SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)
The key is humility. Recognize that you cannot judge whether others are wheat or weeds, because you yourself have the capacity to be either. The way to insure that you turn out wheat in the end is to always live in the light of Christ. For the light of Christ shows us both our own sinfulness and God's abundant mercy. Let us praise God our Creator who gives us good ground for hope and permits repentance for our sins (Wis 12:19). Let us never fail to give thanks for His love and forgiveness.
The metaphor here is easy to see. Jesus even explains it to the disciples toward the end of today's reading. This is a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven. The good seeds are the children of the kingdom, while the weeds are the children of the evil one, sown by the devil. The harvest is the end of the age when evildoers will be thrown "into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth," while "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
Plain enough. All the same, there is a tendency to misunderstand this metaphor. You see, we all think we are the wheat. The weeds, of course, are all those other people in the Church that we might not like so much, or who are not as good as we think they should be. If you do a Google search for "wheat and tares" you will come across all kinds of information warning us of the agents of Satan hidden within the Church, wolves in sheep's clothing, who will be discovered and cast out at the end of time. We should watch out for those evil weeds. It is so easy to divide the Church into "us" and "them." It is so easy to judge others. But the point of this parable is just the opposite. The point of the parable is that it is impossible for us to make that judgement.
Anyone who has spent any time in the garden may scratch their heads when the master instructs the servant not to pull the weeds until harvest time. If you are a gardener, you know that planting the seed is only the beginning of the work. The ongoing, constant work of the gardener is pulling the weeds to ensure that the good plants grow well. So why would the master want the weeds to remain until harvest? More than likely, the weed Jesus was speaking of was something called darnel. This is a mildly poisonous plant that is almost indistinguishable from wheat until it is fully mature. Its similarity to wheat means that it would be very difficult to pull up the darnel growing in the field without pulling up a lot of wheat at the same time by mistake. You can't tell one from the other until the very end. Jesus is telling us that the evil and the righteous, too, can only be distinguished at the end.
It is wrong then, to assume that you are the good wheat and others you might not approve of are the weeds. So far from being an encouragement to condemn others, look how the Church surrounds this gospel reading with calls for personal repentance. The first reading praises God for permitting repentance (Wis 12: 13, 16-19). The psalm today calls God "good and forgiving" (Ps 86). In the second reading, St. Paul proclaims, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26-27). Far from smug assurance of our being wheat, these other readings suggest that we should have serious concern about possibly being weeds!
Rather than judging our neighbors who should be judging our actions. This is the whole point of the moral teachings of the Church -- teaching us to make judgments about actions, chiefly our own. All of our scripture readings today remind us that we are all very capable of falling short of the goodness God intends for us. We are all very capable of being weeds, which means -- if we persist in our weediness -- eventually burning in the fire with the other useless weeds.
But the gospel, as always, is good news. Unlike weeds, which are weeds when they are planted, weeds as they grow, and weeds at the end, we do not need to remain weeds. We can become wheat at any time. Wisdom tells us that God's children have "good ground for hope" because God permits repentance. This is why the wheat and the weeds cannot be distinguished until the harvest. Because until the end, there is always hope that the sinner will repent.
A wise priest told me once that how we live is very important, but not as important as how we die. Do we die in God's friendship (wheat), or as God's enemy (weed)? Either possibility remains an option until the moment of our death. Someone can live a holy life for decades, and earn a reputation for being a righteous person. That reputation can then lead to pride, and that pride to a lack of repentance for sin. The person begins to believe that they do not need saving and so fails to rely on God in the end. Likewise a person can spend a life in sin and find themselves so deep in the evil mire that they see no way of getting out of it. Such a person may, at the end, finally call on God's help because they come to realize that they cannot save themselves.
Does this mean we are free to live a life of hedonism so long as we make sure to make a good confession before we die? No, for this would be insincere and a huge risk, for none of us knows when we might meet our end. But it does mean that repentance and forgiveness is always a possibility, until the last moment. And falling away from God is always a possibility, until the last moment. We must recognize both of these truths.
This means two things. Number one, we should never give up on others. Sometimes, it is tempting to throw up our hands and say, "that person is hopeless!" We can foster anger and hatred for our enemies, forgetting that these are people who need God's mercy. We should always strive to love them and pray for their good. We should also never give up on ourselves. We should never feel that we are beyond saving. There is no sin we can commit that is stronger than God's mercy.
Second, we should never rest on our own laurels. The moment we start to presume that we will make it to heaven because of how good we are is the moment we forget that we need a savior. Pride and presumption have lost many a soul. Pride prevents the sinner from recognizing his own sin. When we think we are too good for repentance, we cut off the channel of God's mercy. When we convince ourselves that we are wheat, we allow weeds to take root in our heart.