Sunday, July 20, 2008

Commentary, but no homily...

No homily this week, because the seminarian-deacon preached for me this weekend.

However, I did have the chance, at three Masses, to reflect on what we all heard, so if you like, here is some off-the-cuff commentary...

Remember that the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, is very likely the last text of Scripture written before the birth of the Savior. It is believed to have originated from a Greek-speaking community of Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, from about 50 B.C. The author is considering the beliefs of God's People (which came down through the community of the covenant from Abraham and Moses and through the prophets), through the "lens" of Greek philosophy, which by this time has been a huge influence on this entire region for over a hundred years.

As I listened to this section, I found myself linking it to the Gospel--because God is lenient, when he might justly be severe, many think he is inattentive; rather like the farmer who allows the weeds to remain with the wheat. We often want God to deal with things sooner than he chooses to, for reasons that even the parable in the Gospel does not sufficiently explain to us. But this reading provides the best explanation: God gives his children "your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins."

The psalm, of course, provides a refrain for this idea, and connects it to the Gospel, so let's look at that, next--then come back to St. Paul.

The Lord gives several farming parables, all very familiar to us. Even in suburbia, we can appreciate these images--how many of us have seen weeds grow up, rather faster!, among our carefully chosen flowers and vegetable plants?

But the Lord counsels a different course from what we tend to do; we pull them up, or kill them, but he lets them be.

Now, here is where the interpretation of a parable has to be subtle and not too rigid. Note, at the end of the reading, Our Lord spells out what each element of the parable stands for. He says, "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."

Many times, when approaching a parable, we might "lock in" on symbolism and not allow it to be as fluid as we should. In saying "the weeds" are "children of the evil one," he is not denying, for example, that all people--indeed, every created thing--comes from him as Creator. Nor is he denying that the children of the evil one can convert; and yet the parable, taken as it is, does not address these points. The parable is meant to illustrate certain points, and it does so well; but don't expect every detail of its structure to answer every question; that's not its intent.

Here is the flaw, perhaps, in my thinking, if not that of many of us; had I been constructing the parable, I would have tried to work that idea into it; had I, as a seminarian, been crafting it as a homily illustration, I feel sure one of my instructors would have said, "hmm, good illustration, but it doesn't address the issue of conversion"! And yet, the supreme Teacher did not see this, apparently, as a flaw!

And yet, surely he taught about repentance and conversion. That is, I think, part of what is implied in the delay of our Lord in dealing with the weeds ("whoever has ears ought to hear"). But only part. The other part of the parable I think is to counsel us to be as patient as the Lord, and not be discouraged. Justice will be done.

I would also point out that this parable--if you care to consider this--runs counter to the claims of those who advocate a "dispensationalist" theology of how things will come to an end, as illustrated by the popular "Left Behind" series. Note how that whole school of thought hinges on the harvesting of the good before the bad, taking the wheat out of the field first, leaving behind the weeds. Of course, folks who take that approach don't cite this parable--for good reason! Now, I happen to think that whole line of thinking is badly flawed, partly in its mix-and-match approach to Scripture texts, but also in painting what I think is an ugly portrait of God, who seems rather capricious in how he governs things, and of course, that whole mindset denies sacramental grace; people are "raptured" not because they have sanctifying grace in their lives through baptism, but because they somehow manifest "enough" (it's not clear what "enough" is) faith or zeal.

But enough of that.

Let me note something else in the Gospel: the reference to slaves. We find slavery repugnant, and we hope our Lord did. I rather suspect he did, but I also suspect he found a great deal of other things repugnant, that we don't--i.e., he might not consider our "freedom" to be much of an improvement over the "slavery" described and taken as a given in Scripture.

That being said, what do we make of it?

Well, I found myself analyzing it thusly: "what is a slave?" A slave is a human being who belongs to another; who the Master may command, who is wholly subject to the will of the Master. In practice, that did not mean that slaves did not own property, or have a segment of their lives that belonged to themselves; but they were not free to come and go as they chose; in short, they are not their own masters, as we all would like to be.

In what context would such slavery even be tolerable? Well, if God is the master and we are his slaves--because we do, in fact, belong to God, and as his creatures we are wholly subject to his will, except insofar as as we, darkened by sin, become slaves to evil. It is grace that frees us from that slavery, and enables us to be "free" as God's "slaves"; the one option that is not possible is to be our own masters, because that would mean to exist in a universe in which there is no God.

Notice that the Lord, in explaining the parable, did not identify the slaves with anyone. That suggests to me that the slaves are the Apostles, and by extension, all who enter into apostolic work (which is meant for all of us). We may not like calling ourselves slaves, but slaves to God, who is lenient and generous, and who indeed sets as free as we can be? What did that underrated theologian, Bob Dylan say? "You gotta serve somebody."

Now, in all this, how do we fit the reading from Saint Paul?

Remember that the second reading is continuous, whereas the first reading is chosen to have some connection to the Gospel. So any connections are providential. What can we discern?

I found myself making this connection. When we behold the field of the world, choked with weeds and wonder why they are allowed to fester and spread, asking the Master why he lets this happen, that is when we need to remember the Holy Spirit's groaning in prayer for us and in us. The danger, as I mentioned initially, is to get discouraged, if we are followers of the Lord, while others get cock(le)y, i.e., to mock God and say--as so many do today--there is no God, all you believers are fools, because look how the so-called weeds spread! Keep praying, in union with the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for the holy ones.


Chase said...

The part of this passage that confused me was when Jesus associated the harvesters as being angels, saying that the angels would be the ones to separate the good from the evil and throw the evildoers into the furnace. I had always gotten the impression that at the end of time we would all be sent before God to receive our judgment. This just seems like it contradicts that notion; instead of the weeds and harvest receiving their judgment from God, it sounds like God's just sending marching orders to the angels to dispose accordingly. Am I missing something? Or is this one of those parts of Apocalyptic teaching that there just isn't a clear answer for?

Fr Martin Fox said...


I think the passage reflects something that is consistent throughout all Scripture--namely, that angels are direct agents of God's will, as if they are extensions of his will and have none of their own.

I would see this not denying that we appear before the Lord for judgment -- after all, that will be taught in this same Gospel of Matthew a little later -- but simply presupposing it.

So recall what I said in the original post: a parable may not be "complete" in the sense that it includes everything it might include, but it includes enough to make the point or points it is intended to make. In this case, it isn't intended to address the point you raise.

Does that help?

Father Schnippel said...

You've been nominated!

mrsdarwin said...

Thanks for writing up your reflections even though you didn't have to give a sermon this week. You're always very insightful, and I really appreciate your thoughtful commentary.