The Wheat and the Tares

In daily Mass we have been pondering the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, from the Gospel of Matthew. In these difficult times for the Church, when there is a legitimate cry for reform, we do well to ponder its cautionary lesson. Beyond the sexual abuse scandal there are also deep concerns regarding the uncertain trumpet of Catholic preaching and leadership, the overall lack of self-discipline among Catholics, and the failure of bishops and clergy to discipline those Catholics (lay and clergy) who cause scandal. The list of concerns is long, and in general I have been sympathetic to the need for reform and greater zeal in the Church.

However, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares cautions against overzealousness in the attempt to root out sin and sinners from the Church. The Lord’s warning to the farmhands who wanted to tear out the weeds was that they might harm the wheat as well. He wants them to wait until the harvest. In many cases there will come a day of reckoning, but it is not now.

This does not mean that we are never to take notice of sin or to rebuke a sinner. There is certainly the need for discipline in the Church; other texts (e.g., Mat 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5) call for it as well. However, this parable is meant to warn against a scouring that is too thorough, a puritanical clean sweep that overrules God’s patience and seeks to change the Church from a hospital for sinners into a germ-free (and hence people-free) zone.

We are going to need to depend on God’s patience and mercy if any of us are to stand a chance. People who summon the wrath of God upon (other) sinners may end up destroying themselves as well. We all have a journey to make from being an “ain’t” to being a saint.

This parable summons us to find the proper balance between reform and patience. The guidance consists of four steps.

I. Wake up. 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 that everyone was sleeping when the enemy sowed weeds. It is a great mystery as to why God allowed Satan to do this 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. Part of the reason for this is that we in the Church have been sleeping while Satan has been steadily sowing his weeds among us.

Don’t just blame the Church leadership (although we certainly deserve plenty of the blame). Many throughout the Church have been in a deep moral slumber. Too many Catholics will watch anything, listen to anything, and expose themselves to anything. We just “go with the flow,” living unreflective, sleepy lives. We also allow our children to be exposed to almost anything. Too many parents don’t know enough about what their children’s lives: what they are watching, what they listening to, where they are surfing on the Internet, and who their friends are. We rarely think of God or His plan for our lives. On the whole, our priorities 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 our shoulders. We seem to be more concerned with fitting in than in living as a sign of contradiction to the ways of the world.

Church leadership has been too inwardly focused. Too many in the clergy have failed to warn of the wolf who wanders about looking to savage us. Clear teaching on moral issues has been sorely lacking in many ways and at many levels in the Church.

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.

II. Wise up. 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.”

We must regain sobriety, part of which is understanding 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 been dismissive of his presence for far too long, as though he were a merely the villain in a fairy tale. While we cannot blame everything on him—for we connive with him and also suffer from weakness of the flesh and susceptibility to the bad influence of the world—Satan is real. He is our enemy; he hates us, our children, and the Church. He hates anything and anyone holy or even on the path to holiness.

III. Wait up. 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. Yet to those who want to go through the Church rooting out every sinner and ne’er-do-well, the Lord presents a balancing notion.

The Lord directs us to be prepared, in some cases 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 (rare) 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 the weeds to grow together. After all, sinners may repent; 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 a need for strong discipline in the Church, there is also this directive to balance it with patience. Wait. Place it in the hands of God. Give the sinner time to repent. Keep working and praying and teaching against all error, but do not act precipitously.

IV. Wash up. 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.”

There is a harvest. 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; 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 to leave it to Him. To us He says, in effect, “As for you, wash up, get ready, and help others to get ready as well. Judgment day is surely coming, and every knee will bend to me. Everyone will have to render an account.”

That’s it. Wash up. Get ready! For now, the wheat and tares grow together, but later the weeds will be gathered and cast into the fire.

Here is the balance: God is patient, but there is ultimately a harvest. By God’s grace we must get ready for it. To the overly zealous God says, “Wait,” but to the complacent He says, “Wake up, wise up, and wash up.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Wheat and the Tares