July 23, 2017

Brief synopsis of the readings: Apologies to non Catholics but our first reading comes from an Old Testament Book (Wisdom) that Catholics accept as part of the Bible but Protestants and Jews do not. Sorry: my blog, my rules. The author speaks of how God recognizes those who are unjustly accused. Additionally, the author of Wisdom demands that those who are powerful “judge with clemency, and with much lenience.” Furthermore “those who are just must be kind.” In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus speaks (through a parable) of a man who sowed good seed in his field. That night an enemy planted weeds among the good seeds. The next day the good man’s servants recognized this and asked if they should pull up the weeds. The master told them not to do this for fear of uprooting the wheat. Instead he told them to wait until the harvest when the weeds will be burned and the wheat will be gathered.

OK, I hate to be the bearer of bad news once again, but the farmer in Matthew’s Gospel should stick to his day job. Regardless if you’re a gardener with a hundred square foot garden or a farmer with several thousand acres, you all know this: You need to weed. You need to recognize that both your crops and your unwelcome intruders compete for the same nutrients in the soil. Only by weeding can you ensure that your crops will fully benefit from the combination of the soil, the sun, and your labor.

Clearly these readings do not reach out to frustrated farmers from Jesus’ time but instead challenge us to confront a question that reaches back to our very origins: What do we do when confronted with those who benefit from cheating us?

As long as we’ve been alive we’ve struggled with the value of fairness. Most of us recognize the conflict between Cain and Able (in the first book of the Bible) and how Cain’s murder of his brother frames our understanding of God’s first question to him: “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain’s answer “Am I my brother’s keeper” not only gives us our first example of sarcasm but also frames the answer that we all must answer: “Yes, I am my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.” Our very creation by God calls us to be responsible to each other.

We all value the concept of fairness but we all recognize we exist in a world that does not always treat us fairly. Not to make too much a point of this, but bad things happen to good people we are all subjected to the forces of evil.

So what do we do when someone deals with us unfairly? Matthew (author of today’s Gospel) tells us what to do twelve chapters from today’s reading. In the 25th Chapter Matthew speaks about the requirement to care for the “least of my people.” In other words, when we witness people who are left behind we are called not to leave them to starve but instead we are called me ensure they have what they need to survive.

But what about us? What if we are not the “least of my people” but a person of means? The man Jesus speaks of is clearly not living on the edge of starvation. He sowed good seed in his field, and when “his enemy” sowed weeds in the wheat, his slaves recognized what happened.

Clearly the Gospels call us to act on behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves, but when those of us who fall victim to violence when we can advocate for ourselves are called to a different place. Staying in Matthew’s Gospel, we are called to do this (Matthew 5:39): “offer no resistance to injury. When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer hin the other.” Those of us who revere the book and the movie To Kill a Mockingbird remember the scene where Bob Ewell spit on the face of Atticus Finch and Mr. Finch slowly and deliberately turned the other cheek.

I suspect that is what’s behind the farmer’s seemingly foolish choice. We don’t know why “the enemy” planted weeds among the good seeds. Perhaps this enemy is a competitor and wants an advantage. Or he is someone with a grudge from a previous encounter. Or they just don’t like each other. We don’t know but when our farmer’s servants offer to take corrective action he counsels against it. Instead he allows the weeks to grow. And while I don’t think pulling the weeds is itself evil, he does not respond to the weeds aggressively. He allows them to stay in the recognition that when the crop is harvested they will be “weeded out” then.

Perhaps my interpretation is a stretch but the farmer knows the crops (good) will survive and the weeds (evil) will not and that we don’t have to be in charge of weeding out the evil.

But, let’s face it, we live in a world that is not only obsessed with fairness, we are obsessed with destroying evil, regardless of cost. I live in a wonderful nation and I’m proud to be an American. But we are currently led by someone who proudly responds that when attacked he will hit back ten times harder. His message here is that everyone will soon learn not to attack him. But in a Christian context I don’t think that works. Our history brims with like minded people and we can see the escalation. One person is attacked and strikes back 10 times harder; the original attacker (using the same playbook) then strikes back 10 times harder than that, and so on. It doesn’t take long for the violence to escalate to the point of mutual destruction.

What if the farmer decided to take the weeds from his farm and secretly plant them among his enemy’s crops. Do you think that would end the conflict? Or would the enemy double down and find even more weeds?

The problem with revenge and “teaching a lesson” comes down to this: it doesn’t work and it doesn’t advance the kingdom of God. When it comes time for the farmer to sell his crop he won’t be as wealthy as he could have been without the weeds being planted. But he also won’t have been caught up in a cycle of revenge.

This is hardly earth shattering news, but we live in a world where we hurt each other, unintentionally and sometimes intentionally. And these wounds cost us. We all have stories of having been cheated out of a promotion, or a prize, or a marriage. None of us are entirely where we would be without these events. The mark of discipleship lies in our reaction to evil, and our recognition of God’s promise that good will defeat evil in the long run, if not the short run. I like to think the farmer spent his last years in joyful relationships and didn’t miss the wealth he was cheated out of.