We live in difficult times for the Church, and from many sectors the very legitimate cry for reform goes up frequently. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching, lukewarm and nominal Catholics, an overall lack of discipline among Catholics, and a lack of disciplining by the bishops and clergy of those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. In a way the list is quite long and has been well discussed on this blog, which is overall sympathetic to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.
But today’s Gospel issues a caution against becoming overzealous in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. It is the memorable Parable of the Wheat and Tares. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. “Wait,” says the Lord, “Leave it to me. There will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now; wait till the harvest.”
This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or never to rebuke a sinner. There is need for discipline in the Church and other texts call for it (see below). But today’s Gospel is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, or a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to turn the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.
We are going to need to depend on a lot of patience and mercy from God if any of us are to stand a chance. Summoning the wrath of God to come on (other) sinners, as some do, may destroy them as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.
So let’s allow today’s Gospel to give us some guidance in finding the right balance between the summons to reform and the summons to patience. The guidance comes in four steps.
I. WAKE UP – The text says, Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.”
Notice in this text that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. There is a great mystery as to why God allows Satan to sow the seeds in the first place. But there is far less mystery as to why Satan has been so successful in our times. The weeds are numerous and are vigorously growing. And part of the reason is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.
Now don’t just blame the Church leadership (though we share plenty of the blame). But the fact is that too many in the whole Church have been in a moral sleep. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” and live unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents have little knowledge of what their children are watching and listening to, where they are surfing on the Internet, who their friends are, etc. We hardly think of God or His plan for our lives, and collectively, we have priorities that are more worldly than spiritual. We are not awake and wary of sin and its incursions; we are not outraged; we take little action other than to shrug; we seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the world’s ways.
Church leadership, too, has been inwardly focused. While the culture was melting down beginning in the late 1960s, we were tuning guitars, moving the furniture in the sanctuaries, having debates about Church authority, engaging in gender wars, and having seemingly endless internal squabbles about every facet of Church life. I do not deny that there were right and wrong answers in these debates and that rebellious trends had to be addressed, but while all this was going on Satan was sowing seeds and we lost the culture.
We are just now emerging from 50 years in a cocoon to find a world gone mad. And we who lead the Church (clergy and lay) have to admit that this happened on our watch.
It is long past time to wake up to the reality that Satan has been working while we’ve been bickering and singing songs to ourselves.
And lots of hollering, and blaming one side of the Church or the other, and faulting this kind of liturgy or that is not very helpful because the focus is still inward.
It’s time to wake up and go out. There is work to be done in reclaiming the culture for Christ and in re-proposing the Gospel to a world that has lost it.
Step one in finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wake up.
II. WISE UP – The text says, When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”
Part of the sobriety we have to regain is to understand that we have an enemy who hates us—Satan. He is responsible for much of the spiritual, moral, and even physical ruin we see around us. We have too long been dismissive of his presence, as though he were a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him, for we connive with him and also suffer weakness of the flesh and the bad influence of the world, Satan is real; he is an enemy and he hates you. He also hates your children; he hates the Church; he hates anything and anyone that is holy or even on the path to holiness.
We have to wise up and ask the Lord for an anointing. We need not utterly fear the devil, but we need to understand that he is at work. We need to learn and know his moves, designs, tactics, and tools. And, having recognized him, we need the grace to rebuke him at every turn.
Now be careful here. To wise up means to learn and understand Satan’s tactics. But it does not mean to imitate them in retaliation. Upon waking up and wising up, some want to go right to battle—but in worldly types of ways. But the Lord often proposes paradoxical tactics that are rooted in the wisdom of the cross, not the world. Wising up to Satan and his tactics does not often mean to engage in a full frontal assault. Often the Lord counsels humility to battle pride, love (not retaliation) to conquer hate, and accepted weakness to overcome strength.
To wise up means to come to the wisdom of the cross, not the world. As we shall see, the Lord is not nearly as warlike in His response to His enemy as some zealous reformers propose to be. We may be properly zealous for reform and want to usher in change rapidly, but be very careful what wisdom you are appealing to. Scripture says, Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Cor 3:19-20).
Step two in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to wise up.
III. WAIT UP – The text says, His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest … “
We have already laid the groundwork for the Lord’s rebuke to these overly zealous reformers. Today in the Church we are well aware of the need for reform; so is the Lord. He says, clearly, an enemy has done this. And yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner, every ne’er-do-well, every bad theologian (and there are many), and who call for an increasing and severe clampdown by the bishops across the board, the Lord presents a balancing notion.
There is need for discipline in the Church and even for punitive measures from time to time. The Lord himself proposes excommunication in certain instances (e.g., Matt 18:17); St Paul does too (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5). Yet texts such as those need to be balanced by texts such as the Gospel today. Fraternal correction is an essential work of charity (I have written more on that here: Fraternal Correction) but it must be conducted with patience and love.
But the Lord is patient and in today’s Gospel directs us to also to be prepared to wait and to not be overly anxious to pull out weeds lest we harm the wheat. Remarkably, the Lord says, let them grow together. Notice that now is the time to grow; the harvest comes later. In certain (rarer) instances the harm may be so egregious that the Church must act to remove the sinner or to discipline him or her more severely. But there is also a place for waiting and allowing the wheat and tares to grow together. After all, sinners may repent and the Lord wants to give people the time they need to do that. Scripture says, God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Peter 3:9).
So while there is sometimes need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance such notions: leave it be; wait; place this in the hands of God; give time for the sinner to repent; keep working and praying for that but do not act precipitously.
We have had many discussion here on the blog about whether and how the bishops should discipline certain Catholic politicians who, by their bad example and reprehensible votes, undermine the Gospel and even cost lives through abortion and euthanasia.
And while I am sympathetic to the need for them to be disciplined; how, when, and who remains a judgment for the Bishop to make. And as we can see, there are certain Scriptures that balance one another. In the end, we cannot simply make a one-size-fits-all norm. There are prudential aspects to the decision and the Lord himself speaks to different situations in different ways.
In today’s Gospel the Lord says we should wait. And generally it is good advice to follow. After all, how do YOU know that you don’t or won’t need more time? Before we ask God to lower the boom on sinners we ought to remember that we are going to need His patience and mercy too. Scripture says, The measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Matt 7:2& Luke 6:38). Be very careful before summoning God’s wrath, for who may endure the Day of his coming (Mal 3:2)?
Step three in a finding a balance between the need for reform and the need for patience is to “wait up” and balance zeal with patience.
IV. WASH UP – The text says, Then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”
So you see there is a harvest and those who have sinned or led others to sin and have not repented are going to have to answer to the Lord for it.
The Lord is no pushover and he does not make light of sin. In telling us to wait, he does not mean to say that judgment will never come. But his general advice is, “Leave it to me.” And to us he says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready too. For judgment day is surely coming and every knee will bend to me and everyone will have to render an account.”
That’s it. Wash up! You’re either going to be a saint or an “ain’t.” For now, the wheat and tares grow together. But later the tares and all the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.
So here’s the balance: God is patient, but there is a harvest, and by God’s grace we have to get ready for it. To the overly zealous, God says, “Wait.” But to the complacent and sleepy, God says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up!”
Here is a great exposition of this Gospel from Fr. Francis Martin. Don’t miss it!