There is a philosophical discipline called theodicy that is of interest to most people, although very few people are familiar with the word. Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile belief in the existence of a good and loving God with the personal experience of evil in the world. Theodicy is very often defined as a branch of theology, but I think that is a misclassification. Theodicy reflects an interest in religion but is not based on faith in God.
There are countless theodicies commonly known and used. The song “Circle of Life” from Disney’s The Lion King is a theodicy. The popular book from the 1980’s, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? is a theodicy. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are often used as source materials from which to construct theodicies. The first parable in today’s Gospel reading is one of the pericopes in the Christian Scriptures that seems to lend itself to theodicean interpretation.
In the parable, a landowner fell victim to the mischief of an enemy who sowed weeds in a grain field. The landowner was shrewd; rather than risk uprooting his crops, he waited patiently until harvest time. At the harvest, he was able finally to separate the weeds from the grain.
Matthew’s Gospel allegorizes the parable and says that the grain crop represents the faithful few who belong to God and that the weeds represent the evil people in the world who oppose God’s Faithful. (Mt. 13:38) The Gospel says that, when God’s Reign is fully established on the earth, evil will be rooted out permanently from the world. (Mt 13:41)
When interpreted as a theodicy, this parable seems to indicate that the appropriate response to evil in the world is passive waiting until the end of time. Interpreting this parable as a theodicy points out the weakness inherent in all theodicies: none of them are very satisfying.
The song “The Circle of Life” is very sentimental, and such sentimentality is easy to maintain until one finds oneself or one’s loved ones nearing the end of “the path unwinding in the circle.” When faced with death, tragedy, or even minor loss, most people would prefer to “step into the sun” rather than to move “through despair and hope.” Theodicies might make limited sense when understood in the abstract, but suffering is never an abstraction when it occurs in one’s own life. As Bette Midler sang, “From a distance, there is harmony.” From close up, however, there is none.
Fortunately, the author of Matthew’s Gospel specifies the meaning of this allegorized parable, thereby precluding the possibility of a theodicean interpretation. This parable is catechesis about the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, the fulfillment of God’s promise to re-create the world without the burdens of sin and death. Rather than looking at this parable as an explanation of evil, perhaps we should look at it in the way that Jesus intended, namely, as an explanation of good.
Everyone expects to find good in life and to be good. Our desires can be met partially by the created good of the world, but our desire for good is fully satisfied only by knowing and loving God. Jesus used the image “The Kingdom of Heaven” to represent the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation and the full satisfaction for the human desire to know and love eternal goodness, who is God.
The parable of the good seed and the weeds is instruction about how to find full satisfaction for our desire for good. The parable instructs us that happiness is found fully and truly by those who dedicate their whole lives to pursuing God’s will. There is an irreconcilable difference between those who follow God’s will and those who do not; when the Kingdom comes in its fullness, that difference will be seen in the eternal fates of the faithful and the faithless. In the meantime, it is insufficient to wait for a future reward. The faithful are not passive; each day they choose to stand with God by contributing to the good harvest of the Kingdom.
The principal reason for not understanding this parable as a theodicy is that evil has no adequate explanation; it doesn’t make sense to us, and never will. Our minds and hearts are created to understand and pursue good alone. Our desire for good reaches its fulfillment only in daily encounter with eternal good. Rather than a theodicy, this parable explains the demands of discipleship: to be found daily among God’s harvest of good.