When I first began taking an interest in gardening, I had difficulty sometimes in distinguishing between what looked like a weed but turned out to be a flower, and vice versa. If you are an inexperienced gardener or have an untrained horticultural eye, you can get it badly wrong and rip out what would have been a lovely flower and other times leave alone what turns out to be a right pest.
We’ve just heard a story from Jesus about a rival farmer planting weeds in a neighbour’s field. The weed in question here is a particular kind (zizania) known for its confusing resemblance to wheat in the early stages of its growth. People with little experience would have difficulty telling the two apart. That helps us to understand why the farmer, against the wishes of his servants, felt that those pulling up the weeds might mistakenly uproot the wheat as well. So he says: “Let them both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: ‘First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my bard.” Not only will the crop have been saved but the dried out weeds could be stored for burning as fuel in the winter.
At first glance this might just be a story of one clever farmer getting the better of another who was out to destroy him. But by the time St Matthew recorded it, 40+ years after Jesus’ resurrection, the story had taken on another meaning. The Church then, in the late first century AD, was grappling with the problem of some Christians being less than perfect members of the community. Thus the servants in the story came to represent the Church officials who wanted those weaker members expelled, just as the servants wanted the weeds uprooted from the field.
So for St Matthew here would have been a plea to the early Church officials for patience and restraint in judging and dealing with offenders. A rigorist or hard approach, the parable was now saying, would risk expelling Church members who were genuinely committed but, because of human weakness, were unable all the time to keep to Church teaching. Furthermore, if they were uprooted or expelled from the ‘field’ or community, the family members and friends of these weaker members might be damaged and alienated as well. So the parable counselled the Church officials to have the patience of the farmer who allowed good and bad to grow together until harvest..
For us now this parable is a reminder that the Church is a mixture of saints and sinners, good and bad, and we all are in need of a patient and merciful God, the God celebrated in the First Reading. This is a God whose lenience, patience and generosity is not a sign of weakness but of strength. When ‘harvest’ day comes, says Jesus, a separation of good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, will take place. In the meantime, he says, let people co-exist together till the end, when God will take care of the final sorting out.
This is a cautionary tale for us all. It offers a repudiation of an elitist or purist view of the Church. The Church always was and still is a mixed bag and we must not try to play God by attempts to purify it through purges (as happened in the Counter Reformation, for example, and in the Inquisition when ‘heretics’ were burned alive and women accused of being witches).
Jesus says: the ultimate judgement must be left to God.
For our part we can go back also to Our Lord’s original teaching in the parable. He was criticised then for being too lenient and generous with public sinners, the ‘weeds’ in the community, as they were seen by others. His message was: be patient, give them time to get to know me and God’s ways, and then they may change for the better. But don’t you judge or condemn them.
When you think of it, don’t we all – despite outward appearances – have ‘weeds’ nestling in our lives, just as much as in the other people we might judge and condemn? How wonderful then to know, as Jesus teaches, that God is patient with us too and gives us time and space to change for the better.
The Quality of Mercy
by William Shakespeare
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,—
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,—
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s,
When mercy seasons justice.
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 July 2020