This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 13:24–43:
Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ 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; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
He proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”
He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.
Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house. His disciples approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, 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. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
“Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
“The quality of mercy is not strained,” William Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, a play which deals with sin, justice, and mercy in its own way. The quote comes from Portia, who seeks mercy from the moneylender who seeks to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio, who set that as collateral on a loan he cannot pay back. Portia, disguised as an attorney, gives one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches on forgiveness and mercy — qualities which, it should be noted, were also in short supply from Antonio at this point of the Bard’s play:
It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes;
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown …
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
Today’s Gospel reading offers three parables that speak to eternal life, but the first speaks directly to justice and mercy. Jesus again uses similes to allow the crowds a familiar context to explain the mysteries of the foundation of the world, with the parable of the wheat and weeds a clear statement of the final judgment.
This parable has more to say than the acknowledgment of a final judgment, however. Jesus promises that God will mete out justice in His time, not necessarily in present time. He provides an indirect answer to a question that would have been present in the crowd, and in fact has been asked during the entirety of monotheism: Why does the omnipotent Lord allow for sin and evil? Jesus’ parable provides an answer to this, which is that God could rip it out of the Earth, but not without damaging or killing off humanity. The evil that has been woven into the world through the gift of free will and the animosity and envy of Satan has tainted all of us to some degree. To destroy it through the unlimited power of the Lord would be to uproot all the wheat along with the weeds.
Jesus’ parable promises justice will eventually be done, but not until the “harvest.” At the end of days, the angels (as Jesus translates for the disciples) will separate the wheat from the chaff and the weeds, but not until then. Even though some of the wheat may have been entangled in the weeds, the angels will sort that out to save what’s good and to destroy the evil. Until then, however, the Lord will endure the weeds for the sake of the wheat. Thus, the Lord does not turn a blind eye to evil; Jesus’ parable makes clear that He watches it well, and closely. Rather, the Lord tempers his might to grant us mercy, even when we get entangled in the weeds — and perhaps especially when we get tangled in the weeds.
This is a parable of judgment and justice, to be sure, but it is also a parable about mercy. How much does God love us? So much so that He forestalls His judgment and might until the final “harvest,” allowing us to live, learn, and hopefully grow despite the evil that surrounds and entangles us. He does not withhold sustenance, but allows the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. Instead of uprooting all to destroy evil, the Lord sent His only Son to reveal the true path to and the nature of heaven. Jesus then offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice so that we may find our way to the Lord.
Our other readings today reflect this message of mercy and hope. In Wisdom 12, the scriptures sing praise of the Lord for His deliberate mercy. “But though you are the master of might,” we read, “you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us.” The disasters that befall the Israelites and Judeans do not come from a wrathful and unmerciful God, but from the natural consequences of their refusal to follow His laws and His word to fulfill their true mission of salvation.
Paul also writes about the mercy of the Lord in another way. “The Spirit come to the aid of our weakness,” he writes to the Romans, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” This again demonstrates the Lord’s mercy, allowing us to commune with Him even with our shortcomings and inability to transcend sin. He sees the good in us, and our yearnings to draw closer to Him, and when we fail He draws closer to us.
Mercy is indeed an attribute to God Himself, as Shakespeare wrote, but as Portia declares, we are also called to that caritas. Even if we do not feel particularly charitable, Portia reminds us that we ourselves need mercy for our own salvation:
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
The need to demonstrate caritas to others is not just a question of marking a ledger. We are called to form ourselves to the caritas of the Lord, so that we may be ready for salvation when our time comes. In terms of the parable above, we need to not just grow away from the weeds but help others to do so as well. None are worthy on our own, which should remind us to be meek as the Lord when seeking justice — not to curry favor with Him, but to become as much like Him as we can in our limited way. We seek to live eternally in His love at the end of days, but we have to make ourselves love in His way as much as we can to prepare ourselves for that.
May our prayers for mercy be fruitful, not just for our own salvation, but so that we may become instruments of God’s will in the salvation of others.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.