The Book of Wisdom was written about a hundred years before the coming of Christ. Its author, whose name is not known to us, was a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria, in Egypt. He wrote in Greek, in a style patterned on that of Hebrew verse. At times he speaks in the person of Solomon, placing his teachings on the lips of the wise king of Hebrew tradition in order to emphasize their value. His profound knowledge of the earlier Old Testament reflected in almost every line of the book, marks him, like Ben Sira, as an outstanding representative of religious devotion and learning among the sages of postexilic Judaism.
The primary purpose of the sacred author was the edification of his fellow Jewish expatriots in a time when they had experienced suffering and oppression, in part at least at the hands of apostate fellow Jews. To convey his message he made use of the most popular religious themes of his time, namely the splendor and worth of divine wisdom (Wis 6:22-11:1), the glorious events of the Exodus (Wis 11:2-16; 12:23-27; 15:18 19:22), God's mercy (Wis 11:17-12:22), the folly of idolatry (Wis 13:1-15:17), and the manner in which God's justice is vindicated in rewarding or punishing the individual soul (Wis 1:1-6:21).
The author was also concerned that Greek thought was exerting too strong an influence among young Israelites. Thus, writing sometime between 100 and 50 BC., he sought to remind these young intellectuals of the relevance of traditional Judaic beliefs and principles which the sacred author was convinced could be compatible with Greek wisdom. Today’s verses are drawn from Part Three of this well-structured book (11:15 – 16:1a) whose purpose is to justify God’s conduct toward all human sinfulness. Specifically, today’s verses reflect upon the toleration and moderation that God exhibits in the exercise of divine power. God tempers power with mercy and does not use it against the innocent. This should serve as a lesson to all to temper justice with mercy and thereby hope for mercy from God.
This reading is chosen to accompany a parable from St. Matthew’s Gospel that also speaks of God’s conduct toward human sinfulness. Like the parable that we heard last week about the Word of God, the parable draws upon the agricultural images that would be understood by those who worked the land in an effort to eke out a subsistence living. Unlike the parable from last week’s Gospel, this parable is unique to St. Matthew’s Gospel. Like that parable, however, it can be viewed from different perspectives dependent upon which character or element of the parable we view as the protagonist, either the servants who sowed the seed or the householder for whom they work.
If we view it from the perspective of the servants, we can understand that they are worried that the landlord might suspect them of sowing the weeds among his crop. So they pose a question to the householder in order to give themselves a platform upon which to defend themselves should he think they are the perpetrators of this deed. Imagine their relief when the landlord tells them that one of his enemies has done this. However, that relief would be undone immediately when he tells them not to pull up the weeds, to let them grow with the wheat. This is a dangerous plan. The weed in question is “zizania” or “darnel.” It is poisonous and looks much like wheat although it does have a broader leaf. Waiting until harvest time runs the risk of some of the poisonous grain to enter the barn with the wheat. Mixing the two would result in a definite health hazard. So from the perspective of the servants, Jesus may be warning them not to underestimate the power of “the enemy,” or Satan.
If we look at the parable from the perspective of the householder or landlord, if his plan succeeds, he manages to turn a disastrous situation into a profitable one. Not only will the wheat crop not be damaged by the efforts to uproot the weeds, he will also gain a crop of weeds which will provide him with fuel when it is burned. His decision will confound the plot of his enemies and will increase his honorable standing in the community. If this is the perspective with which we read the parable, Jesus might be suggesting that the power of good can always overcome the evil in the world and that it is not our place to judge.
It is also important to look at how this parable reflects on the life of Jesus himself. His honor has been impeached by the Jewish authorities for his habit of eating with and speaking to sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. His conduct has been called a scandal by those who wish to discredit him. Even John the Baptist, who announced his coming before he appeared on the scene, told them that he would sort the chaff from the wheat, throwing the chaff into the fire. The parable seems to speak of Jesus’ openness to all in much the same way that last week’s parable speaks of the sower who sowed seed even in places where it was unlikely to produce much fruit.
The parable also speaks to the fact in addition to being inclusive, God’s reign is not monochromatic. God’s reign includes and envelops different people at different stages of their relationship with God. Our relationship with God is often compared to a journey. Some people are further along on that journey than others. However, it is not for anyone to judge another simply because they have a different relationship with God. Again, this application speaks directly to the notion of evangelizing the Samaritans and the Gentiles, an issue with which St. Matthew’s community struggles in Apostolic times. Put quite simply, the parable teaches us that the good cannot live isolated from the evil. The good can only be identified by contrast to the evil.
Like the writer of the Book of Wisdom, St. Matthew writes about how God relates to the just and to the sinner. We have heard it often said that God loves everyone, good and bad, and desires that all will live with God forever. The parable urges us to live in such a way that our contrast to the evil in our world is very evident and easily distinguished. God will do the judging. It is not for us to help in that task.
As we approach God’s table today, let us be mindful of the fact that God has been merciful to all of us, for we are all sinners. The Eucharist is, as the Eucharistic Prayer so clearly points out, the primary sacrament of reconciliation.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.