Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

July17, 2011

Bellarmine Chapel. Xavier University, Cincinnati


(Based on Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43)


We are now well into the season of the church called “ordinary Time.” There are no major events like Advent or Christmas or Lent or Easter or Pentecost around. ‘Ordinary time’: the time where we live most of our lives as followers of Jesus.


The church uses these Sundays to deepen our understanding of the mystery of God’s Kingdom, especially by recounting the parables of Jesus. Although the parables do challenge us and call us to deeper conversion, it’s important to recall that they are more than moral stories: they are geared to tell us something of the One Jesus called ‘Father.’


Today we are given a whole menu of parables.


I want to focus on the first one, about the wheat and the weeds, because I believe it is something we all need to be challenged by in the present era of our society and of our church.


We start from the fact that the slaves in the story find the discovery of weeds among the wheat very unsettling. And of course, they are us.


As Americans we do not deal well with things that are unresolved. We want things neat and clean, with no ambiguity or ambivalence. Are you with me or against me? When things are blurry we want to jump right in and clear them up. Our whole culture revolves around our great gift for ‘solving problems.’ (Of course we don’t talk much about the fact that they become problems because that’s they way we label them in the first place. . .)


We want to know at all times ‘where we stand.’ And we love labels. They minimize confusion and stress. We have lots. In our political lives, and in our church. Liberal, conservative, progressive, reactionary. Tea Party.


If you and I were invited to play the game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey most of us would wind up putting it far from the right place. But give us a pile of white hats and black ones and we each would know exactly which heads deserve each kind.


We know our wheat and our weeds.


As I was mulling over these readings earlier in the week I was reminded of an experience from way back in the late 60’s:


At that time the Marriage Encounter movement was spreading like wildfire. Every couple was almost compelled to make an encounter. So this Sunday-go-to-meeting suburban couple joined the throng. The husband in particular was very taken by the experience of dialogue!


You may recall that in the final talk of the weekend couples were encouraged to take the method back into their home. They were to engage their children in dialogue, inviting them not to be afraid of bringing up any subject they had never talked about with their parents.


So the next night at the dinner table this father did just that. They had two kids about 10 or 12, and then there was their toughest challenge. He was about 18, and a poster kid for the troubles of those days: hair down to his shoulders (which he never washed); ears pierced; tattoos; clothing in shreds, before that became the fashion. He barely grunted in exchanges with his parents, especially his father. And worst of all, he had stopped going to church and given up anything related to religion.


If we were drawing a cartoon of the scene we would have drawn a black hat on him, for sure.


When the father invited the children to speak up, the two little kids asked some trivial, curious questions. Then the prodigal son quite unexpectedly said, “I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask you, Dad.”


The father was really excited. This was really going to work!


The young man looked his father in the eye and said, “What does Communion mean to you? I know what Communion means to my mother because I know how she lives. But I’ve sat in the back pew of the church Sunday after Sunday and watched as you went to receive Communion, and I asked myself, ‘what can that possibly mean to him?’”


The father broke down in tears.


Are we really all that sure that we know what is wheat and what is weed? Do the labels really help?


In the course of planning my homily a curious coincidence took place. On Friday you may have happened to hear the segment on Science Friday with Ira Plato on NPR, as I did. They had a whole piece on weeds! What is the definition of a weed? And are weeds all bad?


It turns out that there isn’t a really scientific definition for a weed. It’s really a derogatory term we apply to a plant that gets in the way of something else we like or want. Ralph Waldo Emerson defined a weed as “a plant whose virtues have yet to be recognized.” Every plant makes some positive contribution to the ecology of its place.


It turns out that the landowner in the parable isn’t really all that concerned about the presence of weeds. That’s because he’s totally focused in the harvest. When he tells the slaves not to try to ‘solve the problem’ by ripping up the weeds, he’s concerned only that they might destroy the potential of the growing wheat. His approach is exactly the opposite: he says, “Let them grow together.” It’s OK! You’re making it a problem. . . .


Each of us is only a work in progress, no matter whether we’re conservatives or liberals. The Lord doesn’t attach labels, because our story is still unfolding.


One of my favorite writers in Louise Erdrich. She’s from up in Minnesota and has discovered that she has some Chippewa blood in her ancestry. She writes frequently about the mix of cultures in that area. In one of her books she has this passage:


                        When we are young,

                        the words are scattered all around us.

                        As they are assembled by experience,

                        so also are we,

                        sentence by sentence,

                        until the story takes shape.


We’re all mostly a disconnected collection of words, with maybe a sentence or two half cobbled together—tentatively—if we’re lucky. To speak of our ‘story’ is much too pretentious. That won’t really come together until our last breathe.


I was reminded of this at the memorial service up at Mother of Christ parish for our late good friend and fellow Jesuit, Father Jim Hasse, a couple of weeks ago. [For my readers: Jim was a wonderful painter of African-American art. His art has been displayed all around the country. He mostly used people from the black parish as his models.] The memorial was very rich. People celebrated his unique, penetrating vision. During the many eulogies several people mentioned how honored they had been to serve as the model for, say, The Woman at the Well, or for the Good Shepherd, or The Prodigal Son.


Toward the end the fellow directing the choir took the microphone and told his story.


“At one point Father decided he wanted to paint something on a grander scale. He wanted to paint an entire Last Supper, with Jesus and all 12 apostles. But he wanted the painting not merely to be a nice representation. He wanted it to challenge us, to make us think. So he asked me to be his model for Jesus—and for Judas! He wanted us to confront the fact that we’re all a mixture of good and bad.”


There was a funny follow-up to the story. He said that later on he would be at some gathering talking to someone and suddenly the person would say, “Hey! I just got it: weren’t you the guy who was Judas in that painting of Father Hasse’s?’ “Nobody ever said, ‘Weren’t you Jesus in that painting?”


We’re all a mixture of Jesus and Judas. Wheat and weed.


The story of sin and failure and breakdowns in human relations is an old tired story, as old as the human race. That’s not the real story. That’s not what’s really going on. The real story, the good news, the breakthrough that turns all that old story upside down and creates a whole new narrative, is the wheat! The wheat that continues to grow deep in the ground. imperceptible to our human eyes. It’s the yeast, losing itself to promote the fermentation that will make the dough rise to become the rich bread for our human spirits. It’s the word that falls down on the earth like gentle rain and makes it fruitful: the Lord says “it will not return to me empty but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”


Our God is an infinitely patient gardener, focused solely on the harvest that is sure to come. The Lord is not blind to the confusion and evil. God knows the messiness of the inbetween times. After all, he sent his own Son to experience its effects in his own life and death among us.


His message to us is straightforward:


“I will have a harvest! But it will be on my terms and my time, not yours.


And I’ll take care of the sorting, you don’t have to worry about that.


Your job is simply to continue to focus on planting good seed.”