Recently, the parish office received a call from a man who requested to see a priest. A few days earlier the man had received the Sacrament of the Sick from another parish. I wondered what this might mean.
My visit with the man was a puzzling experience. At first, he seemed happy to see me. Then he became suspicious that I wasn’t really a priest. He continued to complain that I wasn’t taking his illness seriously. The conversation ended with him accusing me of conspiring with his physicians.
The fellow was very agitated, angry, slightly incoherent and mildly insulting. I had no way of knowing whether his unusual behavior was the result of medications, sepsis, a neurological condition or simply a bad attitude.
I laugh when I think of my conversation with him. I laugh, not because the conversation was funny, but because it is still a mystery to me. It is impossible to know what’s going on in another person’s mind. It’s often difficult to understand why people say and do the things they do. The parable in today’s Gospel reading speaks directly to the often opaque nature of people’s behavior.
The word translated as “weeds” in the parable refers to a plant called Lolium temulentum. In the ancient world this plant was a serious problem for wheat farmers because both the seed and the young plant look like wheat. It is nearly impossible to differentiate between the plants until they flower. By that time the roots of the darnel are so entwined with the roots of the wheat as to make them inseparable.
The parable says that the darnel was sown in the field by an enemy of the landowner. The unnamed enemy would have gotten away with the mischief until the darnel flowered, and then all the landowner’s neighbors would have had a good laugh about his misfortune. The enemy’s dirty deed had two deleterious effects. It interfered with the wheat crop and it caused public embarrassment to the landowner.
When it became apparent that the wheat crop had been sabotaged the landowner’s servants asked, “Do you want us to go and pull them (the darnel), up?” (Matthew 13:28) The landowner proved himself cleverer than his enemy. He responded, “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 13:30)
The landowner decided to bear public embarrassment for the sake of reaping a second crop of fuel. The wheat would have been separated from the darnel after the harvest. The wheat grains would have been threshed from the stems. Then, the wheat stems and the darnel would have been bundled up to serve as fuel. The patient endurance of the landowner earned him a moral victory over his enemy and a free crop of fuel plants.
Originally, in the preaching of Jesus, this was probably a parable about not judging those who appeared to be sinners. Jesus was often criticized for socializing with outcasts. His response to the criticism was to point out that no person can see into another’s heart. As it is impossible to judge other people accurately, it is better not to judge at all. Jesus’ detractors did not understand this. By means of the parable he suggested that it is wise to forego judgment, and let God separate good people from the bad.
In addition to warning about passing judgment on others, there is a sub-plot to the story. The landowner knew he had been victimized by an enemy, but he did not retaliate. The landowner is an example of what the Scriptures mean by the word “wisdom.” Wisdom, in the Scriptures, is not merely a matter of having common sense; it is an attitude of absolute faith in God. In this case, the landowner avoided retaliation by turning a bad situation to his advantage. He trusted that he would both reap wheat and an unplanned crop of fuel plants.
Retaliation has become the norm in our society. There is a very prominent public ethic that says one is entitled, and even obliged, to retaliate when one feels wronged. We see this ethic at work consistently in public discourse, in private affairs, in politics and in the media.
Retaliation against perceived enemies offers the possibility of getting even, settling disputes and winning arguments. There is, however, a price to be paid by all involved. The price imposed on all is the inevitability of escalation of the conflict. The landowner in the parable was both smart enough and trusting enough to avoid escalating the conflict between himself and his enemy. He proved himself morally and intellectually superior to his enemy by not retaliating.
The true nature of retaliation is that it is childish and thoughtless; ultimately, it is an act of self-destructiveness. Retaliation has no end and no resolution; it continues until everyone involved is rendered incapable of responding (this usually means death).
It’s probably not possible for us to turn every offense to our advantage in the way that the landowner did in the parable. It is possible to avoid retaliation. In every case it is possible to choose the higher ground by not escalating a conflict. To do so requires a faith strong enough to believe that good will win in the end.
The true test of our faith might be whether or not we believe in the lasting power of good. If it seems like the goodness in the world is more fragile than the harmful intent in people’s hearts, that might be a sign of a lack of faith. Faith and fear are mutually exclusive commitments. In order to be committed to living a good and holy life we must avoid diminishing the good in the lives of others, even when they make themselves our enemies.
Avoiding the escalation of a conflict that inevitably follows retaliation is more than merely a common sense choice. Avoiding retaliation is a supreme act of faith, because it rests entirely on trusting that God will judge all people justly at the end of time.