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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Sixteenth Sunday Year (A)

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

Today, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, in the parable of the tares, the darnel, or, as we would call them, the weeds, sown in a field of good corn, we have Jesus’ answer to those who complain about, or accuse, Mother Church in order to justify their own lack of faith.  Their complaint, their accusation, frequently ends like this:  “You don't need to go to Church in order to live a good life”, and they reach that face-saving conclusion as the necessary consequence of charges you will all have heard at some time or other: “I’ve seen so-and-so doing this; the priest was very rude and unkind to me; when you meet them outside Church they are no different from anyone else; I don’t want any part with them, they are a lot of hypocrites".  All of which finally leads up to that memorable phrase: "I may not go to Church but I live as good a life as most of them, and a better one than some of them who pretend to be so good and holy!”
Strangely enough, the devout Pharisees of Jesus’ time were somewhat akin to many of our faithless Catholics today in the sense that they liked to imagine the Assembly of faithful, or the Church, as an exclusive community into which only those truly holy are to be admitted.  But what is such true holiness?  Can it be surely recognized, measured, or guaranteed to endure?
One great grief the Pharisees held against Jesus was that He did not accept their oral traditions as true criteria for holiness; indeed, He demanded from His disciples a holiness greater than that of the Pharisees.  Moreover, He did not despise, refuse contact with, sinners: at times He was to be found eating and drinking with them; indeed, He welcomed some of them as His disciples, and  even chose one to become an Apostle.
Minutely observing Jesus’ behaviour, the Scribes and Pharisees found themselves with thoughts like to those of Simon, their fellow Pharisee who, once having invited Jesus to a meal in his home, found himself mentally criticising his Guest’s attitude of patient indulgence towards a reputedly sinful woman present in the company:
This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner. (Luke 7:39)
Even John the Baptist -- sent to prepare the way for Jesus – might seem to have an attitude very similar to that of Simon and the Pharisees, after all, didn't he once say of Jesus:
I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire? (Luke 3:16-17)
However, whereas the Pharisees considered themselves, to be sufficiently learned  and holy, authorized and prepared, to separate the good from the bad here and now, ultimately, John was shown to be faithful and true, for Jesus, the Messiah, will gather the wheat into his barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire; but He will do that in His Father’s own good time, the time set by His Father for judgement day, and until then, all who are called, both good or not so good, devout or neglectful, sincere or insincere, will remain together in the field of Jesus’ planting, which is His Church.  Of course, we are not considering here those who openly and seriously contemn the teaching of Mother Church or those who knowingly try to lead astray her faithful by their own bad example, for St. Paul clearly instructed his converts to get rid of such people.  Here we are thinking of those who -- like weeds – surreptitiously hide themselves among the corn; those who outwardly seem to be part of the living, growing, fruit-promising, crop, but inwardly are not.  Bearing that in mind, let us listen again to Jesus’ answer to His own ancient adversaries and to His Church’s modern critics:
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way …
That pseudo-wheat mentioned in Jesus’ parable was notorious and considered a great nuisance.  It resembled wheat in appearance but had no marketable value, nor was it of any use for eating.  The rabbis described it as “prostituted wheat”.  Sowing such stuff in someone’s field was regarded as a crime, and the Romans had a law against such actions, which said that “If you have sown tares into another’s field so that you might damage its productivity, not only can the master (of that field) act with force or covertly, but … also he can sue for damages.”   Jesus was clearly telling a serious parable about events that were part and parcel of the lives of those listening to Him.
Notice, first of all, that this parable shows us that Jesus knows full that there are weeds as well as wheat to be found in mother Church.  Indeed, in His parable, the problem is so urgent that He has the master’s workers say: “Should we root out these weeds at once?”  The master, however, knows more about the agricultural issues involved, for the roots of the tares are intermingled with those of the wheat: pull one up and you draw both. Therefore he decides to delay the removal of the weeds: while the crop is growing both weeds and wheat are to remain together; however, when the time is full, the tares are to be uprooted and bound into bundles for burning – for, though useless as food, they can serve as fuel for the fire -- whereas the wheat is then to be carefully harvested and gathered into the barn.
What, therefore, is the teaching of Jesus for us today, People of God? 
To answer that question we must look carefully at today’s readings since they might seem at first sight to be concerned with mutual relations between individuals in the Church and teaching a ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ sort of attitude, whereby no impressions are to be acknowledged nor thoughts formed which might seem to distinguish between right and wrong teaching, reverent and irreverent worship, publicly good Catholic behaviour and that which harms the Catholic name.  Indeed, the Gospel can be easily misinterpreted so as to imply that since it is only for the Lord to judge, therefore, until that time, all are to live and worship together in mutual acceptance, appreciation, and affirmation …. a nice family where no one rocks the boat by disapproving of what others might do or say, and where no one can rightly call for positive standards higher than those popularly acceptable.  Such an attitude has, of course, already penetrated and permeated far too many parishes and churches with the result that the dignity of divine worship and the healthy integrity of catholic teaching and moral standards are fearfully disregarded in the name of fraternal charity.
However, that is certainly not the concern of today’s Gospel reading which is totally centred on the kingdom of heaven in its earthly constitution and development.   Although there are, indeed, individual members in that kingdom, both good and bad, it is, nevertheless, the good of the kingdom itself which is the supreme consideration, and this is, currently, a most unwelcome emphasis.  In our modern society any idea that the corporate whole, the social body, may have even more important rights than those of individuals is anathema.  For us, however, the true good of  Mother Church, is supreme, she is our joy and must be our  confidence, something we both live and would die for, since she is, already here on earth, the beginning of what will ultimately become the kingdom of heaven, the glorious paternal home of all God’s children.
People of God, we should not to allow ourselves to be unduly scandalized, and most certainly never put off Mother Church because of individuals be they every so highly placed, be they ever so many, be they ever so arrogant or disdainful.  Nor should we ever become despondent for her no matter how powerful or popular her enemies may become; because in every parable of today’s Gospel reading the wheat is finally and successfully gathered in, the minute mustard seed becomes a tree giving shelter and refuge to the birds of the air, and the yeast ultimately permeates and leavens the whole measure.
The corn sown by Jesus can grow only in the field which He, the Master, has chosen; any seed that falls by the wayside, among thorns or on the stony path, surely perishes in one way or another.  The seed of Jesus’ planting is His Word proclaimed authoritatively by the Apostles chosen by Jesus and subsequently sent out by Him to bring His Good News to the whole world.  Such seed can only grow in the field of Jesus' Church where it can be fully nourished by life-giving showers of His Most Holy Spirit; and in that field there will always be good workers to be found -- called and appointed by the Master to look after the seed He has sown --  through whom, His Spirit, will always provide His People with the grace and guidance necessary for their supernatural fulfilment.  
However, there is an aspect of life in the Church for the Kingdom that is not always appreciated by Church members, but which is perfectly obvious to any farmer watching his crop grow; namely, the fact that, just as weeds hinder the growth, vitality, and the quality of a crop, so also those of sinful life in the Church harm all who are in the Church.  This is what we must bear in mind today when we see Mother Church disfigured in so many ways, short of vocations, and bereft of children.  The disfigurement we may be tempted to complain about is brought upon her in no small measure by her children’s sins: indeed, by the wrong we ourselves do and the good we fail to promote or protect.  Rather than allowing ourselves to give way to so-called righteous indignation about this or that aspect of the Church, we should pity her, love her all the more, because she is suffering for our sins.  I doubt that there has been anything done and perpetrated by others throughout the history of Mother Church which does not find some trace or echo in our own personal weakness and fallibility, or that there is any tide of popular contagion that has not been encouraged or furthered by our own sins of omission or positive faults.
Sometimes in films and fiction, and even in the liberal talk of those wanting to show themselves in a popular light, we are presented with the picture of a jolly sinner, a loveable rogue, an attractive scoundrel.  In actual fact, though, such sinners, rogues, and scoundrels, are the wolves in sheep's clothing of which the Gospel speaks; and the Gospel assures us that they come only to kill and destroy, for there is nothing lovable in known sin and indulged weakness.
People of God, we should always have loving concern for, and trustful commitment to, Mother Church, and therefore we must always confidently hope and trust in Jesus, as we were encouraged in the first reading:
Your might is the source of justice; Your mastery over all things makes You lenient to all; (and) You show Your might when the perfection of Your power is disbelieved.   But 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 it is to His Spirit that we should always turn in our every need, for the Holy Spirit has been given both to perfect Mother Church and to form each and every one of us, uniquely, in Jesus, for the Father, as our second reading told us:
The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.   And the One who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because He intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.