Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - July 23rd, 2017
Once again in this week’s Gospel passage, images of growing trees, shrubs and plants provide us with powerful insights into the quiet and slow ways that God’s Kingdom grows among us and within us. Today’s Gospel story is peculiar to Matthew (13:24-33). Central to today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is the preciousness of the wheat. The landowner refuses to lose any of it in order to get rid of the weeds.
Verse 25 speaks of darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat. A weed may be growing next to a stalk of wheat and think it has a common destiny with the wheat, but its end is destruction. The weed is also harmful to the wheat, its roots trying to starve the wheat from the very source of its nourishment. The refusal of the householder to allow his slaves to separate the wheat from the weeds while they are still growing is a warning to the disciples not to attempt to anticipate the final judgment of God by a definitive exclusion of sinners from the Kingdom. In its present stage it is composed of the good and the bad. The judgment of God alone will eliminate the sinful. Until then there must be patience and the preaching of repentance. We can learn much from God’s patience as we see Him allow both the good and the evil to grow together.
How important it is to remember this point when we grow so impatient with God’s role in human history. How often do we ask: Where is the ultimate vindication that God has promised us? How long, O Lord, until you show your might and power to rout our enemies? How long until you show your face to us? When we get stuck in such ruts, our moods are fixed more intently on the stubborn persistence of evil than on the slow emergence and growth of good. God loves goodness more than God hates evil.
The harvest spoken of in verse 30 is a common biblical metaphor for the time of God’s judgment (Jeremiah 51:33; Joel 4:13; Hosea 6:11). Like the sower who scatters seed even where there is little hope of fruitfulness, Jesus keeps open the lines of communication with those who have closed their hearts, their ears, and their eyes to his word.
The great success of the Kingdom
The parables of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19) and the yeast (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20-21) illustrate the same point: the amazing contrast between the small beginnings of the Kingdom and its marvellous expansion. Jesus exaggerates both the smallness of the mustard seed and the largeness of the mustard plant. The mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds” yet Jesus compares it to the Kingdom of God! This message of Jesus’ parable was certainly a word of encouragement to the early Church when its progress seemed slow or was hampered by persecution. Even from these small seeds will arise the great success of the Kingdom of God and of God’s Word. Patience is called for in the face of such humble beginnings. Jesus reassures the crowd that growth will come; it is only at the harvest that the farmer reappears. The growth of God’s Kingdom is the result of God’s power, not ours. Like the tiny mustard seed, the Kingdom of God is something that grows from a tiny beginning.
Patient endurance in steadfast expectation
In today’s reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome (8:26-27), the Apostle to the Gentiles reminds us that the glory that believers are destined to share with Christ far exceeds the sufferings of this present life. Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to believers. As it shares in the punishment of corruption brought about by sin, so too will it share in the benefits of the redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people. Only following patient endurance in steadfast expectation will the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence be realized.
Recognizing the Kingdom
Jesus began his ministry proclaiming: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the Kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the Kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being near (Matthew 10:7), “at hand” (Mark 1:15), and coming unexpectedly (Matthew 24:44). He revealed the Kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the Kingdom could and should be like. For many, the Kingdom is a place free from evil, sin, strife, anxiety, and fear. Don’t we all share a deep longing for a crop free from the weeds, for a world free from war, for a personality free from the weeds of anxiety, jealousy, fear, apathy, cynicism, and despair? Far from being a seemingly unreal place, daily life can at times seem to be much more of a battleground: a struggle to live in the midst of the weeds and chaff that try to choke us and take our life away. In Jesus, God broke through the power and domination of evil.
I often imagine Jesus running tiny, black mustard seeds through his fingers as he spoke to the crowds and his small group of followers in Galilee. One day he thought of them as he spoke about the Kingdom of God, and pointed to the tree that would grow from such tiny seeds. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple, and unimpressive. Yet he says that the Kingdom of God is like that. It is far more likely to begin in simple ways than in the dramatic.
God’s Kingdom broke through and entered the human scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a slow process by which the Kingdom is fully realized. We long for a society free from the weeds of injustice, the fear of violence and war, and the depletion of all of our resources. But we also know that such longings will never be fully realized and satisfied here. Our distance from and longing for the full realization of the Kingdom make our hearts grow fonder for it. The hope represented by our longings is essential for human life: without it we would be slaves and victims of despair and hopelessness.
Opposition and indifference to the Word
The growth of the Word of God is not without struggle, due to the presence and action of an “enemy” who “sowed weeds among the wheat” (Matthew 13:25). During his General Audience on September 25, 1991, Saint John Paul II addressed this point directly:
This parable explains the co-existence and the frequent mingling of good and evil in the world, in our lives and in the very history of the Church. Jesus teaches us to see these things with Christian realism and to handle every problem with clear principles, but also with prudence and patience. This presupposes a transcendent vision of history, in which one knows that everything belongs to God and every final result is the work of his Providence. However, the final destiny – in its eschatological dimension – of the good and bad is not hidden. It is symbolized by the gathering of the wheat into the barn and the burning of the weeds.
There are weeds in the Church
During World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Emeritus Benedict exclaimed amid the throngs of young Christians and the curious alike: “Here in Cologne we discover the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, the future. The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds,” he told them, but “it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners.”
Five years later, on October 9, 2010, Benedict spoke of this parable in his weekly General Audience address in which he spoke of the spirituality of St. John Leonardi. Leonardi (1541-1609) together with St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) were two humble priests committed to the reform of the clergy during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Neri founded the “Oratory,” a community of priests, and Leonardi founded a religious order and a seminary, with the sole purpose of reforming the clergy. Both men ministered to the people of Rome in a time of frequent outbreaks of the plague and influenza. While Neri survived these outbreaks, Leonardi died from influenza in 1609.
In his talk, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us that the weeds and wheat exist in close proximity:
There is another aspect of St John Leonardi’s spirituality that I would like to emphasize. On various occasions he reasserted that the living encounter with Christ takes place in his Church, holy but frail, rooted in history and in its sometimes obscure unfolding, where wheat and weeds grow side by side (Mt 13:30), yet always the sacrament of salvation. Since he was clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (cf. Mt 13:24), St. John was not shocked at her human weaknesses. To combat the weeds he chose to be good wheat: that is, he decided to love Christ in the Church and to help make her, more and more, a transparent sign of Christ. He saw the Church very realistically, her human frailty, but he also saw her as being “God’s field,” the instrument of God for humanity’s salvation.
And this was not all. Out of love for Christ he worked tirelessly to purify the Church, to make her more beautiful and holy. He realized that every reform should be made within the Church and never against the Church. In this, St John Leonardi was truly extraordinary and his example is ever timely. Every reform, of course, concerns her structures, but in the first place must have an effect in believers’ hearts. Only Saints, men and women who let themselves be guided by the divine Spirit, ready to make radical and courageous decisions in the light of the Gospel, renew the Church and make a crucial contribution to building a better world.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Romans 8:26-27; and Matthew 13:24-43