There is a longer and a shorter version of this Sunday’s gospel reading and most congregations will probably hear only the shorter passage (13:24-30). Accordingly, I shall focus on the shorter version, with some brief comments at the end about the remaining verses (13:31-43). The analogy Jesus uses is called a parable, which means that it is a fictitious but believable story used to illustrate a spiritual reality.
Most of those who heard Jesus were farmers and they could readily understand that one cannot easily distinguish weeds from wheat when the plants are very small. It is only when they have grown taller that the difference becomes apparent. By that time, however, the roots are so intertwined that one cannot pull out the weeds without severely damaging the wheat. Only at the harvest can the separation be made safely.
The spiritual reality being illustrated is the congregation of believers. It is often impossible to know who may be for sure the true and faithful followers of Jesus since we can usually judge only by appearances. In Jesus’ day, the Scribes and Pharisees seemed to be the most religious of all, yet he rejected them for lack of interior conversion. In particular, they thought they knew for sure who were the “weeds” and who were the “wheat.” And they were sure that those whom they rejected were rejected by God also. The gospels tell us that Jesus thought otherwise.
Nothing is more hazardous for us human beings than to pass judgment on the relationship of any individual with God. Even in cases of fairly obvious wrongdoing we cannot always know about special circumstances that may affect final judgment on that person’s behavior. Since one cannot sin without freedom, and since many have been loved so little that their freedom is minimal, it follows that the degree of their culpability may be greatly reduced.
Many of us prefer not to listen to such reasoning because we want a simplistic solution to crime, which ignores the deeper question about who have been loved and are therefore free enough to accept full responsibility for their actions. As a consequence, it is quite likely that many of us more or less free and privileged people will be judged harshly because we did not love and help those who are living in psychic or spiritual bondage.
No doubt Jesus has the judgmental tendencies of the Scribes and Pharisees in mind when he uses this parable. Such smugly “orthodox” members of the church are often very impatient with church authorities who do not condemn and reject less “observant” members. They want the “weeds” torn out of the ground…and the sooner, the better. In fact, however, it is not all so clear who are the “wheat” and who are the “weeds.” And those who are sure they know the difference may, like the Scribes and Pharisees, discover at harvest-time that they too are totally mistaken. The conclusion is clear: rash judgment is a very dangerous spiritual disease.
The short parables about the mustard seed and the leaven are used to illustrate the surprising growth of the church in spite of small and unpromising beginnings. The point is that God can work through small and ordinary agents (like ourselves) to achieve surprising and significant results. We should find this truth encouraging and allow it to free us from a sense of helplessness. With God we can do more than we could ever imagine.
Demetrius R. Dumm. O.S.B.