Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Mt 13:24-43 (shorter version: Mt 13:24-30)
Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the 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.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
For ‘Kingdom of God’ you can say Presence of God. In this Sunday’s gospel reading Jesus is telling us what God is like, or how we are to think of God’s presence. He could have used any images in heaven above or on earth below, but he picked these.
The Presence of God is like a seed in the ground, he said; or it is like yeast in a batch of dough. Seeds are small, many of them almost invisible, they are the beginnings of things, they are unimpressive to look at, and they are thrown into the ground as if they were being thrown away. Yeast becomes invisible in the lump of dough, it is never seen again. Seeds and yeast: these are realities that don’t draw attention to themselves; if you could credit them with virtues you would have to say they are as humble as dirt. (You could say similar things about another image that Jesus used: salt.) This, he said, is what the Kingdom (the Presence) of God is like; this is how God’s presence makes itself felt in one’s life.
“The field is the world,” the text says. This phrase led to one of the biggest debates in the ancient Church. The Donatists were a rigorist sect in the 4th and 5th centuries, who claimed that the good seed in this parable referred to the members of the Church, and so by definition there could be no ‘tares’, no sinners, in it. According to them, the Church was composed entirely of good people, and the rest of the world was simply evil. This was a kind of Pharisaism come back to life. The one who engaged them definitively was St Augustine, who wrote several books against them. Not only the world, but the Church itself, he said, is a field in which there is good seed and bad. “How very many sheep there are outside it, and how very many wolves within!” And soon after, St Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) wrote, “In this present Church there cannot be bad without good, or good without bad. They are not good who refuse to endure the bad.” The human race is not divided into children of light and children of darkness; nor is the Church. Every one of us has light and darkness in him or herself; the good grain and the tares grow together. The Church is not a club for the elite, it is a place in which sinners can grow and change by God’s grace. That growth in grace may be agonisingly slow, like the growth of a grain hidden in the soil. But in that very slowness it imitates the patience of God.
There is no need to suppose that all the Donatists died out. There are some Christian sects that seem very exclusive (“Are you saved?”). By contrast with them, the Catholic Church was consciously non-elitist; there was room in it for everyone, good and bad alike. It was a kind of hospital, or a convalescent home. St Augustine said it was the inn in which the man who fell among robbers was being taken care of.
Remember the tax-collector in Jesus’ story, who hardly dared to lift his head, but prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). How unlike the other, the Pharisee, whose prayer was a recital of his own virtues. The tax-collector was no saint, and he knew it. But the seed of God’s presence was stirring in his heart; the yeast was invisible in his downcast appearance, but it was real. Jesus put him before us as the very model of how we should pray.