Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Wis 12:13, 16-19 Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16 Rom 8:26-27 Mt 13:24-43
Following last week’s more familiar parable of the sower, this Sunday’s Gospel lands us back on the farm, as Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a field, sown with good seed but plagued with weeds.
His explanation to the disciples identifies the good seed as “children of the kingdom” and the weeds as “children of the evil one.” The latter he describes more specifically as “all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.”
The reading portrays the final judgment in terms of the harvest, when the weeds will be separated from the wheat, tied into bundles and thrown into the fire.
Here the Gospel evangelist slips in one of his stock images: “… where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Those of us who wear a mouth guard to prevent the effects of nighttime gnashing find this language particularly forbidding. Surely, this story conveys a clear warning but also a subtler message of mercy.
When the servants of this week’s sower question him about the origin of the botanical invaders, he tells them clearly, “An enemy has done this.”
Eager to address the problem and banish any ambiguity about which plants belong and which do not, the servants ask, “Do you want us to pull them up?”
The sower curbs their enthusiasm, saying, “Let them grow together until harvest.”
Perhaps the weeds spring up in such proximity to the wheat plants that in pulling them the servants would risk yanking up the good with the bad. The sower’s live-and-let-live approach prevents the tender wheat plants from being uprooted, allowing them to mature and bear fruit, but at the same time, it permits the weeds to complete their life cycle.
Maybe the weeds in this story look enough like wheat in the early stages that efforts to eliminate the invaders might pull up wheat plants by mistake. (The weeds in my garden try very hard to look like perennials, and I wait to pull them until I am sure that they are indeed weeds.)
In this case, allowing the plants to grow side by side would eventually distinguish the fruitful wheat from the unfruitful weeds, though the ongoing presence of the latter might also rob the wheat of nutrients and diminish the good harvest. The sower seems willing to take the risk.
This slant on the story fits the explanation provided by Jesus to the disciples and resonates with the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. Here we find the Lord God teaching the people by example. God demonstrates power most clearly in his “care of all.” Might manifests as justice and mastery as leniency.
The people are expected to emulate the deeds of the Lord, i.e., “those who are just must be kind.” God’s example gives them “good ground for hope” that this just one will forgive their failures.
This message of mercy gains momentum in the psalm as we hear, once again, language that recalls God’s self-description from Exodus 34:6-7: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and fidelity.”
What if we apply this parable to our world, our country, our Church, our parish or even our own lives? In each case, we find weeds hidden among the wheat, pockets of unfruitful behavior, sapping resources and impeding the kingdom of God. Yet our merciful God gives us time, opportunity and the help of the Spirit to sort one from the other and find our way to fruitfulness.
Even our prayer can be weedy, reflecting our own agendas rather than God’s will for our lives and God’s dream for our world. Thankfully, as St. Paul attests, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness” and intercedes for us with “inexpressible groanings.”
Of course, we need to stop our own stream of words to hear the voice of the Spirit. In prayerful listening, we can find healing and realignment with God’s purpose.
Melanie holds a master’s in pastoral studies from Loyola University, New Orleans.