One of my younger sisters lives near Denver, Colorado. She enjoys living there, but there are a few things about Colorado culture that she finds perplexing. During a recent visit to her house she informed me that the nearby city of Boulder, Colorado had enacted a law that prohibits anyone from “owning” a pet. One can be a “care-giver” or a “companion” to a domestic animal, but one cannot be an “owner,” as this infringes on the animal’s rights to freedom and self-determination.
When we sat down to dinner that evening, my sister served grilled chicken. I felt compelled to ask her about appropriate behavior during the meal. The (former), chicken on my plate obviously couldn’t be called a meal, as that would be disrespectful and disenfranchising. I asked whether I should call the chicken my digestive companion, or perhaps, my nutritional partner.
The folks in Boulder are very serious about these issues. You can probably tell that I am not. Our culture offers some very unique and positive perspectives on issues such as freedom and individual rights, but all cultures have their limitations. As our culture has its limitations and failings we should be careful not to accept uncritically cultural values and judgments. Everything in life needs to be examined; those things not compatible with the Faith must be recognized as such.
If we read today’s Gospel from the point of view of contemporary American culture it depicts a very sentimental God who is non-discriminatory, inclusive and committed to providing equal opportunities to all. The God who allows sinners to coexist with the righteous until the day of judgment is a good example of equanimity and forbearance. The Scriptures often describe God as patient, forgiving and full of compassion, but we should be careful not to accept these descriptions uncritically; the Scriptures also describe God as being very demanding of his People.
On the other hand, if we read the parable of the wheat and the weeds from the point of view of middle eastern culture, another image of God emerges. The “weeds” in this parable are a plant called darnel. Darnel is a poisonous grass that resembles wheat in its early stages of growth. In the parable, an enemy of the householder sowed darnel seeds in the wheat field. Evidently, the enemy wanted either to impoverish the householder or poison him; either way, the enemy would have gained the upper hand. The householder faced two related dilemmas: how to deal with the threat posed by the darnel and how to respond to a public insult by an enemy.
The obvious response would have been to counteract immediately the damage done by the enemy. The householder’s servants asked, “Do you want us to go and pull the weeds out?” (Matthew 13:28) The householder, however, was a shrewd man. He responded, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn’.” (Matthew 13:29-30)
The householder displayed extraordinary wisdom. Instead of reacting in anger to the actions of an enemy, he chose to be patient. His patience protected his wheat crop from being destroyed accidentally, and he gained an advantage by allowing the weeds to grow to maturity; the weeds would be harvested as well, separated from the wheat, and set aside for fuel. The householder demonstrated the sort of wisdom and cunning that was admired in Jesus’ culture. He addressed the threat of poison and the enemy’s insult by turning them both to his advantage; he preserved his income, and added to it with free fuel.
This, above, is an uniquely middle eastern perspective. It depicts God as being in control of the world, even of the chaotic parts of the world. God exercises that control by means of God’s wisdom, a wisdom that is above human wisdom. Moreover, it portrays God’s power as manifest in God’s faithfulness. The twin themes of divine power and faithfulness indicate that this parable is another of Jesus’ self-explanations of his ministry.
Jesus was criticized harshly by the religious leaders in Jerusalem because of his habit of associating with public sinners and outcasts. The Jerusalem Pharisees thought of holiness as something that was easily polluted by contact with those who were judged to be unrighteous. Jesus thought of holiness as something that could have a strong, positive influence on others, especially on those marginalized by wider society. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a metaphor about his (and God the Father’s), reluctance to ostracize and condemn.
According to Jesus, God delays judgment in order to allow sinners to repent. At the end of all things, God will separate good from evil, and each will go its own way. Until then, judgment is premature; some who appear to be sinners, might be saints, and some of the apparently righteous will turn out to be unrighteous. The parable is a metaphorical illustration of Jesus’ words, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)
This parable is about God’s forbearance, but it does not disregard the need for individual repentance. Jesus was unwilling to accept uncritically the values of his culture, particularly when those values encouraged harsh and peremptory judgment of others. In the life of the Church, this parable is a description of every church congregation: some members have repented, and some still live in hypocrisy; some are the marginalized to whom Jesus ministered, and others are the Pharisees who criticized his compassion.
From time to time I hear the care-worn complaint that “churches are full of hypocrites.” The Gospel has two things to say about that accusation. First, there is no better place for a hypocrite than Church, as Church is the place where a hypocrite is most likely to hear a call to repentance. Second, every one of us should be very careful about making such judgments about others: we might be condemning ourselves by our own act of judgment.
Some Catholics view holiness as a means, and a requirement, to be separate from those who do not share their ethics and opinions. There are recurring examples, both in American public life and in our personal experiences, of Catholics who preach moral rigorism and religious exclusivity. These attitudes aren’t compatible with the Gospel. Jesus preached a holiness that impelled him to be near sinners and the unrighteous in order to bring God’s wisdom and power to all. The Scripture says, “those who are righteous must be kind.” (Wisdom 12:19) If we desire to imitate Jesus’ holiness we must also desire to imitate his decency and graciousness.