Homily for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Our passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel is a continuation of Jesus’ parables about God’s Kingdom. To begin with, Jesus gives us the simple image of plants growing in a field. As we all know, plants grow slowly and quietly, which speaks to the often quiet and slow ways that God’s seed grows within us, and within the world around us. Furthermore, Jesus goes on to note that the Kingdom of God—God’s way of ordering things—coexists alongside elements that are opposed to it. The wheat grows alongside the weeds, and God seems to be in no hurry to sort it all out. God seems exceedingly patient. Almighty God… is patient.
If you think about it, the idea of God being patient is quite strange – after all, God is all-powerful and can presumably do whatever he wants, so why doesn’t he just get on with it?! Why doesn’t God just deal with the weeds right away? But no, the master says, “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together and we will separate them at the harvest time.”
It’s a simple story based on a simple farming image, but it highlights a situation that we face all the time. In our world, the good is almost everywhere intertwined with evil. Good rarely exists on its own, just as evil rarely exists on its own. This is true in society, in politics, in the Church, in our personal relationships, and in our own hearts. As children we talk about goodies and baddies, but as we grow up we learn that things are usually not that simple. Most groups, institutions, and indeed people, seem to be a combination of good and evil.
So the question is, what do we do? What do we do when we realise that weeds are growing up right alongside the wheat? The most common temptation is to isolate the weeds and go after them. This is certainly a temptation within the Church. After all, the Kingdom of God clearly calls for people of the highest ideals and great generosity, and yet when people start to take God or the good life seriously, there is always a danger that they can become elitist and impatient. I’ve certainly seen this in myself at times. When I was first coming to terms with our Church’s complicated history, I would sometimes think, “Why does the Church have to be so messy? Why can’t it be more coherent and pure? Like me for instance!”
The problem with trying to separate and eliminate the weeds is that it can be a dangerous procedure – a bit like trying to remove a tumour that has wrapped itself around a vital organ. An aggressive pursuit of evil can inadvertently compromise the good. Furthermore, in the process we may unwittingly confuse the wheat for the weeds, and vice-versa. We can’t always tell what is of God and worth keeping, and what is not. It’s a little humbling, but we sometimes have to admit that God’s perspective is a little more comprehensive than ours, and that he will sort out the harvest when the time is right.
God is not only patient with the world around us – he is patient with us as well, and this is a great consolation. I know in my own life, some of what I was most proud of when I was younger I cringe about now. And some of the things that made no sense at all turned out to be the very things that God used to turn my life around.
This calls to mind St Paul’s famous lament about his “thorn in the flesh”, which he begged God three times to take away. What was God’s answer? My grace is sufficient for you. The weeds in our society, in the Church, and in our lives, are often the very things that force us to turn to God and finally rely upon his grace.
We should be very grateful that our God is patient – because, as Jesus makes so clear the end of today’s Gospel passage, all of this has eternal significance. As Saint Paul once said, if our hope is for this life only, we Christians are the most pitiable of people. In other words, of we remove from Christianity all consideration of what we speak of as the four Last Things—Heaven, hell, death and judgement—we are left only with a system of ethics, a set of ritual practices, and an organisational structure – a kind of club, perhaps. These things may be interesting in themselves, but on their own they fall far short of the great and life-changing things which Christ promises us.
As Jesus explains explicitly in the parable of the wheat and darnel, the harvest is an image of what will take place at the end of time – and we must trust that he meant what he said. Jesus says that the crop of the harvest—that is, the souls of humanity—will be gathered at the end of time, and each on assigned either to the eternal joys of Heaven or the eternal fires of hell, according to their deeds. And I quote:
“The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that provoke offences and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. Then the virtuous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
And then Jesus drives the point home by exclaiming: “Listen, anyone who has ears!’”
If I said such things of my own volition, I would probably be accused of being a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and be advised to tone things down a bit lest I scare people away. I only dare say such things because I am quoting Jesus word-for-word, and as his priest I am tasked with preaching his word, not my own.
Jesus does not seem interested in being philosophically sophisticated or politically correct. He is not a pop-psychologist or even a theologian – he is God. He is not a seeker after the truth – he is the Truth. And so we should take his words seriously, especially those words we find a bit uncomfortable.
Just as the wheat and weeds in the parable can be difficult to distinguish from each other, so we too cannot be perfectly sure as to whether we will be counted as wheat or weeds at the final reckoning – and this is a beneficial thing, because it prevents us from becoming complacent. It is a beneficial thing, not a comfortable thing – but we were never told that this life would be easy.
It is helpful for us to regularly reflect upon such things—the fact that at some point we will all die, and we will all meet our maker—and to have such considerations in the background as we go about our lives here-and-now. Every time we are confronted with a moral decision—big or small—we would do well to recall what awaits us at the end of our lives, and to consider which course of action will help me get to where I ultimately want to be. Our actions and omissions in this present life—though often small in themselves—are like tiny mustard seeds, from which shall spring up the great tree of our eternal life.
Life is short, and eternity is not short. We have each been given freedom, and we all know that we are each far from perfect. So we should be supremely grateful that God is patient. If we have been lukewarm in our practice of the faith, or blasé in learning and following God’s will for our lives, now is the opportune time for us to turn back to the Lord. Our God is patient, but the harvest time is coming. So let us use well the time we have been given.
We have been assured that the joys and sorrows of this life pale in comparison to the glory for which we have all been made in the life to come. But we have to want it. No-one will be forced into Heaven against their will, so we have to acquire the taste for Heaven now, by loving God and loving our neighbour. This is the opportune time, for the day of salvation is at hand.