First reading: Wisdom 12:13,16-19
Psalm: Psalm 85(86)
Second reading: Romans 8:26-27
Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43
Link to readings.
Taking further parables from Matthew 13, the Lectionary presents us with a rather complex situation in regard to the Gospel. We begin with the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (13:24-30); then come two shorter parables, the Mustard Seed (13:31-32) and the Leaven (13:33), followed by a reflection (13:34-35), typical of Matthew, indicating how Jesus’ use of parables was foreseen in Scripture (Ps 78:2); finally, we have an allegorical application of the Wheat and Weeds parable (13:36-43) along the lines of the the similar allegory on the parable of the Sower.
What is the homilist to make of all this? Many may be content to take the shorter option, featuring simply the first parable. Whatever course we take, it is important not to let interpretation of the parable be “swamped” by the allegory, which somewhat shifts its focus.
Taken by itself, the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, like all the parables in the chapter, addresses the nature of the kingdom of God. If, as Jesus maintains (Matt 4:17; 12:28), the kingdom has already dawned, why such continuing prevalence of evil? Why has God not already intervened to root out evil and establish God’s rule once and for all?
To this the parable responds that the onset of the kingdom is not taking place on neutral ground. A powerful opposition is at work, holding human hearts against it. Hence the slowness of its growth.
In Palestine a poisonous weed known as darnel affects wheat crops. In the early stages of growth it looks very like the young shoots of wheat. By the time both plants can be distinguished, the roots are so entwined as to as to make tearing out the darnel very injurious to the wheat.
Likewise, good and evil are at present so inextricably co-existent in the world as to make too ruthless an attempt to eradicate the one fatal to a successful harvest of the other. In the harvest time to come, however, God will deal once and for all with evil, before gathering in “the wheat” of the kingdom.
The parable can apply to the world as a whole, to the Church, to any smaller community within the Church or even to an individual person’s own moral and spiritual life. So often a person’s or a community’s good qualities spring from the same source as their reprehensible ones. An irascible person may be vigorous in struggling for justice; a laid-back character a good listener—and so on. Christianity’s long history of intolerance—the Inquisition, etc.—shows the tragedy and folly of being more zealous to root out evil than to encourage good. Jesus seems to suggest that God can cope for quite a time with the continuing existence of evil in order to preserve or promote a wider good.
The allegorical explanation of the parable pushes its focus strongly in the direction of judgement, with almost exclusive concentration upon the negative. Traditionally, the parable has been interpreted as bearing upon the continuing prevalence of evil as well as good in the Church. But the primary identification of the “field” in the parable is with “the world” rather than the Church (v. 38b). The interpretation would, then, address and account for the situation whereby “the children of the kingdom” (= “the church”) continue to suffer at the hands of evildoers. In this case, the final judgement, rather than a threat hanging over members of the Church, will be their vindication; persecution will not last for ever; evildoers will eventually suffer the fate their behavior deserves.
This complex parable, then, presents comfort as well as challenge to the church. That said, the accompanying imagery (hell-fire, etc.) may need some comment. Literalistic understandings of such features will hardly promote growth in faith and virtue today.
The two shorter parables again address the nature of the kingdom in the interests of encouragement. The kingdom may be unimpressive in its current manifestation in the activity of Jesus. But before long, like the mustard seed, it will have sprouted up into something far greater—a substantial tree to which many, like the birds of the air, will flock.
Leaven, going about its work silently and unobtrusively within measures of flour produces a result totally out of proportion to its size. So too the kingdom, may not have spectacular beginnings but, as proclaimed and enacted by Jesus, it is quietly and effectively working transformation.
The First Reading, from the Book of Wisdom, 12:13, 16-19, projects a rather distant, monarchical image of God. Presumably this extract, has been selected because of its stress at one point at least upon God’s leniency and mildness in judgement.
The brief extract from Romans 8 making up the Second Reading (8:26-27) can provide comfort and encouragement for those experiencing difficulties in prayer.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media