Friday, July 21, 2017

Letting Weeds Grow

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

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Vincent van Gogh:
Peasant woman binding sheaves
What kind of gardener lets weeds grow in their garden? A bad one, that's who. And that's the kind of gardener I am, because my garden is always overgrown with weeds this time of year. I'm a lazy gardener. I like the idea of a garden. And so every year I plant tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. I fertilize the soil. The beds look really nice at first, and I tell myself I'll keep them looking that way. But a few weeks later my garden inevitably looks like a jungle. Because I don't actually like getting out there and doing the hard work that it takes to make a garden successful. And that work involves pulling weeds.

I know this because even though I'm a bad gardener, my mother and father are wonderful gardeners. Their vegetables grow in neat, easily accessible rows with a marked absence of weeds. They work hard at it every day. It takes diligence. As soon as they see a weed sprouting up through the soil, they pull it out by the roots so that it won't grow back. Having a garden full of weeds doesn't just look bad. The weeds can choke out the good plants if left unchecked, depriving the vegetables of needed nourishment. 

This is why Jesus' parable in this Sunday's gospel reading would have raised the eyebrows of people from an agrarian society who know how to grow crops. He tells a story about a man who sows good seed in a field, but then "the enemy" comes along and sews bad seed, so that both wheat and weeds grow up together. His servants ask him if they should pull up the weeds. He says no. "Let them grow together until harvest." Then, and only then, he will gather the wheat into his barn. The weeds, he will gather to be burned.

Why would he do this? Why would the farmer in Jesus' parable let the weeds grow? It doesn't make sense, as any gardener would tell you. This would certainly seem an odd growing strategy to Jesus' listeners. 

It doesn't make sense to us, because Jesus isn't really talking about a farmer and a field of wheat and weeds. Jesus is describing the kingdom of heaven. He uses parables whenever He does this because it's impossible to describe in human language what God's kingdom truly is; so Jesus tells us what it is like using stories. Jesus explains the meaning of this particular story at the end of this reading. He is the farmer sowing the good seed. The devil is the enemy who sows the bad seed. The wheat is the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the children of the devil. The harvest is the end of time, at which the children of the devil (the "weeds") will be gathered and burned, while the children of God (the "wheat"), will "shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." 

I believe Jesus uses the metaphor of wheat and weeds growing together in a field to help us appreciate that God's ways are not our ways. As it says in Isaiah 55:8-9, "As the heavens are far above the earth, so far above our ways are His." We would never let weeds grow in our garden (unless you are a bad gardener, like me). God is certainly not a bad gardener. He knows what He is doing. So why does He allow the weeds to grow, if they are just going to be burned at harvest time? Why risk them choking out the good wheat?

What we are really asking is, why does God allow evil people to persist in their evil? Why doesn't God smite the sinner, to prevent him or her from doing any more harm to the kingdom? 

Because unlike wheat and weeds, saints and sinners are not two different types of thing. A weed is never going to magically transform into a stalk of wheat. When I look into my tomato garden, I can tell by looking at a plant whether or not it's a tomato. If it isn't, I know it is not going to become one, so I yank it up (or would, if I weren't such a lazy gardener). 

But when God looks and you and I, he doesn't see either a saint or a sinner. He sees a person who has the potential to be either.

He sees, first and foremost, a creature whom He loves. Always remember this. God would not have made you if He did not first love you. You are here on this earth for only one reason, and it is because God delights in your existence. God loves you. Your task is to love God in return, and learn to love what God loves, which is first and foremost your fellow human beings. This is how one becomes a saint. This is what God intended when He planted that good seed which is you.

But the enemy is also active in the field, planting bad seeds. The devil plants the seeds of selfishness in our hearts, the seeds of greed, sloth, despair, and disordered desire. When these things take root in us, we become like weeds. And weeds are useless. They aren't good for anything except being yanked up by the roots, gathered and burned.

But not yet. And this is the good news. Jesus doesn't pull up the weeds. He lets them grow. He lets them grow because He is hopeful that the weeds in his field will yet become wheat. And so He waits patiently until the time of harvest.

Our first reading from Wisdom reminds us that the Lord governs us with leniency, He gives His children ground for hope, and He permits repentance for our sins (Wis 12:16-19).  God allows weeds to become wheat. He provides the grace to make that happen.

And so He waits.

Eventually the harvest time will come. Eventually the time for repentance will run out. At that time, our fate will be sealed. Jesus is quite clear on this point. Either we will be thrown into the fiery furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth, or we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father. Given the choice, who wouldn't choose the latter?

We all say we want to go to heaven, but many of us, if we are honest, have to admit that we don't live that way. There are souls that are prideful; that do not realize they are weeds. They think they are fine how they are and refuse to change. They are not humble enough to ask for God's mercy. One the other end of the spectrum, there are souls that are despairing. They see their sinfulness and think there is no way out. They know they are weeds, and don't believe that can ever change. They can't see how God could love a weed.

I'm here to tell you, God loves the weeds. That's why He lets them grow. 

The harvest will come. There will come a day when it is too late to repent of your sins and your final destiny will be set. You will forever be either weed burning in the fire, or wheat gathered in the Father's barn for all eternity. But that day is not today. Today is an opportunity for repentance. Today God offers mercy. Today God is letting you grow. Whether you grow into wheat or into a weed is up to you.

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