JUST as with the parable of the Sower, Jesus does not explain the parable of the Wheat and the Tares to the disciples immediately, but only after some further teaching. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis explains the rhythm of “parable/interruption/ explanation” in this way: “Like seeds in the soil and leaven in the dough, parables need to rest in our souls for some time and grow before we can become fully conscious of their meaning” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
Patience is the central message of this Sunday’s parable. The householder holds back from dramatic and destructive intervention to save as much as possible of the harvest. As our first reading reminds us, God’s power is shown forth in mercy: “Your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all.”
Into the field of wheat sown by our loving heavenly Father, an “enemy” comes to sow weeds. Although sin and evil purport to offer pleasure and satisfaction, the deeper spiritual reality is that their power is entirely destructive. As Leiva-Merikakis observes, “It is a great error to perceive any real symmetry or absolute duality between God and Devil. First and last, the Devil is God’s creature. Thus, in order to create its own kingdom, the Devil is reduced to vitiating God’s.” Evil is always derivative; it is always parasitic on the good.
God’s patience reflects the nature of his harvest. His Kingdom cannot be brought about by violence of empire, for it consists in “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17). The refusal to uproot the weeds too early does not betoken indifference or detachment. While he refuses to compel our obedience, he offers us his very life — the life poured out on Calvary, and given to us as heavenly food.
To be faithful to God’s Kingdom in the midst of this fallen world requires us to avoid two equal and opposite temptations: to conform ourselves to the world’s values (in Jesus’s day, the temptation of the tax collector), or to attempt to bring in the heavenly Kingdom using the violent methods of empire even against empire (the temptation of the Zealot). The call to discipleship is a call away from both, into a patient, hopeful faith.
Wheat and weeds do not serve only as metaphors for different people. The heart of each disciple can be considered as a field, in which both kinds of plant continue to grow. What St Ignatius called the “discernment of spirits” — the ability to recognise within ourselves what is wheat and what is weed — requires patience, prayer, and often the wise counsel of more experienced spiritual guides.
Indeed, our very desire to purge and uproot those whom we consider to be worthy of condemnation is sometimes a manifestation of spiritual weeds. What we imagine to be a righteous and godly anger may turn out, as it grows and matures, to be a less edifying plant: the destructive and hateful rage which is sown by the Evil One.
The message of the parable finds an echo in this Sunday’s epistle, which, likewise, calls for patient endurance until the coming harvest time. Paul reminds the Romans that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is about to be revealed to us.”
The “groaning” and “crying out” of an enslaved creation echoes that of the Hebrew slaves in Exodus 2.23 and 6.5. As in the Exodus, the deliverance is wrought by God. The rebirth of “God’s children” is a divine action, for which humanity must wait with patient and yet eager yearning. The Spirit causes us — and indeed the whole creation — to “groan inwardly” while waiting for a redemption that is both physical and spiritual.
Those to whom Paul writes are suffering precisely because they are no longer living in harmony with the “empire of death”. By the indwelling of the Spirit, they are being conformed to their true and lasting home. Although there is suffering in this “homecoming”, it is overshadowed by the promise of “nothing less than the restoration of all creation as the home it was always meant to be” (Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting empire, demanding justice).
As the wheat and the tares continue to grow and intertwine, we — like those early Christians — wait in hope for the final harvest.