Year A: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat
Matthew 13: 24-43
Jesus proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds* all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’ He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet; “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation [of the world].”
Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house. His disciples approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned [up] with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.
- Where have you noticed “wheat and weeds” growing together in yourself and in your community? How has this helped your spiritual growth?
- Who in your life has been a source of good seed or leaven helping you to grow? What did they do for you?
- In what specific ways have you been yeast for others?
- What personal failures in life have given you the necessary ego humiliations required to grow in humility. How has this deepened your relationship with God?
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
Today’s part of the parable discourse follows directly on last week’s parable of the farmer’s 25 percent success rate in sowing seed. It appears that Jesus had great sympathy for beleaguered planters whose poor crop yields mirrored the disappointing results of his own efforts to sow God’s word.
We begin with a story in which a farmer had a wicked, wily enemy so committed to his nasty plan that he snuck into the field at night and sowed bad seed. One can imagine the aggravation of the servants when they saw what sprouted where they had worked. Woe to the weeds sullying their soil! But, the master didn’t see the situation the same way they did. The owner, aware that yanking up the weeds would endanger the newly sprouting plants, tells them to keep calm and let nature take its course.
But there seems to be more to the story than simply the protection of sprouts. Somewhere along the line, there is a question of judgment. Why were the servants so sure that the “weeds” should be eliminated? Did they have an excess of enthusiasm that led the owner to see them as a greater danger to the growing wheat than the weeds would be?
The owner might have been thinking that some crops enhance one another like corn, beans and squash, the “three sisters” of pre-Columbian America. To nonexperts, the beans growing up the corn stalk can look like parasites and the squash leaves that guard the soil’s moisture can be perceived as harmful sun blockers. This parable raises the question of what deserves to be called a weed. A way of stating the problem in contemporary language would be to ask when diversity is really lifethreatening and when it is just challenging to a particular vision of how things should be.
When Jesus went on to talk about the mustard seed, farmers would have been quick to get the joke. The mustard seed, proverbially small, did grow into a big bush, but not always one that was desired. The Mishna, a collection of Hebrew oral traditions, warned specifically against planting mustard because the bush was noxious and would take over everything around it. Jesus was not just talking about the prodigious growth of the kingdom of heaven, but also commenting that some people judged it to be more like a plague than a crop.
The image of the yeast has its own dose of humor. Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly how much yeast the woman in question has on hand, but it had to be a substantial amount because she mixed it with 30 to 50 pounds of flour — enough to make bread for a small village. Perhaps that was precisely the point Jesus was making: Some yeast plus a lot of flour and the effort of one hard-working woman make enough to nourish an entire community. The kingdom of heaven can flourish from the most natural processes because creation was designed for it.
Finally, the disciples ask Jesus for an explanation of the parable of the weeds. Again, as in the parable of the sower, he gives them a point-by-point explanation, giving the parable an apocalyptic meaning. On the most basic level the apocalyptic interpretation promises that evil will not win in the end. But, the way good will win does not necessarily reflect human judgment. The disciples are not called to police the kingdom. The Son of Man will send the angels to do the sifting when harvest time comes. The disciples need only sow seeds and mix yeast; with just that effort the kingdom promises to sprout like weeds.
We are a Wheat-Weed reality
The wife of a man who takes seriously the spiritual life and struggles to become spiritually mature remarked, “My husband went on a prolonged retreat and when he came back, he was loving, considerate, and compassionate. That is, until his mother came to visit.” The indication is he “lost” it. Whatever the combination of inner awareness and outer behavior is, the presence of this man’s mother was enough to seriously disturb that connection. The high of his retreat gave way to the low of old tapes that dragged him along unresolved childhood conflicts.
Of course, he is not alone.
People leave church on Sunday buoyed by the liturgy. They feel centered, and they are confident they can face the tests of the world with steady justice and compassion. The parking lot traffic is their first undoing. Leaning on the horn, they sing a hymn not in the worship book. We all move from moments of realization and centeredness into scattered and fractured behavior. We think we are in charge, able to bring love into the situations of our life. Then we get our buttons pushed. In the Gospel of John, Peter says to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). This is the love that Jesus says is the greatest: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Peter can comprehend and feel that love and envision his fidelity to it.
However, Jesus does not have the same confidence in Peter that Peter has in himself: “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13:38). Peter’s inflated sense of his fidelity will not weather the difficulties of the upcoming events. The man who realizes in his head that he will lay down his life for Jesus will not be able to pull it off.
But “the cock crowing” is more than the moment of betrayal. It symbolizes the advent of morning, the moment of illumination. Peter will be chastened, but he will also understand and return to the following of Jesus (see Luke 22:31-32). A part of what he will understand is that we can dream more than we can enact. We can have experiences of intense realizations when we love God and our neighbor, but we can lose those realizations and fail to let them influence our behavior.
In the symbols of the Gospel, wheat and weed grow together. In fact, they are so intertwined that they make an inseparable unit. Wheat grows on the earth when we successfully embody our deeper realizations of love. Weeds grow on the earth when we fail to embody those realizations. We are a wheat-weed reality.
Also, it takes time for a small seed to become a major tree and for leaven to raise the dough into bread. Time is the opportunity for repentance, the chance to change our minds and try again. We are repeat offenders, and so we become “repeat repenters.” This is not a situation that is remedied in this life. We may be confident that eventually the field will be all wheat and the dough will be bread and the tree will be the home of all. But that does not relieve us of the here-and-now struggle.
The struggle is the goal
the path is what we know
all the rest is heaven.
When we fail, we feel humiliated, brought back to the truth that we have not progressed as far as we thought. But these humiliations are their own forms of progress. We learn that the movement from realization to integration, from the inner feeling of love to embodying love, is a never-ending process. We must not become discouraged. There is another way to see it. In a moment of truth we can acknowledge how we have been lost, and we can make amends. Out of our errors and frailty come some of our most profound lessons. In a heartfelt conversation, in a quiet moment when we take stock—even on our deathbed— freedom awaits. The “freedom that awaits” is to simply return to the spiritual project, carrying luminous inner spaces into the darkness of the next moment in which we live.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.