July 17, 2011 - Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Today’s Gospel is another case where Jesus gives a parable and then explains it himself. This makes the job of preaching both easier and more difficult. The interpretation is already given to me; how arrogant would I have to be to come up with a different interpretation of the parable than the Lord gives, yet I am struggling with the interpretation today because it is not easy to understand. I wanted to say, after reading the first half of the Gospel, that the field stands for each one of us and the good seed is the good that God has put in us and the bad seed is the sin that Satan has put in us and at the end of time God will only keep what is good and burn away what is bad. I wanted to say that, but I cannot, because Jesus says differently.

Jesus tells us that the field is the world and the good plants are the children of the kingdom and the bad plants are the children of the evil one. At the end of time, the children of the evil one are collected up and burned. I struggle with understanding this interpretation because it seems to divide the world so starkly between good people and bad people when most of us are a mix. I can see the wheat, the saints, and some weeds are pretty clear, but I do not know where I fall.

We need to examine the parable more closely. When I first read it, I thought that the enemy had snuck into the field and planted the weeds among the wheat. I see now that that is not necessarily the case. We are told that “an enemy has done this”, but we are not told what exactly “this” is that the enemy did. Indeed, it is not the case that the enemy planted his own seeds. All human beings are created in God’s image and likeness. There are not two species of human beings, the good and the bad. Just as all humanity is one, so the weeds and wheat are one. It is not the case that some of the seed was bad, as if some people are just bad seeds, as if some people are bad from the beginning, with no hope of salvation. No. The weeds and the wheat are one. If we were to check the DNA of the weeds we would find that they are actually wheat. Nothing else was planted.

So what happened that some of the wheat is referred to as weeds? The difference between a stalk of wheat and a weed is the fruit, the kernels of wheat. If a stalk of wheat grew up and never produced any kernels of wheat, we should call it a weed. So it is that by remaining faithful to the interpretation that Jesus gives we begin to understand the parable correctly. Satan does not have the power of creation. He could never create something, not even something as good as a weed. He is the destroyer. He can only ruin some of the wheat so that it does not produce fruit.

If you plant a vegetable garden, and one of the bean plants or one of the rose bushes fails to produce anything at all, what is it but one large weed? It was a good seed; it has gotten plenty of sunlight and water, but in the middle of the night your enemy crept up to your garden and poisoned the plant. It did not die; it still grew up, but it never produces any fruit. This is what has happened to God’s field.

Now we have a good image of the field! Properly speaking there is not a single weed in the whole field. Billions of stalks of wheat are growing, but some are producing fruit and some are not. Some stalks are tall and thick as tree trunks, full of wheat kernels, more perhaps that seems possible. There is St. Francis and, next to him, St. Clare. You could feed a village off each of those stalks of wheat. Now I see the rest of us Christians: some are growing well, but many of us are sickly stalks, short and thin. Too small for so late in the season. A few buds perhaps. We will see later whether they produce any fruit at all. There are other stalks that have no fruit on them. They are tall and thin and useless.

So let us consider, we stalks of wheat, what is the fruit and what is the poison. The fruit is the part of a plant that does not exist for its own sake. The fruit is a gift from the plant to the world. So too with us people: if we are existing only for ourselves, if we plan our lives, beginning to end, so that we have what we want and we take everything we can get, are we not weeds? Our fruit is service for others, which service has at its heart love. Our fruit is love: love of God and love of neighbor. A human being who does not love with unselfish love is as useless as a stalk of wheat that does not produce grains.

I do not know so much about botany to be able to identify exactly which poison could prevent wheat from producing fruit, but I do know about the poisons which prevent us from loving. They are Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Laziness, Envy, Wrath, and Pride. These dangerous poisons have been spilled throughout the world; our world is like a toxic waste dump. These poisons course through our arteries, stopping us from loving, from giving unselfishly.

Jesus’ parable and interpretation does not separate the world into two types of people. All of the wheat was poisoned, except a couple of stalks. When we see someone growing strong and producing fruit, love beyond measure, we should know that they did not start out like that. They had the same poisons in their heart as us, but they overcame all the poisons which prevented them from fulfilling the purpose of their life.

So it is with each of us and with every stalk. Until the end of the age comes when all the useless people, the people who have not loved, are gathered together and thrown into the fire, we cannot tell the weeds from the wheat, not because they are difficult to tell apart, but because each weed is only one kernel of love away from becoming wheat and each stalk of wheat which loses its fruit will be considered a weed. Until the end, it could go either way, but until the end, it is never too late to start loving.