Perhaps one of the most difficult teachings of the Church is about herself – that the Church is holy. How can that be? We know her history well enough to know about all kinds of unholiness in the Church. More importantly and most immediately, we know that we ourselves – members of the Church – are beset by sin. Still, in our Creeds we confess that the Church is holy. Today’s parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-43) might shed some light on this doctrine.
The parable describes something that happened often enough in the ancient world that there were specific laws against it. A man would sow tares or cockle in his enemy’s wheat field. That weed would grow along with the wheat and would look exactly like it. If not filtered out, it would be harvested with the wheat, make its way into the bread, and poison the consumers, sometimes fatally.
As our Lord makes clear, the Church – the children of the kingdom – is the good seed that the Father has sown in the world. Thus, the Church is holy. She is no mere human creation but the foundation and household of God, planted by his hand, established as the Body of Christ. The Church is a tree growing upside down, with her roots in heaven and her branches here on earth.
But the Church exists in a fallen world, and the enemy is active. As the parable makes clear, he sows bad seed among the children of the kingdom. There is poison, in effect, even within the Church. The problem is the bad seed looks a lot like the good. So, the householder instructs his servants to wait: Let them grow together until harvest. At that point, he will be able to discern and to judge.
Now a first lesson of the parable is that we shouldn’t be surprised by wickedness and mendacity in the Church. Disappointed, grieved, and angry – yes. But not surprised. The existence of weeds among the wheat has been evident from the earliest years of the Church down to the present day.
The parable is also a lesson about God’s patience. The Church makes her pilgrim way throughout history possessing a real and authentic holiness, but still semper purificanda – always needing to be purified. There is no “golden age” of the Church because there have always been weeds among the wheat. The Father calls us to the highest standard, to holiness itself. But he is patient with us in our striving for it.
More importantly, the parable is an invitation to participate in God’s patience. Many who appear to be weeds will be revealed to be wheat – and vice versa. He is patient with you, who might at times appear to be a weed. He invites you to be patient with your annoying neighbor, who may very well be wheat.
So, as we confess that the Church is holy, we patiently await her final purification, as we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15) The Church’s life ought to be animated by such patience with one another. Even excommunication, the Church’s severest penalty, is an exercise in patience, as it seeks not an unending separation, but the person’s repentance and return.
This brings us to the issue of discipline and punishment in the Church. The parable cannot be read in isolation. Elsewhere our Lord gives clear instructions on how to correct a brother and, if he fails to respond, to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17) Paul had a strong recommendation for dealing with the wayward: “with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5)
All of which is to say that there is a place for identifying and correcting those who have strayed. But it’s for the shepherds to do, not the sheep. Today’s parable is addressed to the crowds, not the Apostles. The bishops have a right to discipline because they have a duty to do so. Such discipline seeks the good of souls by clarifying teaching and preventing scandal. But when the shepherds don’t discipline, then members of the Church lose patience, take it upon themselves to uproot the cockle and pull up a lot of wheat with it.
Who would you like to get rid of? That question gets to the point of the parable pretty quickly. Be careful, because those you regard as weeds might be among the most fruitful wheat in the kingdom. Are you wheat or a weed? That gets to the point even more quickly. We should be less concerned about whether others are weeds and more concerned about being fruitful wheat ourselves. We are to participate in God’s patience, neither judging someone a bad seed. . .nor presuming that we are good. His grace is at work within each one of us, bidding us to turn to him and be made holy.
Let them grow together until harvest. These words express patience, but not indulgence. God’s patience has an end and is ordered towards our conversion. So even as we draw consolation and hope from his patience, we also strive to be found fruitful on that day of reckoning, the harvest.