Words on the Word

16. Sunday A

Wisd 12,13, 16-19: You govern us with great lenience.
Rom 8,26-27: God knows everything in our hearts.
Mt 13,24-43: His enemy came and sowed darnel.

Today’s Gospel provides an image of the Church. Hearing it, I suppose most of us share the same presupposition. We take it for granted that the wheat, that’s us; whereas the darnel stands for others — others we may be quite inclined to name: people who annoy us, whom we think of us as not quite up to our level, whom we suspect of hypocrisy etc. With a sigh we resign ourselves, ‘Oh well, let them stay until harvest-time, but then…’

Should we think like that, one thing is certain: we have not even begun to live as disciples of Christ. It is time then to get started.

We are all members of the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, by grace. We are all sinners who have been forgiven much. If we start calculating others’ debts, it is because we have forgotten our own. It is useless, and can be unhealthy, to keep poring over sins that have been pardoned. What is forgiven is forgiven; it no longer exists. Sin can leave wounds in us; and by our sin we may wound others deeply. This is a serious matter. Healing and reparation can take a long time, may even become our life’s task. Yet the sting of sin is removed when it is pardoned by our Lord through the Church. The only good reason for returning to ponder our own sin is our succumbing to judgementalism. If I am insane enough to start thinking others lost, to set boundaries for God’s mercy, then I should open my register of sins and consciously remember where I have been and where I might have remained, had not the Lord’s strong hand redeemed me.

In this way sin, which is an evil in itself, may be made to serve a good purpose. John Climacus, abbot of Mount Sinai in the seventh century, wrote these profound words: ‘A lapse often saves the clever man, bringing him salvation and innocence in spite of himself’ (The Ladder, 24).

Take care not to misunderstand this statement. John took sin seriously. Not for a minute did he trivialise it. What he says is this: a clever person is inclined to think of him or herself as self-sufficient and needless. To one self-sufficient, God is superfluous. He or she will usurp divine prerogatives and start judging others. That is when a lapse might turn out to be providential. Once we find ourselves well and truly fallen, with our nose in the dirt, we are relieved of illusions about ourselves. We can start a new life afresh based on reality, in truth, trusting in God’s mercy. The Bible shows us examples of such pedagogy in the stories of King David, the Prodigal Son, the Apostle Peter, and several others.

How can we better learn to see others as God sees them? We are given challenging, earthy counsel in our reading from Wisdom. The chapter from which the reading comes is worth reading in entirety. It deals with questions people often ask in conversation: Why does not God put a stop to evil people? Why does he let injustice continue? The Wisdom of Solomon says: ‘You correct little by little those who trespass’ (12.2). Were he to advance too forcefully too quickly, it might be destructive. If we rub a fragile vessel too hard in order to remove rust, it may break between our hands. And people are fragile, also when they behave brutally.

The Book of Wisdom calls a spade a spade. It provides a list of truly abominable deeds. We read through it full of indignation, ready to call fire down from heaven on the perpetrators. Scripture meanwhile addresses the Lord and says: ‘But even these you spared, since they were human beings — ἀλλὰ καὶ τούτων ὡς ἀνθρώπων ἐφείσω‘ (12.8). God hopes against hope that even the most hardened souls might ‘be freed from wickedness’ and choose conversion (12.2)

When Jesus decrees that the darnel is to be left until harvest-time, it is not just to ensure, on the Last Day, a roaring fire in the furnace. No, his divine purpose and sublime hope is that the darnel might become wheat. At this point you may rise up in protest and say: weeds are weeds! It would be a true statement based on our own limited premisses. But let’s not forget that we are dealing with One who can turn water into wine. Who can make something out of nothing. And who can make a sinner righteous.

If little by little we start putting on the mind of Christ (cf. Phil 2.5), it will be evident in the way in which we see others. We shan’t be concerned, then, with condemning them or distributing labels; no, we shall see them as children of God, our brothers and sisters, called to a great and noble end. We shall do what we can to help them on their way.

‘Thus you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind [literally, ‘philanthropic’, that is loving other human beings], and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.’ This is Scripture’s message to us. We shall know that we have started to live as Christians when we entertain such hope, not only for ourselves, but for others.

Among the most loveable of the Desert Fathers is Abba Bessarion. He was trained in the monastic life by Antony the Great at the time of the Emperor Constantine. He was widely known and esteemed for his ascetic life, gentleness, modesty, and great charity. The following story is told about him:

One day a monk who had sinned was driven out of church by the priest. Bessarion then arose and followed the brother out. For he said: ‘If you consider this brother, who has committed one sin, unworthy to worship God, then what about me, who have committed many sins?’

An example to emulate. Amen.