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A lesson in mercy: What would you be like if nobody loved you?

MAN SITTING ALONE ON BENCH

Chainless Photography | CC

Brother Silas Henderson, SDS - published on 07/22/17

The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a reminder that each of us is called to extend mercy to those around us

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;

—Matthew 13:27-28

Included in a collection of essays titled A Maryknoll Reflection on the Liturgical Year is this story from Father Ken Tesing, a Maryknoll priest who spent decades serving in East Africa:

I came back to the United States from my mission in Tanzania, and I was visiting my brother and his family at their farm. As farmers always do, we went out to look at the fields and crops. My brother asked me, “Look, do you recognize those weeds?” I replied, “No, I don’t think I have ever seen them before; how did they get into your fields?” He said, “Some years ago herbicides were developed; the weeds and grasses we struggled with in the crops when we were just growing up have all been eliminated. All these seeds were just lying dormant in the ground; they could not compete earlier with the dominant weeds and now they have sprouted and come forth.” We talked about this. My brother said farming is like life; there will always be challenges, always be differences. We need to be patient and tolerant, to recognize the problems, the evil amid the good, and find ways to work with it and around it.

This simple, practical explanation by an observant farmer is ultimately what Jesus’ parable of the “Wheat and the Weeds” is about: acceptance, humility, and mercy.

This particular parable, which only appears in the Gospel of Matthew, can be troubling. In essence, Jesus tells the story of a farmer whose crop of wheat is attacked by an enemy who sows weeds along with wheat. Once the violent act was done, there was no going back. The wheat and the weeds had to be allowed to grow up together. It would only be at the time of the harvest that the separation would finally take place. The weeds would be burned up.

This parable isn’t concerned with backstory or trying to understand why the weeds were sown in the first place. Instead, it focuses on the response of the landowner. And so, when the slaves suggest uprooting the weeds, the landowner refuses: Pulling up the weeds might uproot the wheat.

In Jesus’ parable, there is a distinct difference between the wheat and the weeds, but to get the full impact of the picture that Matthew is painting, we have to take a look at the word that is used for the “weeds.”

The word used here is zizania (ζιζανια) which is sometimes translated as “tares” or “darnel.” Rather than just being a general word for “weed,” this is a specific plant (ryegrass) whose scientific name is lolium temulentum. What makes this detail so important to the story is that zizania looks like wheat as it is beginning to grow and it is only when it is nearly mature that you can tell the difference.

Jesus makes it clear that the determination as to what is zizania and what is wheat will only be made at the time of the harvest (the eschaton), when the reapers (whom Jesus says are the angels) will gather up the wheat and the weeds. The point of all of this is that Jesus is trying to illustrate that the Church is made up of a mixture of sinners and saints. It is impossible to know who represents the wheat and who represents the weeds and, because we aren’t God, we don’t have the knowledge necessary to make a judgment.  

Saint Augustine brings this point home when he explains:

Consider what we choose to be in his field; consider what sort of people we are found to be at the harvest. The field, you see, which is the world, is the Church spread throughout the world. Let those who are wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds change themselves into wheat. This, you see, is the difference between people and real ears of wheat and real weeds, because with those things growing in a field whatever is wheat is wheat, and whatever are weeds are weeds. But in the Lord’s field, which is the Church, wheat used to be grain sometimes changes into weeds, and what used to be weeds sometimes changes into grain; and nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.

And so, we are left with mercy and a spirit of patience and acceptance of those around us. But mercy is a difficult topic in our overly politicized times. Many see mercy (and compassion) as letting someone “off the hook.” We find this mentality at work in many of the debates polarizing society today.

To gain a fuller understanding of what true mercy—God’s mercy—is really like, we can read the First Reading for this Sunday:

Though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, / and with much lenience you govern us; / for power, whenever you will, attends you. / And you taught your people by these deeds, / that those who are just must be kind; / and you gave your children good ground for hope / that you would permit repentance for their sins (Wisdom 12:16-19).

God’s majesty and power are most especially manifest in leniency, clemency, and kindness, and we see this embodied in Jesus’ own willingness to offer forgiveness and acceptance.

Mercy is God’s gift to us, providing us with that time and space which allows for conversion and renewal so we can experience reconciliation, healing, and growth. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a reminder that each of us is called to extend mercy to those around us and to recognize that we, ourselves, are in need of mercy.

Does the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds seem “fair” to you? How would you have responded if you were the landowner?When have you judged others and been proven wrong? When have you been judged harshly or wrongly?What lesson does this parable teach about discipleship?

Words of Wisdom:

Who are we to accuse anybody? It is possible that we see them do something we think is not right, but we do not know why they are doing it. Jesus encourages us not to judge anyone. Maybe we are the ones responsible for others doing things we think are not right. Let us not forget that we are dealing with our brothers and sisters. That leper, that sick person, that drunk, are all our brothers and sisters. They, too, have been created by a greater Love. This is something we should never forget. That sick person, that alcoholic, that thief, are my brothers and sisters. It is possible that they find themselves abandoned and on the street because no one gave them love and understanding. You and I could be in their place if we had not received love and understanding from other human beings. I will never forget the alcoholic man who told me his story. He was a man who had surrendered to alcohol to forget the fact that no one loved him.Before we judge … we have the duty to look inside ourselves.—Saint Teresa of Calcutta
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