16th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year A
I remember reading an interview with an exorcist, who recounted some terrifying tales of possession. The interviewer followed these accounts with the reasonable question: how long do you prepare for exorcisms? The priest responded along the lines of: “I don’t waste time on evil. I spend time preparing for Mass.” He was making the point that though evil is real, though the Devil is real, they should not be our focus. We should be firmly focussed on Jesus, the Light of the World, and not distracted by the father of lies. When it comes to evil, ignorance and fascination are equally mistakes.
We find all this in today’s parable of the sowing as well, but the Lord takes us a step further, showing us what might be a further motivation of the Devil: that is, to turn us against each other.
In explaining the parable, Jesus tells us quite plainly that evil is real and the devil is real. The parable also illustrates how evil acts. Evil mimics the good, but 1) at night and 2) in order to confuse. Darnel looks very similar to wheat at the beginning.
Jesus also shows us where our focus should be. When the servants realise what has happened, they appear agitated. But the sower in his response seems calm and in control, as if he foresaw this eventuality. The servants focus on the weeds and destroying them. The sower, instead, focuses on the wheat and its preservation.
But, as I mentioned before, Jesus makes one more point. A point that is crucial today, when so much discussion, political, religious or whatever, is polarised and people seem unable to find or even admit the possibility of common ground. And especially crucial when things are so frustrating, and one is tempted to blame, to find a scapegoat.
Jesus makes this point subtly when he explains the parable. In the beginning, the servants volunteer to pull up the weeds. But in the explanation, are they the ones responsible for the harvest? No – it is the reapers, whom Jesus explains are the angels. Not the disciples. So, why is that? Why aren’t the servants the ones in control of the harvest? And, also, if they are not in control of the harvest, what is their job?
At this stage of our examination of the gospel, it is probably worth remembering a couple of things. The first thing is this. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’s first words of his public ministry are: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” So, Jesus is clearly not saying forget about evil. But, he is also clearly saying, be very slow to assume that one is 100% wheat and not darnel. Jesus doesn’t qualify his call to repentance. It is for everyone. Everyone must repent.
The second thing we should probably remember is that one of the names of the Devil is the Accuser. The Devil is the Accuser, whereas the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. The Devil is against us. God is for us. The Devil does not accuse us for our own good. Jesus seeks our repentance, the Devil does not. The Devil accuses us so that we might become fearful, so that we might despair, so that we might forget that sin and death are not the end: there is forgiveness, and life after death. The Devil points the finger so that we might feel alienated, not so that we might re-enter communion.
Back to the servants. Where do they fit in? If you listen closely to Jesus’s explanation, he doesn’t describe them. Who they are is ambiguous. Are they on Jesus’s side or on the Devil’s? The only ones that Jesus says are in the Kingdom of God is the wheat. And we know from last week’s gospel what the job of disciples is. Make oneself into good soil for the Word and then deliver a good harvest.
Jesus is clearly saying that it is not the job of the servants to decide who is wheat and who is darnel. Perhaps it is because our eyesight is not good enough and we can’t tell yet. Perhaps because it is just too early for the harvest. Perhaps because, as Jesus notes, our actions will do more harm than good, a problem that has always beset the well-intentioned. Perhaps, also, it is not our job because the action of accusation is more like the Devil and less like the Advocate, making us more likely to be children of evil than children of God.
Whatever the reason might be, Jesus tells us to take a different approach. He continues to tell us to look to ourselves and repent. I should not be so certain that I am wheat and not darnel. Most importantly, and what is echoed in our first reading: to be in control, to be virtuous, to be God-like, is manifested precisely in patience and mercy.
This doesn’t mean we shy away from proclaiming the gospel, from calling a spade a spade. Sin needs to be called out. Mercy never contradicts justice. It is just to remember, always, that a person, our neighbour, is never a spade. He or she is a profound mystery, hopefully a child of God, as we ourselves hope to be.
And if we want to be children of God, then we should imitate our heavenly Father with infinite patience and ready forgiveness. Even before this, we are more likely to be credible in our proclamation of repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of God if we do it with our lives, and people can see how near it is by our actions. We certainly shouldn’t be taking God’s role as judge onto ourselves, determining in advance who is good and who is evil.
So, in our Mass today, let us pray for patient, focussed hearts. Hearts that constantly seek the Word, letting His message of repentance turn us into good soil. Let us not be distracted by evil, but instead focus on delivering a good harvest.