Ars Praedicandi: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

A former colleague who spent decades training young ministers
often said that each of us has a strong suit,
a trump card,
a secret advantage
that we deploy in uncertain or stressful situations
to assert our value
and confirm our self-worth.

Some are gifted at resolving math problems
and others can conjure a meal out of virtually nothing.
The shadow-side to possessing a particular talent
is the disappointment or at least challenge it brings
to tasks that do not come as easily.

Writing is a skill that I have developed over the years
that comes relatively easy and with modest success.
On the other hand, I do not know how to grow a lawn.

Like many during this pandemic,
sheltering in place and social distancing
has reshaped my activities and redirected my energies.

My new outlet for exercise is lawncare at the family home …
and like the surrounding neighbors
I am not only spending serious time cutting the grass,
edging the lawn,
trimming the bushes and even felling small trees,
but also trying to grow grass in place of the clover & dandelions;
The clover is currently winning.

Various business sources and media outlets consistently report
that while the economy is experiencing a broad recession,
the gardening/lawncare/landscaping sector
is (excuse the pun) showing enormous growth.

Folk are planting vegetable gardens at a rate not seen
since the Victory Gardens of World War II.
Turfbuilder and similar products are flying off the shelf,
and the supply of weed killer available
at my local Home Depot this past week
was seriously depleted.

It was while I was in this weed-eradicating state of mind,
wondering how much spurge or foxtail I can rip out
without decimating the front lawn,
that I plunged into the readings for this Sunday
and the very practical advice from the carpenter turned farmer
that Jesus communicates in today’s gospel.

While it is truer with a crop like wheat or barley,
if one mounts an all out assault on the weeds
the grass is also going to suffer.

Obviously, Jesus was not especially concerned about agriculture
in this parable.
Nor was Matthew offering prophetic lawn care advice.

Rather, the parable like other aspects of Matthew’s gospel
seem to be concerned with community conflict
with a local church that is divided and full of disputes.

One commentator suggests that Matthew was writing
to a mixed Jewish and Gentile congregation.
Neither group wanted to accept the other
and each metaphorically viewed the other as weeds
and themselves as wheat.

The commentator muses:

“Perhaps the Jewish Christians felt that since they were
sons and daughters of Abraham
they were the wheat and the Gentile Christians
were an obstacle to their growth.
Perhaps the Gentile Christians felt that they were the wheat
with their freedom from old rules and that
the Jewish Christians were an obstacle to their growth
If we can’t be quite sure who is a weed and who is wheat
we’re better off not touching anything” [1].

From that perspective, this parable has a lot to say
about the current landscape in our country
that is so deeply divided on so many issues.

Are those who support Black Lives Matter wheat or weeds?
How about those who reject mask wearing?
Or social distancing in public?
Where do they sit on the botanical scale?
Is Dr. Anthony Fauci wheat or weed?
Or the CDC … or the World Health Organization?

Then of course the there is the looming presidential election:
which of the candidates is the real deal?
Who is Kentucky bluegrass
and which is just chickweed … or maybe even kudzu?
Be prepared for a lot of weed slinging
as the election gets closer.

The followers of Jesus are forewarned today
to avoid weed whacking and plant uprooting,
of prematurely judging who is weed and who is wheat.

Maybe even more challenging,
we are urged to embrace an image of God who is not
the King of crab-grass killers
or the Prince of Weed-B-Gone,
but as announced in the first reading: the embodiment of wisdom,
a God who judges with clemency,
whose justice is kindness and who is the ground of hope.

Parables are tricky things,
for their Gospel function is more subversive and profound
than first meets the eye.
This is true of today’s multidimensional gospel,
which is more than a caution against judgment,
about uprooting too soon or weed whacking too carelessly.

Parables are not just moralizing but also intentionally destabilizing,
pulling the rug out from under
our views of the world and of God and of each other.
Like well-designed gospel incendiaries,
they unexpectedly explode the self-serving mythologies
we build around our most precious beliefs
and use to ward off our deepest fears.

As part of my lawn crusade the past months,
I have run across a series of scholarly articles and resources
that shockingly argue for the value of weeds.
Some have even rejected the denigrating “weed” label
and reference them as “spontaneous urban plants.”

Landscape architect David Seiter is one who
promotes this rechristened urban species
for their ability to cool cities,
conserve water,
and sequester carbon [2].

Parables similarly help us reimagine weeds,
reimagine neighbors,
reimagine justice,
reimagine God in Jesus Christ.

Parables explode self-righteous bubbles of religiosity.
They turn on us and proclaim with Alleluias and Acclamations,
“Hey, baptized, wake up – you’re not just in the weeds
but are part of the weed pack as well!”

The Christian community is not a field of groomed lilies
or a beautifully manicured rose garden

Rather we are a sprawling field of plants and bugs …
flowers and rodents …
wheat and weeds …
saints, sinners, and everyone in between.

If we started yanking up every weed in the community,
we’d decimate the baptismal pool
and probably uproot ourselves as well.

Christians don’t just have parables to read,
we have the ultimate parable of Jesus to follow,
whose life was an unexpected tale
of the unpredictable and the preposterous,
of kingship from a manger,
and hidden holiness in backwater Nazareth;
of Samaritan divorcees turned apostle
and a stubborn fisherman as the first “pope;”
of leper embracing and sin forgiving
that so offended locals and leaders
that, eventually fed up with his parabolic antics,
they put a price on his head, payed it full in silver
and then executed him in the public square.

But the parable did not end there,
for Jesus pulled the rug out from under death
and dared any who follows him
into this same death-defying life.

Christian life is a parable: it is seldom what we expected.
It is not the polarized society or bruised church we expected,
not the squabbling political leadership we expected,
not the global bill of health we expected,
nor the web of family pressures we expected.

Jesus promises to forgive our sins and give us eternal life,
but he never promises to extract us from the parables of life:
the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,
the kingdom of heaven is like a global pandemic,
the kingdom of heaven is like a treaty with Native Americans,
the kingdom of heaven is like a Confederate statue in public view,
the kingdom of heaven is like your life and mine.

The earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians,
they were called followers of the way,
because Jesus gave them a path, not a religious institution;
a path to mercy and justice, hope and radical love.

That path lies before us as well,
through pandemic and racism,
in the face of economic hardship and heroic charity,
in the company of the saints and sinners we call church.

The task facing the baptized is to travel the path of the parables
with determination and humility,
so that in the process we and the communities we inhabit
will be transformed more clearly into God’s reign.

How to do that is not always clear,
though the poet helps us imagine, as he writes:

It was a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty,
back before we understood why hindsight’s 2020
… the people [created] companies to trade across all lands
but they swelled and got much bigger than we ever could have planned.
We always had our wants, but now, it got so quick
you [gained] anything you dream[t] of, in a day and with a click
… every day the skies grew thicker, ‘till you couldn’t see the stars,
so, we flew in planes to find them, while … below we filled our cars
… We [choked] the sea with plastic [as] our waste was never capped
til, each day when you went fishing, you’d [catch them now] pre-wrapped
… But then in 2020, a new virus came our way,
The governments reacted and [bid us] hide away.
But while we were all hidden, [a burden and a trial],
[some] dusted off their instincts, they remembered how to smile.
[They said thank you to the nurses and were] calling up their mums
and while the car keys gathered dust, they’d look forward to their runs
… with the skies less full of voyagers, the earth began to breathe
and the beaches bore new wildlife that scuttled …to the seas.
Some people [zoomed support groups while others took up] baking
we’d grown so used to bad news, but … good news was in the making
And so when we found the cure and were [free] to go outside
[we began to like] the world we found [not] the one we’d left behind.
Old habits [slowly faded] and they made way for the new
and … simple act[s] of kindness [were] given [their right] due
Why did it take us so long to bring [us] back together?
[Because] sometimes [its necessary] to get sick, before you’re feeling better.
Now, … dream about tomorrow and … the things that we can do
and … if you dream them hard enough, [they surely] will come true [3].

As we shelter in place, don our masks, wash our hands,
and maintain social distancing,
we do not distance ourselves from the parables of Jesus
or the parable who is Jesus,
but again become followers of the way
as we set out on this unpredictable journey
with deep faith
and unflagging hope
and renewed charity.

So that the justice drenched dream we call the Kingdom of God
will be realized anew,

Through Christ our Lord.


[1] https://www.patheos.com/resourcesadditional-resources/2011/07/weeds-among-the-wheat-alyce-mckenzie-07-11-2011

[2] David Seiter, Spontaneous Urban Plants: Weeds in NYC (Los Angeles: Rare Bird Books, 2016).

[3] Adapted from Tom Foolery, The Great Realisation, https://www.greenpeace.org/new-zealand/story/the-great-realisation/

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