In my commentary for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I called for us to move society out of the painful birth pangs of racism to deliver justice for all people. The readings from last week and this week highlight the many obstacles that we face as we try to create this just society.
‘Whoever has ears ought to hear.’ (Mt 13:43)
Do you attentively listen to the cries of injustice in society?
What can you do to promote the dignity of all people?
How can you help people in your community who are suffering?
In this year of the Lectionary’s cycle, the Gospel readings come from Matthew, who depicts Jesus speaking in parables. Parables are short stories that often teach by criticizing bad behavior and calling for hearers to reform their lives. These are not simply reflections on the kingdom of heaven; these are directions for how to create the kingdom on earth.
Throughout the parables, Jesus highlights the need to open one’s ears and eyes to receive his message. When listening to parables, hearers should compare themselves to people or elements in the story. In the parable of the sower, read last week, Jesus used agrarian imagery to help his community change their actions to receive the good news and distribute its message of love throughout the world. Jesus likens the Gospel to seeds, and he compares the crowd to various surfaces that freely receive the Gospel. Pathways, rocky ground and thorny soil are all ineffective places to sow seeds. They leave the seeds vulnerable to evil ones (birds), or shallow, without roots and easily tempted by wealth (weeds). These are all barriers that inhibit the Gospel from thriving. Only the good soil brings forth a successful harvest.
Hopefully, ancient and modern audiences desire to be the good soil that receives the word and faithfully promotes justice. Our current state of affairs, however, reveals many birds and weeds that actively oppose the Gospel and rocky ground in which it cannot grow deep roots. We should remember that this parable is not preached in order to celebrate good soil, but to help its hearers cultivate good soil in themselves to receive word of the kingdom. Jesus calls for them to recognize the metaphorical birds and weeds in their midst who sow division and discord, promote hatred and fail to take accountability for their actions.
The parable of the weeds has a similar goal but a more eschatological tone. The seeds are followers of Christ who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, while the enemy and his weeds are evildoers who will be thrown into “the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Are you the good seeds or the weeds? Do you promote justice and righteousness, or do your actions or inaction damage your community?
While the parable of the weeds looks forward to a final judgment day, it has implications for how we build up the kingdom in our present circumstances. As we work toward a society in which all people are treated with dignity and respect, we will have to contend with the weeds that choke justice, literally and figuratively.
This parable can be misused to justify complacency as the weeds and wheat grow together until final harvest. But telling people who are presently suffering victimization to wait for a future reckoning only does further harm and fails to promote God’s kingdom. God’s eschatological justice cannot be an excuse for inaction, comfortable ignorance or outright denial of the need for change.
The reason God waits to burn the weeds is to protect the wheat as it grows. When we recognize the weeds as harmful, destructive entities, we too have an obligation to prevent them from choking off the potential of the good seed God has planted.