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Monday, July 24, 2017

Weeds in the Garden - a Reflection Upon Matthew 13:24-30

Yesterday we attended Mass at St. Joseph Parish here in Hagerstown, MD.   The homily, which was an excellent message brought by Polish-born priest Fr. Tadeusz Mich, centered upon Jesus's parable in Matthew's Gospel about the wheat and tares.  While listening to Fr. Mich's homily, my own wheels got to turning a little, and what I realized is that there are many different things one can draw out of this well-known parable that may not have been thought of before, and that is why I wanted to share with you today my reflections on this passage.

The pedagogy Jesus used with His disciples was this whole parable device, and He also contextualized it by using something many of His hearers would be familiar with.  Palestine at the time of Jesus was a largely agrarian society, and although it was part of the Roman Empire, agriculture was the primary economic base.  Everyone, even many city-dwellers of the time, relied on agriculture for their living, so it was something Jesus used to teach the greater message of His kingdom as well.  Many of the parables have this imagery - sheep, goats, grain, seed, etc.   This particular passage is no different in that Jesus uses the same imagery to communicate a greater truth to those He taught.  However, though the agrarian symbolism is simple and may even be lost on today's technology-obsessed culture, it is still rich with meaning.  Over the years I personally have read this passage many times, and I have heard sermons, Sunday School lessons, and group Bible studies focus a lot on it as well.  But, it was only yesterday that I got some of the inspiration I am about to share, and to be honest, it actually has little to do with Fr. Mich's homily, although that is really what inspired my own reflections here.

First of all, for many of us in modern times, you may be asking the question - what on earth is a tare??  To simply put it, a tare is a type of weed, but more specifically it is also a species.  The specific type of plant that many scholars agree this refers to is the Lolium Temulentum, also known as the darnel/poison darnel or cockle.  It is found all around the globe, and is particularly bothersome for wheat farmers - it looks exactly like wheat, as a matter of fact, until it matures.  True wheat has a brown ear, whereas this tare has a black one, and that is the only way it can be differentiated.  There is also a chemical in the tare plant that, if consumed, can cause a serious intoxicating effect which can be fatal even to people, hence its problem - this is the case in particular if the tare plant in question is infected by a fungus called an endophyte,  The dangerous risk of the tare made it also taint wheat harvests where it was allowed to proliferate, and that could render both health and economic catastrophe upon a society (information taken from - accessed 24 July 2017).   Jesus would have known about this as well, and His wisdom expressed that just like these tares can destroy a wheat field, the wrong people who are in the Church can also destroy it likewise.  This is the classic and very appropriate lesson that one can take from this parable, but if you take the time to dig deeper, there are other applications as well.

The application I want to talk about now has to do with something that clicked within me as I was listening to Fr. Mich's homily yesterday, and it is something I had never thought of before and many people reading this would never have either.  Growing up as I did in West Virginia, and also very poor, I learned early about wildcrafting and foraging.  What I learned is that oftentimes many things that most people would dismiss as "weeds" may actually have nutritional or medicinal value, and therefore I learned the value of harvesting wild plants for food.  This also led me to understand that there are actually three classifications of weeds that grow in lawns and gardens:

1.  Weeds which are simply nuisance but otherwise harmless - These include some things we see in our yards which are a pain in the butt to get rid of, such as crabgrass.  Crabgrass is not edible, but it also is not harmful or toxic.

2.  Weeds which are a nuisance and can be harmful - These are things, such as varieties of toadstool, that if consumed by animals or people can kill.  If a person has small children or pets they let outside frequently, these plants must not be accessible to them.

3.   Weeds that have intrinsic nutritional value or can be healing - These are plants, such as dandelions, puffball mushrooms, and plantains (not the green banana-looking fruits that are part of Hispanic cuisine, but a small ground plant with large leaves common in many yards in the northeast) are actually edible and may even have nutritional benefits.  

If I were to take my experience with wildcrafting and apply it to the parable, something very interesting comes to light.  While weeds of any sort can be pesky and even dangerous, not all weeds are, and some can be utilized in other ways.   There are those people in our churches - "tares" - who may not have committed to the faith yet, but they are open, and instead of being like crabgrass they actually could benefit the community if they were evangelized properly.  That illustrates the salvation of Jesus very concisely - a weed that can be redeemed and turned into something good.  In the strictest sense, what this would mean is that not everyone in the harvest may be "wheat" - some may be dandelions, some wild onions, some plantains, but each has value to harvest.  Jesus can do that with anyone, and that is what supernatural grace is all about - taking something of nature, and then healing, elevating, and perfecting it to something good.  Jesus did die for all - including the "weeds" - and therefore all He waits for is for us to accept what He has extended to us as a free gift.  If a weed does that, it can be transformed from a dangerous tare to a delicious plate of dandelion greens.  This, therefore, is the insight I gained from this passage.

Now, I know I may have done quite a bit of eisegesis on this passage, but that is OK - in the context of the message, it actually works, and it also is a beautiful illustration of how Christ loves all and can save anyone.  A "redeemed weed" is of more value to him than a blighted "wheat," as it must be remembered that wheat or other grain that has blight or disease is not fit for consumption either and has to be destroyed.  In the Church today, there are cases of blight and smut over many of the people who sit in pews - an otherwise faithful churchgoer may, for instance, have involvement in a Masonic lodge, which is a great risk to one's salvation in itself.  Masonry is one of those "blights."  Others may have issues with listening to or believing heresy - many professing Christians, for instance, are caught up in the lie of evolution, and actually believe that they evolved over billions of years from goo, to the zoo, to the day of me and you.  This too is a type of blight.  To go back to my West Virginia roots, let's talk about corn a little.  In the summers, it was a great thing to harvest and roast fresh corn, and part of the fun of doing that was husking the corn.  Sometimes, though, when you would be husking an ear of corn, you would see a silverish-grey mass on the ear which would be a type of fungus we called smut.  You had two options with the discovery of smut - either you could discard the whole ear of corn, or you would trim away the bad parts of the ear infected with the smut and salvage the rest.  God has to do that with us on occasion too, doesn't he?  We accumulate bad habits and behavior which acts like a type of "smut" on our spirits, and the Holy Spirit by sanctifying grace has to remove that junk.  What is salvaged may be less, but it is redeemable.   Even some vices such as pornography and filthy language are called "smut" in everyday slang, which also goes back to this too.  We must always "weed our garden" to clean out impurities within ourselves as the result of supernatural grace working in us through the Holy Spirit, and in reality that was the angle Fr. Mich's homily went with yesterday.  As I have said, this passage truly has a lot of meaning on many levels, and if you can get a fresh inspiration from it like this, then it shows that you have a sincere love for the things of God and He can show you His truth.

That was really the major insight I wanted to make today on this passage, although many others are equally applicable - it can also be read and understood as apostasy in the Church as a whole, or it can even be on a personal level in that "tares" often grow in our own spiritual life that we need to remove by prayer and repentance.  All of these interpretations are valid and true at the same time.  And, it also goes to prove that the wisdom Jesus gave to those who had the privilege of hearing Him in person was so rich and insightful that it still touches people centuries after the actual parable was told itself.  To summarize it all like this however, a "tare" is anything that deters the Church or its members from the central mission of our faith, which is the path to Jesus Himself through the Cross.  All things point to Jesus, and He is to be the center of all our doctrine, all of our spiritual expression, and even of our very lives as Christians.  Anything that inhibits that Christocentric focus is indeed a tare, and it can cause an idolatry that will have as its end for us destruction.  May we always "weed our gardens" for sure, but in our churches, let us also remember that what may be seen as a "weed" because it doesn't look like "wheat" may be something valuable - this is why we extend Christ's love and grace to all who enter His house, but we also must make sure they know that the salvation He offers is only found in seeking Him above all else.  Take care until next time.