July 19, 2020: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Wisdom 12:13, 16-19

There is no god besides you who have the care of all,
that you need show you have not unjustly condemned.
For your might is the source of justice;
your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.
For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved;
and in those who know you, you rebuke temerity.
But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,
and with much lenience you govern us;
for power, whenever you will, attends you.
And you taught your people, by these deeds,
that those who are just must be kind;
and you gave your children good ground for hope
that you would permit repentance for their sins.

The Book of Wisdom is one of the books that is accepted as canonical by Catholics but not by the Reformation churches. It was written in Greek about one hundred years before Christ by a Greek-speaking Jew of Alexandria in Egypt — therefore, it was included in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Old Testament.

The Egyptian rulers from Ptolamy VIII (116 BC) to Cleopatra (30 BC) were not well-disposed toward their Jewish subjects. The Jewish people were experiencing a great deal of pain from the Egyptians who mocked them, ridiculed them, and persecuted them. Their faith was in constant danger of corruption from idolatry and false philosophy.

The author’s main purpose in writing the Book of Wisdom was to strengthen the faith of his co-religionists, to console them in their afflictions, and to raise their hearts above the sordidness and immorality which surrounded them.

Today’s reading speaks of God’s merciful discipline of sinners. Although this passage is directed to God, it is meant to be a lesson to be learned by the people of Israel.

There is no god besides you who have the care of all, that you need show you have not unjustly condemned.

An acknowledgment of the total exclusive providence of God. There is no god to whom God is accountable, nor does God need to demonstrate to anyone that he has condemned unjustly.

The God of Israel has neither peer nor rival, and there is no one who can lodge a complaint of injustice against him.

For your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.

God’s might is the second divine characteristic discussed, which is tempered by leniency. Divine justice springs from this might, justice that requires that righteousness be rewarded and wickedness punished.

By the time the Book of Wisdom was written, Judaism had arrived at the notion of a God who shows his strength more by leniency than by punishment. Ironically, it is because God is so powerful that he can decide to be lenient — only a powerful God can be merciful without risking defiance or disorder among his subjects.

For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved;

The brunt of God’s anger and vindictive justice is borne by those who know him and yet defy his authority and might.

and in those who know you, you rebuke temerity.

Temerity is excessive confidence or boldness; audacity. 

But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; for power, whenever you will, attends you.

God judges and governs with might tempered with mercy, and with power tempered with clemency.

And you taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind; and you gave your sons good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.

God’s manner of dealing with his people becomes a lesson to be learned by them. They are to pattern their treatment of others after God’s treatment of them, to temper their own might with leniency, to regulate their own justice with kindness.

God’s balance between kindness and mercy gives the people reason to hope for God’s mercy in the future; however, they too, in order to be just, must be kind.

2nd Reading – Romans 8:26-27

Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.

In the two verses that make up today’s epistle reading, Paul provides us with a bold and moving explanation of prayer to God.

Brothers and sisters: The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;

Paul first acknowledges human weakness. The reference here is not merely to physical frailty but to the totality of the human condition. Despite having been redeemed by Jesus Christ and having the Spirit within us, human beings are still weak, limited, prone to ignorance and to making mistakes.

for we do not know how to pray as we ought,

In our weakness, we don’t know how to fulfill the most basic of Christian duties: to pray as we ought.

This can mean that either we do not know how to engage in the practice of prayer or that we do not know what to pray for. We are short-sighted, not to mention incompetent at judging our own condition.

Note how Paul speaks of this in the first person (“we”): he includes himself in this assessment of human weakness.

but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groaning.

The fact that we don’t know how to pray as we ought causes no concern for Paul, provided that we let the Spirit come to the aid of our weakness, groaning with sighs too deep for words.

“It is not possible, says Paul, for us human beings to have a precise knowledge of everything. So we ought to yield to the Creator of our nature and with joy and great relish accept those things which He has decided on and have an eye not to the appearance of events but to the decisions of the Lord. After all, He knows better than we do what is for our benefit, and He also knows what steps must be taken for our salvation.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 388), Homilies on Genesis, Second Series 30,16]

And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit,

“The one who searches hearts” is an Old Testament phrase for God (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 7:11; 17:3; 139:1).

because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.

Believers pray to God and seek to do his will, but human limitation clouds our eyes and obstructs our view.  Because the Spirit knows the will of God, it melds our will into the will of God. God has a purpose, and though we do not know what the purpose is, the enabling Holy Spirit moves us toward it.

In Matthew 7:7, Christ said, “Whatever you ask the Father according to his will he will give it to you.” But how do we learn to ask according to his will? Paul is telling us here that the Spirit will guide us.

“It is clear that the prayer of every spirit is known to God, from whom nothing is secret or hidden (see Job 37:16; Acts 15:18; 1 John 3:20). How much more then should [the Father] know what the Holy Spirit, who is the same essence as Himself, is saying?” [The Ambrosiaster (ca. A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Note that Paul refers to these prayerful weak human beings as holy ones, i.e. saints. This reveals something about his understanding of holiness; specifically, that weakness is not an obstacle to it.

Paul is teaching the Romans that despite the fact that human beings are weak and still suffer, there is reason for great hope. God’s will is that we be saved, and that will is being accomplished through the power of the Spirit.

Gospel – Matthew 13:24-43

Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying:
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.
The slaves of the householder came to him and said,
‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where have the weeds come from?’
He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’
His slaves said to him,
‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds
you might uproot the wheat along with them.
Let them grow together until harvest;
then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,
“First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning;
but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

He proposed another parable to them.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that a person took and sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.
It becomes a large bush,
and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”

He spoke to them another parable.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour
until the whole batch was leavened.”

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables.
He spoke to them only in parables,
to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation
of the world.

Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house.
His disciples approached him and said,
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man,
the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom.
The weeds are the children of the evil one,
and the enemy who sows them is the devil.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Just as 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 who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Our reading today continues where last week’s reading ended. Recall that Jesus had just begun teaching in parables and that last week we heard the Parable of the Sower.

Today we hear three parables to illustrate aspects of the growth of the reign of God: the Weeds Among the Wheat, the Mustard Seed, and the Leaven. All three parables teach that the coming of the kingdom is a growth process that occurs over time.

Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying:

Recall from last week that Jesus speaking to a very large crowd, and he is very much aware of the antagonism that is building against him in the hearts of some of his listeners.

“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.

The first parable is referred to as the Weeds Among the Wheat. Remember, a parable is a method of teaching that compares the audience with some element of the story. The purpose is to call people’s attention to some blind spot, some fault that they themselves have.

The weed in this parable was probably darnel, a quite poisonous plant that is virtually indistinguishable from wheat until the ears form.

The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’

To sow darnel among wheat as an act of revenge was punishable in Roman law.

Despite all the dedicated work that goes into the establishment of the kingdom of God, there will not be a perfect yield: it will include both the good and the bad.

His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest;

The only realistic possibility for the farmer was, despite the temptation to retaliation, patience and tolerance until the harvest. We need the same virtues as we await the growth of the Church.

then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”

This second point is eschatological. The time of growth is the period of this life, and the harvest represents the end of this age. In the parable, the servants are dismayed by the character of the mixed growth, and they offer to purge the field of the weeds. It is the owner who demonstrates patience and wisdom, telling them that this is not the time for a radical response. They are told to let everything grow, and the final sorting will come at the time of harvest.

To interpret the story of the weeds and the wheat as a parable, we must determine what person or thing in the story is being compared to the audience, and what Jesus is teaching the people about themselves by making this comparison.

As was the case in the Parable of the Sower, the audience is being compared to the soil, or the field. Jesus is teaching the crowd that the kingdom, which is being established within them, is not immediately experienced as the complete victory of good over evil. Rather, both within each individual and within the community as a whole, “wheat” and “weeds” grow simultaneously. Jesus’ listeners need not be overly discouraged by the presence of the weeds. In time, the weeds will be destroyed. The wheat, however, will be gathered into the barns. In the meantime, the weeds will not kill the wheat. The presence of sin and suffering will not destroy the presence of good. Good will win out in the end.

He proposed another parable to them.

The second and third parables both address the unimpressive beginnings of the kingdom of heaven, its gradual and imperceptible growth, and the extraordinary yield it will ultimately produce.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.

The mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds, nor does it become the largest of plants. When full-grown, it becomes a shrub some ten to twelve feet in height. The point of this parable is the contrast in sizes: The kingdom which starts from near invisibility will shift quickly to its full grandeur with its universal, all-embracing hospitality.

It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'”

This is possibly an allusion to Daniel 4:20-21. Although universalism is not the primary point of this parable, the phrase “birds of the sky” has traditionally been understood as a reference to the Gentiles who will find a home in the kingdom.

He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”

A small amount of yeast causes the much larger loaf to rise. Likewise, there is a surprising effect that a small movement can have on all society. God’s plan works almost invisibly to bring about its purposes.

(Notice that in the previous parable, a man works to establish the kingdom, and in this one, a woman plays the principal role in its establishment. The gender balance is noteworthy.)

Both the mustard seed and yeast initially appear insignificant; each is easily overlooked. Yet both the seed and the yeast can, over time, have a profound effect. Just so, the fact that Jesus has announced and initiated the coming of the kingdom may not be immediately observable, but over time the kingdom will grow so that the whole world is changed.

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. He spoke to them only in parables, to fulfill what had been said through the prophet: 

After Jesus finishes speaking to the crowd, Matthew tells us why Jesus teaches in parables.

“I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.”

The source of this quotation is Psalm 78:2. The text has been freely adapted to fit the revelation of Jesus. David is called a prophet in Acts 2:30.

The eschatological thinking of the day included the belief that at the beginning of time, the ultimate purpose of creation was written on a scroll, which was then sealed. At the end of time, this seal would be broken and the secrets revealed. Jesus is here declaring that he is indeed inaugurating this end-time.

In other words, Jesus teaches in parables in order to reveal truth, not to hide it.

Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house. His disciples approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” 

As in last week’s reading, the disciples ask Jesus a question about his teaching. The parables Jesus taught to the crowds in public were often explained to his disciples in private.

Also like last week, the explanation that follows is an allegorical interpretation of the parable. This interpretation probably grew up in the early church and was later attributed to Jesus.

There are only three occasions in all of the gospels where this occurs (a parable is interpreted allegorically); we will consider the third instance next week when we read about the Parable of the Net.

He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as 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 who cause others to sin and all evildoers. 

Jesus’ allegorical interpretation is straightforward, and its eschatological significance is clear. Apocalyptic imagery is used to describe the “Son of Man,” the great and glorious figure from the Book of Daniel to whom God gives authority over nations (Daniel 7:13), sending his angels to destroy all those who have, by their behavior, hindered the coming of the kingdom.

The lesson is patient tolerance of the presence of the wicked in the community: God and his angels will sort them out in the end. This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about the evil in our midst, because weeds left unchecked can choke out the wheat. The Church needs constant reformation and positive action in its quest for holiness.

They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. 

The reward for righteousness and the punishment for sin is striking.  In the agricultural practice of that day, weeds were bundled up and burned for fuel.  The fate of the righteous is reminiscent of a passage found in the book of Daniel (12:3). In that reference, the wise are promised a prize that is apocalyptic in nature. When the kingdom of God comes, their radiance will be like that of the cosmic bodies.

Such apocalyptic imagery is intended to comfort those who do good, assuring them that good will prevail. It also warns those who are sinning that there will be accountability.

However, it’s critical to note that the images are not literal: they should not be misinterpreted as portraying God withdrawing love from even one sinner.

Whoever has ears ought to hear.

The teaching ends with the same solemn admonishment we heard last week, which invites the listener to think reflectively on the deeper application of the metaphorical language. Those who have ears, those who are open, ought to hear and understand. Those who have this openness will gain understanding of the parables; those who do not will experience the parables as a source of confusion or misunderstanding.

Connections and Themes

The messages found in the readings for today do not easily hold together. We hear about the role played in our lives by the Spirit of God; the composition of the kingdom of God; and the ultimate graciousness of divine judgment.

The Spirit.  We have been considering discipleship and the receptivity required if we are to produce fruits of righteousness in our lives. We might think it is not fair that some people are open to the seed and some are not.  We might even think it is not their fault. However, if we think this, we would be wrong.

The Spirit of God dwells within all of the disciples, not merely a few of them, so those who fail to be receptive have failed to open themselves to the Spirit. The Spirit helps up in our weakness, in our inability to pray, and in our difficulty in understanding the parables of Jesus. The first disciples had Jesus to explain the parables to them; we have the Spirit to enlighten us. It is the Spirit who helps us to interpret the teachings of Jesus and to be receptive to the challenges that they pose.

Let them grow together. One particular teaching of Jesus that is often a stumbling block for good and decent people is the presence of sinners in the kingdom of God. They may not say it bluntly, but in their hearts they believe there is no room for murderers, sexual offenders, and dishonest public officials and religious leaders. They seem to believe the kingdom of God is only for the righteous or those whose sins are minor. They operate with some kind of gauge that measures acceptability by the degree of innocence.

In a sense, we can’t blame them. We are all a bit afraid to live close to those we consider sinners. We might fear they will take advantage of us in some way. We certainly don’t want them to be an evil influence in our lives, particularly not in the lives of our children. There is probably a bit of this kind of resistance in all of us.

The parable we hear today shows that God has a different point of view.  God knows that if sinners are expelled now, some of those who are basically good will be cast out with them. There will be a time for separation and judgment, but that time is not now. This means the righteous will have to live with the sinner, and even more challengingly, show them the same kind of concern they show others. The presence of sinners does not necessarily erode the quality of the kingdom. Instead, it provides disciples an opportunity to rise to the occasion of generosity and forgiveness.

Divine judgment.  There are two images of judgment in the readings. The one in the gospel is terrifying and decisive: the wicked are bound together into bundles and readied for burning. However, we must remember that this is a parable. In this story, weeds will always be weeds, so there is no chance of change.

The image found in the first reading is quite different. There, the justice of God is said to be lenient, clement, and kind. The power of God is demonstrated not in retribution but in mercy. God is said to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and fidelity,” and repentance is a very real possibility. This is the image that gives us hope.

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