Discerning the Wheat and the Weeds

Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.”

Exodus 34:8-9

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. The the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.

Matthew 13: 41-3

In today’s gospel Jesus gives his disciples an explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The Kingdom of heaven is like a field in which good seed has been sown, but “the enemy” sows weeds among the wheat. The master tells his servants that the weeds and the wheat must be allowed to grow together, lest in an attempt to pull up the weeds, the wheat is pulled up as well. In our early stages of religious formation we often heard of the necessity of “extirpating the roots of vice” in us. It seems as if the school of asceticism from which this came must have paid little heed to the profound spiritual and psychological insight of this parable.

Our formation is sourced from multiple directions. It is, perhaps, most largely influenced by our early formation situations in our families and local situations. There, the values by which we are to live are communicated to us through almost every aspect of our lives. The goal of that early formation is that we learn to conform ourselves to the ways and the values of the family, culture, society, and religion into which we have been born. At a point in our development, however, we begin to experience the tension between that summons to conformity and our unique life-call. Adrian van Kaam speaks of this as the tension between compatibility with what surrounds us and the congeniality with our own unique spiritual identity. This tension, as creative, is one of the primary sources of energy of our ongoing human and spiritual formation. It is not an easy path to navigate, however, and it often leads us to have very mistaken judgments of what are the weeds and the wheat in our own lives.

Far too often the moral directives of our cultural and religious form traditions develop the kind of violence that the parable warns against. As a young and docile aspirant to religious life, I, for one, had a far too definitive idea of what were the weeds and the wheat within me. I had, at a young age, a certainty about what needed to be extirpated in my personality if I were to realize the perfection to which I thought myself called. As a still undeveloped and immature young person, I had little appreciation for how what I took to be the weeds of my personality contained often the wheat of my very originality, of who I really am. For me, as for many formed in the religious consciousness of the time, those presumed evils of life related to aggression and sexuality were to be, if not extirpated at least repressed from consciousness. The struggles to create a life that was untroubled by what I took to be the weeds was really an attempt to re-create myself as other than the one God had created me to be and, thus, an evasion of my true call to serve the world uniquely.

As I read the parable today, I often think that whatever form “the judgment” takes may well be a surprise to us. It may be a discovery that we have spent much of our lives mistaking the wheat for the weeds, and vice versa. What is to be “burnt,” that is purified in us may be some of those dispositions we most carefully cultivated, and what will then shine as the sun may be the aspects of our lives that we have spent our time running away from.

Yet, the parable, says Jesus, is not primarily about our individual inner lives but rather about the world. In the world we have the wheat of “the children of the Kingdom” and the weeds of “the children of the evil one.”  Here, as well, the key question of the parable remains. Why must the weeds and the wheat co-exist? Why not just extirpate the “children of the evil one.”  And again, the answer has to do with our own limited capacities for recognition and discernment. Unfortunately, we know the horror in every age of any human attempt to purge the world, a country, a religious tradition, or a family of the evil ones. Any attempt in this world to purge evil will result in a greater evil, for our designation of who are the evil ones is almost always mistaken. When Abraham Lincoln spoke of the evils of slavery that had led to the horrors of the American civil war, he excluded no group from its share of these evils  On the other hand, we less inspired human beings will always be looking outside of ourselves to those who are the cause of our problems. We shall always, given our earliest formation and propensity to pride and sin, see those who do not conform to our expectations of what constitutes a human person as the source of evil. Every attempt to extirpate the weeds in the human community will always involve xenophobia and violence. Both within ourselves and in the wider world, when we attempt to rip up and eliminate the weeds, we do so at the cost of our very souls.

Living authentically, then, means to live in the world, in all of its intra and inter personal as well as outer dimensions, of both wheat and weeds. It is to live the tension between congeniality and compatibility/conformity. It is to understand that the very nature of human community lies in our differences. So, it requires of us to come to live in peace with the darkness and the light within and outside of us, because we really are never sure which is which. Such a tolerance for ambiguity, for living in tension and unknowing, is what we call faith. As Moses prays in today’s passage from Exodus: “If I find favor with you, Lord, do come along in our company.”  We are told in today’s reading that “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another.”  The Israelites, “stiff-necked” people that they are (like all of us), are able to go on through through the desert only if the Lord comes along in their company. Even this common tribe is not enough “alike” that it can make its way toward freedom without realizing the presence with them of the One who calls them. To be sure, they must be responsible to each other, but they can only do so, as complex and sinful as they are, because they are each and together responsible to the Lord who always accompanies them.

We spend our lives frantically attempting to weed the garden, by dint of our own power and will, to enhance the good and extirpate the evil. The problem is we can never really understand what we are doing. What is a threat to some is a beckoning to others. What is dark for ourselves, may be a light for our neighbors. What we are certain is the right way, might be nonsense for another. We are certain we shall get to a place where we can control our life and destiny. And yet, experience continues to teach us that often our ways of doing this wreak havoc on our lives and our planet. Van Kaam says that to be awe inspired by our own capacities is “inverted awe.”  True awe can only be awe for the Mystery. It is relationship to that Mystery that makes for a life of peace, joy, and love in the conflicts and complexities of our life and world. Life is ambiguous and complex because it is so much more than we can never understand. To know who we are is the “learned ignorance” that realizes that we never really know. We know that in us and in our world both wheat and weeds are growing together. We do our best to discern the call that lies in the presence of both, but we realize that finally we are to bow “down to the ground in worship.”  We must trust that the Lord receives us as God’s own and pardons our sins, those we are aware of and those that are hidden from us.

It is humbling to live in the world of the wheat and the weeds, and to know that both are in us as in all. As we look toward whatever the reality is that we call “judgment,” we anticipate it from the stance of faith, hope, and love. At some point we shall “know as we are known,” and, in all likelihood, we shall be surprised at what we see. The gospel world is a world turned upside down. The sinners are welcomed, the righteous are rejected. The poor are filled, and the rich are empty. The humble are exalted, and the exalted are humbled. Might it be that when we, as Moses, speak with the Lord face to face, we shall fully realize why it was so important that we did not, in our pride and arrogance, trust ourselves to pull out the weeds in our own lives and in our own responsibilities for the world.

Free from self-will, aggressiveness, arrogance,
From the lust to possess people or things,
They are at peace with themselves and others
And enter into the unitive state.

United with the Lord, ever joyful,
Beyond the reach of self-will and sorrow,
They serve me in every living creature
And attain supreme devotion to me.
By loving me they share in my glory
And enter into my boundless being.
All their acts are performed in my service
And through my grace they win eternal life.

Make every act an offering to me;
Regard me as your only protector.
Make every thought an offering to me;
Meditate on me always.

Bhagavad Gita, 18

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