16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
St. Agnes – St. William of York
July 19, 2020
When I was in the first or second grade, Mom and Dad were invited to a buffet dinner. Since Mom was not able to find a babysitter, I tagged along. As you might imagine, before we arrived, Mom advised me to mind my manners. When we walked in, my young eyes focused on a table groaning with food. To my mind, everything imaginable was on that table, and I was raring to go. So, while Mom and Dad were engaged in conversation, I loaded up my plate with food, much to their embarrassment, and later, when I got home, much to my chagrin.
Well, I thought about that episode in my young life as I reflected on today’s Gospel. This Gospel passage is a lot like that elaborate buffet dinner of yesteryear. In it, we have, not one parable but three – three richly imaginative images that describe how the Kingdom of God grows: the wheat and weeds; the mustard seed; and the leaven in the lump of dough. Like the younger version of myself, I cannot resist commenting on all three parables, and I do so at the risk of overloading your plate and mine … please bear with me!
The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds
So let us begin with the first parable in today’s Gospel passage, namely, the wheat and the weeds. In this parable, Jesus invites us once again to picture his heavenly Father as a farmer, a farmer who sows the good seed of wheat into his field…and the meaning is clear: God it is, who sows the good seed of his Word in human hearts throughout the world. But the enemy, namely, the devil, sows the seeds of a poisonous weed, a weed which, at an early stage of its growth, looks a lot like wheat. This weed, this “counterfeit wheat” is an apt image of sin and evil which often masquerade as virtue and goodness. As the parable makes clear, both wheat and weeds are growing together, that is to say, people who are striving to be good and people who are wicked. Divine artisan that he is, Jesus paints a lasting impression of our world and ourselves.
What happens next makes it seem as if Jesus proposed his parable only yesterday. Having informed the owner that weeds have sprung up along with the wheat, the farmhands ask if they should pull up the weeds, but the owner instructs them not to do so, for fear that they would uproot the wheat along with the weeds. Instead, he directs them to separate the wheat and the weeds only at harvest. In due time, the weeds would be burnt and the wheat stored in the owner’s barn… a figurative way of speaking of the day of judgment, at the end of time.
Now, sometimes, you and I can be like those farmhands. We see the weeds of sin and evil growing all around us and we want to pull them up by the roots. This is especially true when we see wickedness and evil within the Church. Like the Psalmist, we remonstrate with the Lord, asking why it is that the wicked seem to prosper and wield influence, while those who try to do what is right and just often suffer or get ignored. But the Lord responds by telling us “not [to] be provoked by evildoers . . . Like grass [he says] they wither quickly; like green plants they wilt away” (Ps. 37:1-2).
Living as we do in a culture that is often impatient and sometimes self-righteous, we can learn two lessons from the owner’s instruction to his farmhands to let weeds and wheat grow together.
The first lesson is wisdom and mercy. Our reading from the Book of Wisdom makes clear that God’s patience is not a failure of justice but an expression of his wisdom & mercy. As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “God wills that everyone be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). That is, God gives us time and he leaves room for us to be converted and transformed.
The second lesson is discernment … for while we are inclined to judge by appearances, God it is who looks into the heart (cf. 1 Sam. 2:7); Thus, Jesus says John’s Gospel, “Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly” (7:24). Remembering that wheat and weeds sometimes look alike, let us be loath to condemn, especially now, when social media is full of condemnation, and the ‘cancel culture’ is lavish in the shame it heaps on people, past and present … leaving no room for God’s grace or for heartfelt conversion.
The Mustard Seed and the Yeast
Now, at this point, you might be thinking that the parable of the wheat and weeds was quite enough to ingest for one day. So let me assure you that I will speak only briefly about the other two parables in today’s Gospel, namely, the mustard seed and the leaven, the yeast, in the lump of dough.
The point of the parable of the mustard seed is the disproportion between the size of the mustard seed and size of the shrub it produces. The seed is tiny but it results in a bush that is as large as a tree. Such disproportion has been true of the Church from the beginning. Jesus was buried like a small seed in humiliation yet he rose in cosmic glory. The Church began with the Apostles in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, yet, in the power of the Spirit, expanded to the four corners of the earth. With the clergy shortage, the scandals, tight finances, and other challenges, we are tempted to see the Church in our day as so severely diminished that it is no match for the cultural, legal, and financial challenges it faces; yet, in many places, the Church’s mission continues to expand beyond all expectation. So too, when we allow Christ to plant and nurture the tiny seed of faith in us, then our hearts become large enough to love God and to serve the needs of others. Yes, the seed of faith is tiny but its growth is surprisingly expansive.
All of which brings us to the last image in today’s Gospel, that speck of yeast which is kneaded into three measures of wheat flour. Scripture scholars tell us that three measures of flour yields about sixty pounds of dough, yet it only takes a small amount of yeast to leaven it … and thus to produce enough bread to feed more than a hundred people! So in this parable, Jesus answers for us that perennial question, “What can I do, I’m just one person?” We are indeed just one person, and we may have all kinds of limitations, yet the Lord can and will work in us and through us to accomplish his mission … but only if, as St. Theresa of Calcutta said, “we give God permission”. When we do good, we do not know how much good we do, because the Lord multiplies every good word and every good deed, and expands the influence of our good example well beyond those immediately nearby. Since this is so, let us never say, “There’s nothing I can do!” Everyone one of us can build up the Body of Christ or we can tear it down. Actually, there is no middle ground here: either we are building up or we are tearing down.
The Wheat That Is the Eucharist
My friends, if you and I want to make a difference in Church and society, then we must grow more wheat so as to crowd out the weeds. In other words, we must overcome evil by good and hatred by love. But first we must ensure that we ourselves are God’s good “wheat”, and the way to do that is to center our lives on that wheat which, at every Mass, becomes the Body of Christ, namely, the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the food with which we need constantly to be fed, the food of which we cannot partake too much, the food which is the source and summit of the Christian life. As the life of Christ takes deep root in us, then we are indeed in a position to influence those around us, even to bring to conversion those who seemed utterly opposed to the faith. And we can do just that, as St. John Henry Newman suggests, when he speaks of… “… the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what [we] say and do … the evident fullness of the love [our] heart[s] bear…for [God]”.
And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!