"The parable of the enemy…" – Sunday Reflection and Lectio Divina

“The parable of the enemy who sowed darnel in a field of wheat” – Reflection by Fr Hugh O’Donnell, Salesian

Sixteenth Sunday Year A – Lectio divina on Mt 13,24-43

Evil may not seem very obvious to us, but the experience of evil is such an everyday occurrence that it would be foolish to deny it or to think that we are free from its power. We come up against evil just like everybody else – we know that only too well! If we want to see what evil looks like and how it works, we do not have far to go. We need only look at ourselves, at our hearts and our hands, and there we will see evil before us and in us. What we tend to question in relation to evil is our responsibility. We are so inclined to exonerate ourselves that often we put the blame on someone else, beginning always with those closest to us. Jesus teaches us today to live with evil without letting it grow in us.

At that time: Jesus put another parable before the crowds, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field;  25 but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the householder came and said to him, `Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’  28 He said to them, `An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, `No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”  31 Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field;  32 it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” 34 All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” 36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

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I. Read:  understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

Jesus continues to speak of the kingdom in parables. To the parable of the seed (and the commentary that follows) Jesus now adds three other parables. They differ in form and content, but they illustrate two ways in which God acts, ways that we cannot fully understand. In his kingdom God allows good and evil to exist and grow, side by side. His presence in the kingdom is both imperceptible and omnipotent, and brings about salvation.

In the first parable, that of the wheat and the darnel, Jesus proclaimed a fundamental rule of the kingdom of God: when the kingdom is preached, not everything that grows is good grain. The evil, which he did not plant, is not uprooted ahead of its time. The good seed has to grow and ripen alongside the bad. The day of justice will come. In the meantime, everything that has been planted is given the chance to grow. The disciple must be able to live with evil, and not become scandalized. God, like the sower, is patient with his field until the seed yields its harvest. The account shows Matthew’s anxiety to respond to a new situation in the community: evil is evident among the Christians, the Kingdom of God cannot be identified with the Church that arose after the resurrection. Christians will have to get used to serving God alongside people who do not know God, to seek to do God’s will among people who ignore it. It is good works, not impatience and intolerance, that make one a disciple. The disciple’s lot is to grow alongside evil without becoming evil.

The double parable of the mustard seed and the yeast is meant to give hope. It refers to the power to germinate that is in the kingdom. Even though it is barely perceptible, it will eventually give growth. An insignificant seed like the mustard seed, or a small quantity of yeast can produce unexpected results – a home for the birds of the air or abundant bread. Small beginnings with little promise gradually but inexorably lead to great things. We should not be deceived by appearances. When God and his kingdom are at work, good will surely come.

The decision of Jesus to speak to the people in parables finds a new reason now, quite different from the one given previously (cf. 13,10-17): by speaking in veiled terms, the parable suggests rather than describes the way of making public what has remained hidden until the day when it is uncovered by Jesus.

Jesus responds to his disciples’ request and explains immediately the parable of the darnel, in order to focus attention on the future. It is not just that we must live with evil now, while striving to grow in goodness, but that goodness itself is not definitive until the Son of Man decides in his own time. Until the day of the harvest comes, the good may cease to be good and the evil may cease to be evil. The community must await the final decision. It is not yet saved, though it can live in hope of being saved, if it remains faithful in the midst of infidelity.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

In the parable of the wheat and the darnel, Jesus is speaking about the mysterious presence of evil in our world, but he does so in a manner that is not completely clear.  He wants especially to address our anxiety in the face of the power and threat of evil. Instead of teaching us about the mystery of evil, Jesus seeks to convince us of God’s goodness and patience in dealing with evil people. He does not want us to be resigned to the existence of evil around us, and he does not want us to feel alone in the face of evil. He does not deny the reality of evil nor seek to play down its power, but he does not want us to be too worried or fearful. He wants us to love God more than we fear evil or the absence of God.

Jesus seeks to share with us two convictions: evil is real, as real as the world and as man. With Jesus we must believe in a world created by God, and believe that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Creation is the field in which God has sown the seed. It is of little help discussing the origin of evil, when the important thing is to escape from its power.

But this is not all.  Jesus teaches that we must believe especially in a God who is concerned about the presence of evil in his world and in people, a God who delays his intervention out of respect for the good that exists alongside the evil.  Like the owner of the field, God does not sow seeds of evil. If he tolerates evil, it is in order not to damage the good that is planted but is still weak and struggling to grow. He wants the good, like the wheat, to ripen for the day of the harvest. In the meantime, good must live alongside evil but always without becoming evil. It is the destiny of good to co-exist with evil, never despairing of its own power and force.

The God that Jesus proclaims is a God who permits good and evil to exist and grow together. It is not easy to understand this decision of God. At times the presence of evil is so scandalous and provocative, that it makes people doubt the existence of God. We cannot understand why he does not do something when evil seems to triumph over good. In relating the parable of the wheat and the darnel, Jesus does not intend to contradict our experience, nor to minimize the pain we suffer when we discover evil in our own lives. He knows well that, when he teaches, not everything that grows is good grain. But he is certain that the day of reckoning will come, when justice will be done and good will finally triumph. In the meantime, opportunity is given to everything that is growing – for the good, the opportunity to remain good, and for the evil the opportunity to be converted and change.

The disciple must know how to live with evil without pact or compromise. He will have to learn to respond to God while living among people who do not know God, and seek to do God’s will when others ignore it. Losing patience with bad people does not make a disciple good. Losing hope in God just because evil still exists means doubting his will to conquer evil one day forever.

We should learn something from God’s patience. Just as the farmer does not want to cut the grain when it has just taken root, God continues to hope, because he does not want to damage the good that is struggling to survive. God’s patience is not weakness but strength, and especially confidence in himself and in the power of good. He knows that evil will not survive and so he can allow it to grow for a while. Until the day of harvest comes, there is still the possibility that the good will cease to be good, and that the wicked will be converted. The Christian should know that God has already taken the decision to overcome the evil that exists in his heart and around him.  He should also know that God hopes that those who are still evil, or living in the midst of evil, will come to know him and be saved.

Knowing that evil will not outlive God means recognising God’s power and, at the same time, acknowledging that we will not be prey to evil forever, provided God is our supreme good, desired or already possessed. Anyone who could lose God is not yet saved, but can live with the assurance of salvation. Seeing evil before our eyes or in our hearts can be an imperfect but effective way of having God present in our lives, even if our lives are not yet completely good. We can desire to keep him always present in our hearts.

Precisely because we realize that God is patient even though the field still contains evil, we should try to be more understanding and less demanding of those around us who are not as good as we would like them to be, or maybe not as good as we are.  It is true that God’s patience when evil seems to triumph tests our understanding and the fidelity we owe him.  We think it would be nice if God destroyed all who do us harm, and maybe we have sometimes asked him to do so! Maybe we feel a bit cheated when he does not do so. But God has his reasons! He wants to give the wicked an opportunity to change, as he has done many times with us. He delays his intervention because he wants the wicked to be converted and evil to disappear.

Anyone who wants to be better, and not just good, must have patience with himself and with the evil he discovers in his heart, and especially he must be patient with the evil that triumphs around him.  Like the farmer in the parable, and like Jesus in his lifetime, the Christian knows that he must wait for the triumph of good. He is not deceived by the apparent triumph of evil. He is certain that one day God will come, as the day of harvest comes, and he will suppress evil once and for all.  The knowledge that evil has already been condemned obliges the Christian to struggle to improve, to commit himself to leaving a better world to others, and never to despair. Anyone who is afraid that evil will get the better of him does not trust in God or in the power of his goodness.

And that would be bad indeed! God can do nothing with those who do not trust in his goodness or who cannot accept his patience with the wicked.  Having a patient God has its consequences – we must accept them and accept him as he is.  If we believe in him we can accept ourselves, for none of us is completely good, and we can accept the world as it is. This is indeed a great benefit.