabundance of weeds, especially when you did everything right, you would start to suspect that someone came to ruin your work. The field that Jesus is referring to is the world, and when we think of God’s works and eternal life, we can consider of the Book of Wisdom, which tells us, “Do not court death by your erring way of life, nor draw to yourselves destruction by the works of your hands. God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being, and the creatures of the world are wholesome” (Wis 1:12-14). “God did not make death,” we’re told, “nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” It’s not that God enjoys sending the weeds to be burned; He wants all men to be saved, but it’s the consequence of their lives, of their decisions, that prevent that. As Saint Paul reminds the Galatians, “Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows” (6:7).

However, what really stands out for us here is the sort of weeds that Jesus is referring to; He uses a very specific word, ζιζάνιον (dziz-an’-ee-on). It refers to a certain sort of weed that in English we usually call tares or darnel. Those in Jesus’ time, though, had another name for it: they called it “false wheat,”[2] because, as it’s growing, there’s no way to distinguish it, to tell it apart, from the real wheat. The growing plants look almost exactly the same; even experienced farmers can’t tell them apart. It’s only when it’s fully grown that the two can be distinguished, and at that point, the difference is very clear: the wheat produces a brown grain, and the tares, a black one that’s poisonous. It’s only at the end that the truth of the plant is revealed: did it bear good fruit, or something deadly? That’s what really reveals its nature.

This leads us to our second point: how do we deal with others? There are people who do bad things in this world; there are people who do horrible things, awful thing, evil things. God knows this, and yet, He is patient and waits until the final harvest, until the decisive moment of the end of life. This can be hard to take, and, for this, we can think of the parable, and of all the work that the slaves of the household poured into that field. It’s not like they just saw the weeds and said, “Well, what’s the point? Let’s just give it up.” No: they would’ve had to care for that field, water it, chase away the animals, clean it up as best they could, in short, work, and work, not just for the good of the wheat, but also for the weeds. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that this is the way the Father loves everyone, not just those who do good. He says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:44-45). All people receive His blessings and His love, and this is the way that we have to treat even those people who do horrible things, with love and patience.

Make no mistake: we can’t approve of sin, or say that it’s ok or not sinful. For my friend in the emergency room, I would be lying if I told him that aggravated assault, armed robbery, and homicide are ok, because they’re not. However, we can love the sinner, and the best way to love them is to pray for their conversion, that, in the end, they might be wheat, and not tares. In the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), the father sees his son coming, because he loves him, and is waiting for him to come home. The father loves the son, even if the son is a bad son; this is because the father is a good father, no matter if the son is a good one or a bad one. One of the greatest acts of mercy that we can perform is to show others that God loves them and wants for them to be happy, but the key to that happiness won’t be found in sin. It can’t be. Through the prophet Ezekiel God asks, “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked? Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?” (Ez 18:23). That is what we must hope and pray for: the conversion of sinners. We can never give up hope for their conversion, since only in the end will the fruit be revealed. Someone who seems to be a weed might, in the end, bear wheat. As the first reading tells us, speaking to God, “You gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.” That hope is to be found in Jesus Christ, whom the Father sent to die for our sins and to lead us back to Him.

Finally, this parable is also meant for us and to be applied to our lives and souls, our last point. Sometimes we like to think of evil and sin as just something outside of us, but, as a famous author, who had been unjustly imprisoned for many years, wrote: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[3] “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” In each heart, the battle rages between the wheat and the tares, the struggle to overcome sin and to grow in virtue. It’s a war that takes place in the depths of each soul, the constant work of trying to produce the best fruits for our Lord.

I mention this because sometimes we can think that as long as we haven’t murdered anyone, or don’t do anything really bad, we’re fine, or good enough. Going back to our example, perhaps we took some comfort in the thought that at least we haven’t murdered anyone.

But that’s not the way it should be; to be a saint, to be a good person, it’s not enough for me simply to be less sinful than other people. Jesus doesn’t tell us: “Sin less than other people.” Rather, He tells us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This means more than just not sinning; it means loving God with our whole heart, being attached to Him alone, and loving our neighbor like ourselves. Of course, this is only possible by putting forth effort on our part and with God’s grace but, if Jesus tells us to do it, He will give us all the grace we need to succeed.

We can ask ourselves about this, and really take some time to examine ourselves. What sort of fruit are we producing? Are we happy just to be “ok,” or are we really striving with all of our hearts to become saints?

Through the intercession of Mary, Mother of Faith, let us ask for the grace of conversion of sinners, and for the grace to be patient with them, and work towards becoming perfect ourselves, just as our heavenly Father is perfect, so that we can shine like the sun for all eternity in the kingdom of our Father.

[1] Cf. William Barclay’s commentary on this chapter, also Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 387.

[2] Or bastard wheat. Cf. Keener, 387.

[3] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), Part I, 168.



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