2002 July 21 – 16th sun Ord (Prison Writings)
Wi 12, 13, 16-19,
Rom 8, 26-27,
Mt 13, 24-43
Fr. Frank Cordaro Reflection
Matthew 13:24-43 The Kingdom of Heaven is liken to wheat and weeds, mustard seeds and leaven: This week’s Gospel is the second of a series of three Gospels, all from the 13th Chapter of Matthew, all containing parables about the Kingdom of God. Matthew uses the term Kingdom of Heaven instead of the Kingdom of God out of deference for his Jewish audience, respectfully avoiding direct mention of God’s name. This change in terminology should in no way give the impression that the Reign of God is located in some otherworldly location and not in our world, as it exists today. This is one of the points made in this week’s Gospel parables.
Matthew 13:24-30 The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds: At first glance this seems like a simple enough parable following the pattern of comparing a truth of the faith – the Kingdom of God, with an everyday experience of wheat farming. A closer look would tell us otherwise. In all gardens and crop fields that I have every known, weeds don’t need to be planted, they come up on their own. And where precisely is God’s Kingdom located in the parable?
Rather than a simple parable beginning with an ordinary experience to make one point, it looks more like a loosely fitting allegory beginning with the lesson it wants to teach. “In fact,” as Fr. Bob Beck writes in one of his weekly lectionary columns on this week’s text, “It is the drama of the Kingdom, but dressed up in natural images.” With Jesus’ telling of the parable, the Kingdom seems to be the field itself. It represents the Church in history. That the field contains both wheat and weeds suggests that both good and bad can be found in the Church and in the Kingdom of God in the here and now. This should come as no surprise. Given recent scandals in the Catholic Church we are painfully reminded of the flawed nature of our human institutions, even those representing our Faiths.
Once the weeds are discovered growing amongst the wheat the slaves of the farmer volunteer to pull them out of the wheat field. The master of the slaves wisely tells the slaves to wait. Let nature follow its course for if they pulled the weeds out while the wheat is growing, they would also pull some of the wheat before it is ready. The master says the problem will be solved come harvest time when the wheat and the weeds are more easily separated, with no loss of wheat.
The point of the parable is that even though the Reign of God begins here in human time and space there is no telling for sure, by eternal standards, who is in and who is not. We are in no position to judge or condemn another person out of God’s Kingdom because we can never be fully sure we know the difference between the wheat and the weeds. In rooting out a perceived weed we may pull out some wheat, too.
We should measure all truths (dogmas, teachings and creeds) upon which we live our lives, as provisional, temporary by the nature of our human limits. Does this mean we should not judge between good and evil in the here and now? No, we cannot avoid judging between good and evil, right and wrong in our daily lives. It is something that we must do. Choosing between good and evil, right and wrong, is part of the faith journey each human being must make. We all must make a fundamental choice for God and this can only be done through the everyday provisional choices that we make all the time.
The point of the parable is not that we don’t make choices between good and evil, right and wrong, but that we are all humble in our truths. The old cliché “never say never” makes a theological point. One of the things Pope John Paul II wrote in his book CROSSING THE THRESHOLD was that the Catholic Church has never declared definitely that a person has gone to hell. There are plenty of people whom the Church has declared saints and in heaven. Pope John Paul II, being the pope to declare more saints than any other pope in history, still reminds us that no where has the Church condemned a person to hell (A small consolation for the heretic burned at the stake). If we err, we should err in generosity, not in judgment. Ammon Hennessey, the famed Catholic Worker of the “50’s, 60’s and 70’s” said the same thing in another way when he said, “We should never declare a person a saint before they die because they can always blow it in the end.”
Matthew 13:31-33 The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast: These two short parables are matched together because they are both very satirical in nature and make similar points in differing ways.
The mustard seed is indeed a small seed. However, in first century Palestine the mustard plant was also what Iowa farmers would call an obnoxious weed, a plant that gets into crop fields and would take over the field and destroy the crop if left unattended. Most people with grass lawns would call the dandelion the obnoxious weed of suburbia USA. The mustard plant was the dandelion of first century Palestine farmers, if left unattended it would take over a field and kill off all other plants. It was hard to eradicate, a constant and persistent troublemaker for the farmer of Jesus’ day.
The mustard plant is a great satirical image for the early Church. Church historians tell us that the first generations of Christians did not infiltrate the Roman Empire in a traditional frontal attack by brute force. Instead they took over the empire by way of the back door, the servants’ entrance, one household at a time, one act of love and kindness at a time. And try as the Roman Empire did to eradicate the obnoxious character of Jesus movement through persecution and repression, the movement kept growing and growing, just like a mustard plant.
The last words cited in the parable, “the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches” is the surprising punch line. It’s almost a direct quote from the prophets Daniel (Dn 4:7-9,17-19) and Ezekiel (Ez 17:23, 31:6) in which the prophets refer to great trees as images of powerful worldly kingdoms in which other nations and people come for protection, the mustard plant being the most unlikely comparison.
The one-verse story about the yeast meets all the criteria of a parable. It uses the everyday experience of a woman making bread to teach a truth of Faith. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God with the yeast that is used in bread making. The punch line is the “three measures”, enough bread dough to feed a hundred people. This exaggeration of the effects of the yeast illustrates the same point of the mustard seed, that from very small and insignificant beginnings great things come to past. The image of the yeast also highlights the hidden character of the Kingdom, doing its thing beyond the radar screen of worldly affairs.
The satirical nature of the parable comes from the fact that in the New Testament the image of yeast is more often used to illustrate a corruptive negative aspect of the faith journey. (See Matt 16:12, Mk 8:15, Lk 12:1, 1 Cor 5:6-8 and Gal 5:9) In modern terms, the image of yeast is more likened to “the one bad apple that spoils the bunch”.
The satirical side of these two parables is a reminder to us of the Gospel’s over all bias, that it is in the marginal, insignificant losers of society that God’s Kingdom people are found. The parable’s satirical slant helps to make this bias known.
Matthew 13:36-43 Parable of Wheat and Weeds Explained: this week’s Gospel ends with Jesus explaining the meaning of the parable of the wheat and weeds to his disciples. And in the explanation Jesus actually shifts the emphasis, creating a different parable. In the telling of the parable to the crowd the focus was on the Kingdom of God in the here and now and the field represented the kingdom’s location. In his explanation of the parable to his disciples Jesus changed the focus to the End of time and the harvested wheat represents the Kingdom people.
In Jesus’ explanation he identifies seven components in the parable, identifying each with a corresponding aspect in the Kingdom drama, making the parable a totally allegorical story. Jesus says 1) the sower of the good seeds is the Son of God, 2) the fields are the world, 3) the good seed the children of the Kingdom, 4) the weeds are the children of evil, 5) the enemy who sows them is the devil, 6) the harvest is the end of the age and 7) the harvesters are God’s angels. The focus changes to the end of time and judgment.
The common theme in both the parable and the explanation is that only God has the right to judge – no one else has a right to judge another in this life and the next.
LESSON: When it comes to the end of time the New Testament actually presents two different endings. The common theme in both is that God wins in the end. In one ending there is a judgment to come in which the good and the bad are separated. The good go to their eternal reward and the bad go to their eternal condemnation. Much like what is recorded in this week’s Gospel parable and explanation.
There is also a second equally important End of Time New Testament ending in which there is no judgment at all and that all things are brought into God’s Kingdom. An example of this no judgment, “winner takes all” End Times story line can be found in Colossians 1:19-20 “For in him all fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven. (Also see 2 Cor 5:18-19 and Eph 1:10)
Both endings are correct. Both reveal a truth of our Faith. Between them it’s not a choice of either/or but of both/and. The endings that record a judgment take seriously our human freedom and that we can, if we choose, separate ourselves from God. And the endings that report all things on earth and in heaven are brought into God’s saving and eternal grace take God’s unlimited forgiveness and unconditional love seriously.
I’m reminded of something Kasie Temple, a 30-year veteran of the NYC Catholic Worker community, a friend of Dorothy Day and a great scripture scholar said last summer at a workshop she gave at the Worchester, Massachusetts Catholic Worker 15th anniversary gathering. Someone asked Kasie if she thought hell existed. She said, “Yes, I believe hell exists, I’m just not sure anyone is there.”