The Riddle of the Weeds

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

Growing up whenever I saw something surprising or unexpected, I would get what people called “fishmouth.” And as I was proclaiming our gospel this morning, of course I couldn’t tell if any of you got “fishmouth,” having heard something surprising or unexpected. But I imagine the first hearers of these parables, the first century Jews, I imagine that some of them had “fishmouth” as they heard Jesus proclaim these three parables to them.

When we think of Jesus’ parables in the gospels, we often think of His parables as analogies: Jesus is trying to explain some sort of spiritually profound or spiritually difficult concept, and so He draws upon images from everyday life, images that His hearers would understand. The word “parable” is a Greek word, and it translates a Hebrew word which actually means not “analogy,” but “riddle.” And so, in all of Jesus’ parables, we see not only analogies but we see riddles: We see something surprising or unexpected, which is meant to make His hearers really grapple with something, really think about something. And in each of the three parables in our gospel this morning, there is at least one thing which is surprising or unexpected.

In the parable of the mustard seed, it’s surprising that Jesus uses the example of a mustard tree, or mustard bush, as an image for the Kingdom of God. This is very surprising because those who originally heard this parable would have known that in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel describes the Kingdom of God not as a mustard tree, but as a cedar of Lebanon. We read in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel says, in chapter 17: “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it. It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. Every small bird will nest under it, all kinds of winged birds will dwell in the shade of its branches” (Ezekiel 17:23).

So Ezekiel uses the image of a cedar of Lebanon to describe the Kingdom of God, whereas Jesus uses the example of a mustard tree. Now a cedar of Lebanon is a very majestic tree: it’s kind of like a redwood tree, or a sequoia tree. If you’ve ever seen those trees, or even if you’ve just seen a stand of beautiful pine trees somewhere Up North, you know that they are so incredibly beautiful to look at that they can really capture your imagination. They’re something you’d like to spend time contemplating. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a mustard tree, or a mustard bush, but they basically look like large tumbleweeds. They’re not particularly majestic; they’re kind of ugly, in fact. You wouldn’t want to spend time contemplating them. And so this is something remarkable unexpected in the parable of the mustard seed.

In the parable of the yeast and the dough, what’s unexpected is that, throughout the Bible, yeast is often used as an analogy for sin. Jesus later on in the Gospel of Matthew, in Matthew chapter 16, Jesus tells His apostles to “beware of the leaven[, the yeast,] of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6). And He’s using yeast, He’s using leaven, as image for the sin of hypocrisy. In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in First Corinthians chapter 5, St. Paul says this to the Corinthians: “Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). Yeast is often used as an image of sin or of evil in the Gospels and throughout the Bible, so it’s surprising that Jesus uses the image of yeast to speak about the Kingdom of God.

It’s also surprising that Jesus says that a little bit of yeast in the Kingdom of God will be able to leaven three measures of flour. And three measures of flour isn’t three cups of flour, it’s actually sixty pounds of flour. A whole lot of flour leavened with a little bit of yeast. Again, something unexpected, something very surprising in this parable.

But perhaps what is most unexpected and what is most surprising comes in the parable of the wheat and the weeds. It’s surprising and unexpected that the master of the house should permit the weeds to grow alongside the wheat. The weeds, after all, represent evildoers and all who cause others to sin. So why should the master of the house, who represents God the Father, why should He permit the weeds to grow? Shouldn’t He just want to get rid of them right away? This is something incredibly unexpected. And that’s perhaps why, of all the three parables, it is this parable in particular that the apostles asked Jesus to explain. They don’t ask Him to explain the other parables, but they ask Him to explain this one. Jesus, why does the master of the house permit the weeds to grow alongside the wheat? Why doesn’t God just get rid of the evildoers and all who cause others to sin right away?

Perhaps you’ve struggled with this question yourself. Perhaps you’ve struggled with it sometime recently. God why don’t you just get rid of the evildoers and all who cause others to sin? Why don’t you just wipe them out? Wouldn’t our world be far better without them? Perhaps you can call to mind a particular moment in these past few months when you’ve pointed your finger at something and said: “The world would be better without you. Wouldn’t it be great if God wiped you out! Wouldn’t it be great if God pulled you out! If He purged you from the field of this world!” Perhaps you’ve pointed your finger at someone on T.V., perhaps you’ve pointed your finger at someone in the government, perhaps you’ve pointed your finger at someone in your family or in your parish.

We all are guilty of this: of pointing our finger at someone whom we think is a weed and whom we think it would be far better if God got rid of them, if God pulled them up from the field of the world. Why doesn’t God just get rid of the evildoers and all who cause others to sin? This is a riddle and we’re meant to ponder it, to think about it, to contemplate it.

You see, every analogy fails at some point. And the analogy of the wheat and the weeds fails at a certain point. A weed, at some point in it’s life, cannot become wheat. Once a weed, always a weed. Once a stalk of wheat, always a stalk of wheat. A weed doesn’t just pop up from the ground and then at some point in its life become wheat. And similarly, a stalk of wheat doesn’t just pop up from the ground and then at some point in its life become a weed. But that can happen to us. Each of us, before we are baptized, is, in truth, a weed. Through baptism we become children of the kingdom, we become stalks of wheat. But through mortal sin, through serious sin, we can once again become children of the evil one, we can become weeds. Someone who was once a weed can become wheat, and someone who was once a weed can become wheat.

Also, each of us not perfectly wheat and not perfectly a weed. We have a mix of both in our lives. Each of us is a mix of good and evil. We’re not wholly wheat and we’re not wholly a weed. We have a mix of both in our lives. And God only knows that particular mixture in our hearts; God only knows the proportion of good and evil in our hearts. We may think we know that proportion in the life of someone else, but human beings see the appearance and God looks into the heart. Only God knows who is wheat and who is a weed. And only God knows the proportion of wheat and the proportion of weeds in our lives. And so it is not our place to decide who should be gotten rid of, who should be pulled up from the field of the world.

That is as job for God and His angels. And God waits to do that until the day of judgment because God knows that a weed can become wheat and wheat can become a weed. What we are morally is not finally determined until the day of judgment. And that is a day that we are not called to usher in by ourselves. It is a day which God and His angels usher in. We are not called to usher it in prematurally be deciding who should be pulled up from the field of the world.

I don’t know if you’ve seen recently in the media or online somewhere, but there is what is called “the culture of cancelation.” And it’s this pointing a finger at someone and saying, “You deserve to be pulled up from the field of the world. You deserved to be prematurally pulled up and burned. You deserve to be canceled. You deserve to be gotten rid of. You are a weed and you can never become wheat.” We contribute to that culture of cancelation by our pointing of figures at people and our thinking we are the ones who should be able to decide who should be gotten rid of, who should be pulled up.

My dear friends, when we encounter a weed in the world, or someone whom we think is a weed, we must never give up hope that that person can become wheat. Because to give up hope on that person is to also give up hope on ourselves. Because none of us is wholly wheat; we are also partly weeds. And so to give up hope that some weed can become wheat is also to give up hope that we too can be fully transformed into wheat. We must never give up hope in the eternal salvation of a soul we encounter in this world. The person we point our finger at on the T.V., online, in our families, that finger should turn into, not a figure of accusation, but a finger that identifies the person we should be praying for. The person we point at in accusation is the very person we should be praying for, and we should be hoping for.

My dear friends, my challenge to you is to identify someone whom you have pointed that figure of accusation at in the last couple of months and pray for that person. And ask God to save that person. Ask God to transform that person so that they can become not a weed, but wheat.