ColumnsSunday’s Word

Parables of weeds, yeast, and mustard seed

July 19, 2020


Wis 12:13, 16-19

God’s justice and mercy

Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16

You are good and forgiving

Rom 8:26-27

The Spirit’s inexpressible groanings

Mt 13:24-43

Parables of weeds, yeast, and mustard seed


Sounds of hope and despair echo in the background of today’s Scripture selections. The Spirit groaning in intercession to assist our prayers, and the lost souls wailing in the darkness, are heard in the passages from Romans and Matthew. While Paul is counseling hope in times of darkness, Matthew is signaling something much darker.

In today’s Gospel we come to the parable of the Weeds and Wheat, along with the Leaven and the Mustard Seed. While the latter two are found in other Gospels, only Matthew tells the parable of the Weeds. And with it the conclusion about the “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.”

Only Matthew talks about this “wailing and grinding of teeth,” and he does so repeatedly (8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). And each of these are found in passages, almost all of them parables, found only in this Gospel. Most of us find this troublesome. What is going on with these harsh endings? Isn’t God supposed to be a loving God?

One way to account for it is to consider it in terms of God’s mercy and justice. This is the theme sounded in the opening passage from the book of Wisdom. But the two divine traits are not easy to balance in our minds.

God wants us to be merciful. A key moment in today’s parable is the demand that the servants not pull up the weeds at harvest, for fear that they may also pull up the wheat as well. In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples to let God decide who is just and who is not. We are too invested, too involved, to situated within the struggle to make a dispassionate judgement. We look at things from a particular perspective. We do not know what others are dealing with. We easily slip from justice to vengeance, as we lick our own wounds.

But the notion that God is letting evil things keep on happening unhindered alarms us. That fear needs to be addressed. After all, in this gospel, Jesus recommends strict nonviolence for his disciples. Turn the other cheek; love your enemies (Matt 5:38-48). And forgive others unsparingly, even seventy times seven (18:21-22). In this Gospel, Jesus demands much of his disciples, refusing the option of using force, for those who live by the sword die by the sword (26:52).

But how does that not encourage injustice and unfair practices, when those inclined toward them perceive that there will be no punishment, no sanctions for taking advantage of others? It is at this point that Matthew shows Jesus asserting God’s justice. There will be a comeuppance. But it is in God’s time, and God’s place.

That is the message of the Weeds and the Wheat. There will be an accounting, but it is not ours to enact, we who are disciples. We are to trust that God is paying attention and will take matters in hand. The disciple is asked to be faithful, forgive and refuse to retaliate. Love those who consider themselves your enemies. This is considered being “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

This of course is a tall order. It would seem very few achieve it, and those who do are already listed in the roster of known saints.

Maybe it is here that Paul’s image of the Spirit, who “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.”

For reflection: Jesus’ disciples are called beyond themselves, asked to do things they could never have imagined.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.