16th Sunday of the Year Wisdom 12:13, 16–19; Romans 8:26–27; Matthew 13:24–43.
Two courageous runners We should not curse the darkness, but rather light a candle. Several years ago a popular bumper sticker read, “Stop the world; I want to get off.” The slogan was in protest to all the insanity going on in the world. Large-scale insanity, like nuclear stockpiling and 44 wars, was taking place.
There was small-scale insanity, too, like at the Detroit zoo, where four new security guards were hired to protect the animals from people. For example, a baby Australian wallaby had strayed from its mother and was stoned to death by kids. And there was the alligator pit, where adults dropped lighted cigar butts on sunning alligators and watched the ash burn the reptiles’ skin. Then they roared with laughter as the alligators writhed in pain.
Insanities like this make us ask ourselves two vexing questions. First, why is sin still so widespread 2,000 years after Jesus set up God’s kingdom? Has God’s kingdom dissolved into nothingness over the centuries? Where is God’s kingdom?
And second, what should be our own attitude toward the widespread evil in the world today? What can we do about it?
Jesus addresses both of these questions in today’s gospel reading. The answer to the first question is that the kingdom of God is established. The kingdom of God is present in our world. It is like wheat planted in a wheat field. It is in the ground and growing. But it hasn’t reached maturity yet. It hasn’t borne its intended fruit or grain yet.
In the meantime, good and evil coexist side by side in the world, just as the weeds and wheat coexist side by side in a wheat field.
This brings us to the second question. What should be our attitude toward all the evil that surrounds us? What can we do about the evil that grows all around us, like weeds in a wheat field?
Basically we have only two choices. Our first choice is to cry out in frustration, Stop the world; I want to get off. In other words, we can curse the darkness and say, The heck with the world. If people want to turn it into an insane asylum, let them go ahead. I’ll find a fairly safe place to live, and let the world go to hell.
When faced with this option, we think of the book Rascals in Paradise. In its introduction, James Michener and A. Grove Day tell how in the late 1930s a learned Australian saw World War II coming. He got out a world atlas and looked for the safest place to be when the war came. He decided on a little-known island in the South Pacific.
One week before Hitler invaded Poland, the Australian moved to his safe haven. The island was Guadalcanal. As fate would have it, it was destined to become the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The point is this: Today there’s no place left to hide in the world. Today there are no more safe havens on earth. Today there are no more Shangri Las left.
This brings us to our second choice. It is not to curse the darkness, but to accept it and to try to light a candle in it.
You are like light for the whole world, Jesus told his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead he puts it on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine before people. Matthew 5:14–16
But, practically, how can we light a candle in the darkness of today’s world?
First, we can pray. More things are wrought through prayer, said the poet, than this world dreams of.
Second, and more positively, we can roll up our sleeves and do something to combat the evil in our world. Let me tell you what one person can do.
The person was a 22-year-old student at Simon Fraser University in Canada. His name was Terry Fox.
In 1977 he contracted bone cancer and had to have his right leg amputated. When his old high school basketball coach heard about the tragedy, he sent Terry a newspaper article about an amputee who ran in the New York Marathon.
The article triggered Terry’s imagination. He knew he had only a few years to live, and he wanted to do something significant with them.
He decided he would try to run across Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia, a distance of 5,000 miles. He would ask people to sponsor him and give the proceeds to cancer research. For 18 months, Terry practiced running on the artificial leg.
Finally, on April 12,1980, he began his run. He dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic and set out across Canada. In his pocket he had pledges totaling over a million dollars.
Then 114 days and 3,000 miles into the run, Terry suddenly collapsed. The cancer had spread to his lungs. He would be unable to complete the run.
When news of Terry’s collapse broke, people from all over Canada began sending pledges to him in the hospital.
In hours, over $24 million was pledged. A few days later, Terry died.
If anyone had a right to curse the darkness, it was Terry. But he was too big for that. He decided to light a candle. And that light has been shining ever since. A movie has been made of his life. A stamp has been issued in his honor. And he is the youngest person ever to receive his nation’s highest honor, the Order of Canada. To this day, Terry still excites the imagination of people.
There’s a sequel to that story. A 44-year-old mail carrier, Donald Marrs, lived in Cincinnati. Like Terry, he was a cancer victim. Marrs was so moved by Terry’s story that he decided to complete his run for him.
He began below Chicago and in three months reached the Golden Gate Bridge. As he headed across it a drizzle was falling. When he dipped his hand into the Pacific Ocean, completing Terry’s run, a huge rainbow arced across the sky. It was a remarkable end to a remarkable run.
There’s a parable for us in that sequel. Jesus Christ established the kingdom of God, but he died before it reached completion, just as Terry died before he could complete his run.
We are like Donald Marrs. We are being invited to take the baton from Jesus’ hand and to complete his work.
This is the challenge that emerges from today’s gospel. This is the invitation being held out to us.
We may not be able to do what Terry did. We may not be able to do what Donald Marrs did. We may not be able to do what the person sitting next to us can do. But we can do something. Each of us must consult our conscience and decide how we can best light a candle and set it on a lampstand, as Terry Fox did.
Series II 16th Sunday of the Year Wisdom 12:13, 16–19; Romans 8:26–27; Matthew 13:24–43
Wait until harvest Only God can make the final judgment of a person’s life.
Ateacher opened his Bible. He turned to the Sermon on the Mount and read these words of Jesus to his class:
“You are like salt for the whole human race. . . . You are like light for the whole world.” Matthew 5:13–14
The teacher closed the Bible, sat on the edge of his desk, and said to the students:
Wouldn’t it be great if we could weed out the Church? Wouldn’t it be great if we could remove from it all halfhearted Christians? Think of the impact the Church would have on the world if it had only committed people in it!
A million committed Christians would be a far better witness to Jesus than 25 million halfhearted Christians.
Suddenly the students began to see his point. They began to nod in agreement. But a girl in the back of the room raised her hand and said:
I agree with what you say. But who would decide who’s to be weeded out and who’s to stay?
A flurry of hands went up. One boy said, I think almost anybody could decide that. I can give you a list of names right now.
This raises a question. Would it be good to weed out the Church from time to time?
Would it help everyone, even halfhearted Christians?
Would it shake people up and make them more committed?
Would it help the Church become what Jesus called it to be: salt of the earth and light of the world?
Today’s parable of the weeds and the wheat may shed some light on these questions. Let’s take a closer look at it.
The weed referred to by Jesus was a curse to Palestinian farmers. Ancient writers described it as a kind of “fool’s wheat.” In the early stages of its growth, it looked very similar to real wheat.
This was one of the reasons that the owner told his workers to wait until harvesttime. They might pull up some real wheat, thinking it was fool’s wheat.
And it is right here that the parable sheds light on the question about weeding out halfhearted Christians from the Church.
Just as the workers might mistake real wheat for fool’s wheat, so we might mistake committed Christians for halfhearted Christians.
Even more tragically, we might condemn someone who seemed to be a halfhearted Christian but had the potential to become a committed Christian.
The point is this: Judgment is not ours to pass. Judgment should be passed only at the end of a person’s life by God, not in the middle of it by people.
That’s such an important point. Let me repeat it.
Judgment should be passed only at the end of a person’s life by God, not in the middle of it by people.
Paul stresses this point in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He writes:
[Y]ou should not pass judgment on anyone before the right time comes. Final judgment must wait until the Lord comes; he will bring to light the dark secrets and expose the hidden purposes of people’s minds. 1 Corinthians 4:5
Let me illustrate the risk of passing judgment on someone before the right time.
Years ago a magazine carried a moving story. It concerned a retired lay missionary and his wife. They spent their final days on a tiny farm outside a town.
The couple worked hard growing vegetables and chickens. They couldn’t eat all they grew, so they sold their surplus to the townspeople.
After a while the townspeople began to gossip about how miserly the retired missionary and his wife were. “They weigh every vegetable and they count every egg twice,” said one townsman. “They wouldn’t give you an extra potato or an extra egg to save themselves. I wonder what kind of missionaries they were.”
Eventually the missionary’s wife died. Only then did the real truth come out. Every cent the couple earned from selling their vegetables and eggs went to two elderly widows who depended on them for their sole support.
This brings us back to the point Paul makes in his letter to the citizens of Corinth. It is the same point Jesus makes in his parable. [Y]ou should not pass judgment on anyone before the right time comes. Final judgment must wait until the Lord comes; he will bring to light the dark secrets.
And so we have to be content to live in a world and a church where saints and sinners live side by side. A church full of saints might be a nice church, but it wouldn’t be Christ’s Church. As Henry Ward Beecher put it:
The Church is not a gallery for the exhibition of eminent Christians, but a school for the education of imperfect ones.
Or as Charles Clayton Morrison put it:
The Christian Church is a society of sinners. It is the only society in the world in which membership is based on the single qualification that the candidate be unworthy of membership.
Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, help us realize that the Church is not a showcase for saints but a shelter for sinners.
Prevent us from passing judgment on anyone, especially members of our own family and members of our own church.
Help us take to heart Jesus’ words when he says:
“Do not judge others, and God will not judge you; do not condemn others, and God will not condemn you; forgive others, and God will forgive you. Give to others, and God will give to you. . . . The measure you use for others is the one that God will use for you.” Luke 6:37–38
Series III 16th Sunday of the Year Wisdom 12:13, 16–19; Romans 8:26–27; Matthew 13:24–43
Evil Don’t let evil defeat you; defeat evil with good.
Let the wheat and the weeds grow together until harvest. Matthew 13:30
In a recent homily, we talked about Joe Louis, the great heavyweight boxer.
Shortly after Joe’s birth, his father had a mental breakdown and died in an institution. His mother married a widower, who moved the family North.
At age 16, Joe signed up for an amateur boxing tournament. At age 23, he became the youngest man in history to win the heavyweight title holding it a record 12 years.
Sportswriter Bob Considine tells an amazing story about Joe Louis.
At one point in his career, Joe bought a 500-acre farm. One day, he decided to ride across it on horseback to check it out more closely.
During his ride, he came upon a tiny whitewashed cabin in a secluded corner of the farm. He got off his horse, walked over to it, and knocked on the door. An elderly white man opened it.
“What do you want?” the man snarled. Joe tipped his hat and said, “I was just riding by . . .” “Well, keep riding!” said the old man. “Is something wrong?” asked Joe. “Wrong? Of course something’s wrong,” snapped the old man. “Some nigger has bought this place.”
Joe looked down at his feet, paused a few seconds, and then said, “Yes! That’s why I’m here. I have a message for you from the new owner.
“He sent me to tell you that you’re welcome to stay here the rest of your life. He also said that you’ll never be bothered, and that there won’t be any rent.”
Then Joe tipped his hat again, got back on his horse, and rode off, leaving the man standing there speechless. Retold from Frank Mihalic in 1000 Stories You Can Use, Vol 2
This story dramatizes the point Jesus makes in today’s Gospel. Good and bad people will always live side by side in the world, just as the weeds and wheat growing in the field Jesus describes.
And there are times when the two will clash, as they did in the story of Joe Louis and the old man.
I like the story because it models the attitude we should take toward evil when we clash with it as Joe’s did.
Instead of blowing up and telling the old man to leave in two weeks, Joe responded the way the farmer did in today’s parable: with patience, restraint, and understanding.
Joe did what Saint Paul instructed us to do in the 12th chapter of Romans. Paul said: “Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good.”
And Joe did what Jesus told us to do in the sixth chapter of Luke. Jesus said: “Do good to those who hate you; and bless those who curse you.” Jesus and Paul make the same point: “No one needs love more than someone who does not deserve it.” If we wait around until people “deserve” love, we’ll wait around the rest of our lives.
It’s precisely in the process of loving them that they become loveable and “deserving” of love. And what is true of evil in the world is also true of evil in the Church. One of my favorite responses to evil in the Church is that of Dorothy Day, the great champion of the poor.
You may recall that when she died at the age of 84, the New York Times called her one of the great Christians of our time. She became a Catholic in her adult years and worked the rest of her life ministering to New York’s poor.
In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she confesses that the human dimension of the Church was often a scandal to her. She even referred to it as the cross she had to bear to be a Catholic. Yet Dorothy Day deeply loved the human dimension of the Church.
She pointed out that the Church has two dimensions: a divine one and a human one.
The divine dimension is Christ, the head of his body the Church.
The human dimension is its members. Like everything human, it is flawed. That includes Church leaders as well as Church members.
As a result, it its pilgrimage on earth, the Church does not always show forth the “face” of Christ to the world.
Why did she love it so deeply, if she found it to be a scandal? She answered: “The human dimension gave the Church its visibility to the world.”
The Church is like Christ; he, too, had a divine and a human dimension. And it was his human dimension that gave visibility to his divine dimension. It made it possible for Jesus to reach out to people, to heal them, and to teach them.
And just as Jesus’ human dimension got sick at times, so the human dimension of the Church gets “sick” at times, so to speak, because of evil members or scandal.
Dorothy Day went on to compare the Church’s human dimension to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. She said: “The two can’t be separated.” The cross is the reason Jesus became man. He came to save us by his death. And so wherever we find the cross, we will also find Jesus. The two are inseparable. British TV celebrity Malcolm Muggeridge said at the end of his life that the things that helped him far more than anything else to find and follow Christ were the crosses in his life. They forced him to go beyond himself and reach out in faith.
Thus, evil need never be a stumbling block to finding and following Christ. On the contrary, if we respond to it as Jesus taught, it can be a steppingstone.
And so, as we return to the altar, to share together the Lord’s Supper, let us look up at the cross and ask Jesus to reveal to us what he did to so many others.
It is the great paradox of faith. Wherever you find and accept the cross, as Jesus taught, you will inevitably find Jesus, also.