When one gets a little down in the dumps about the state of the Church today’s gospel (well one part of this long and crowded gospel reading) is both consoling and perturbing. To really apprehend the full significance of this parable we must pay attention from the very first phrase:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well. The owner’s servants went to him and said, “Sir, was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the darnel come from?” “Some enemy has done this” he answered. And the servants said, “Do you want us to go and weed it out?” But he said, “No, because when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matt 24:30)
Note the Lord is talking not about the world, that it is full of good people and bad, but the “kingdom of heaven”. Surely, one might reasonably ask, there can be no evil ones in heaven, no weeds among the wheat in the paradisal pastures?
But our Lord did say also that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). For the Church is the embryo of the eschaton, of the Kingdom, viewed from within the context of time and space, that is, seen from within material creation. In heavenly terms, in the context of eternity, the Kingdom is already perfect, the battle won, the Lord reigning at the right hand of the Father. But in the context of creation the Kingdom, embodied in the Church, is still emerging, awaiting the Lord of eternity to sweep away our temporality and establish once for all his people in eternity.
So, for now, there must be weeds among the wheat. That is the consolation. The weeds are part of God’s plan. He allows them to endure, to prosper even, for our sake. Even when they seem liable to overrun the pasture, starving the wheat of light and food, the Lord allows them to continue as to uproot them now would endanger the wheat, expose it to collateral damage beyond its ability to cope. We might complain that the weeds of the Church are already causing grievous collateral damage to the faithful, causing the ruin of souls and disturbing the peace of the Church. Yet our Lord is telling us that, seen from God’s perspective, the damage is less than if he were to intervene before the time.
What is that time? The eschaton, the end of all things, the advent of eternity in place of time and space. Why does the Lord wait for it? St Paul articulates the answer:
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. (Rom 11:25)
The Lord waits, seen from our perspective of time and space (for in eternity it is already accomplished), because the Church has not yet finished growing. Its numbers are not yet complete, its sufferings not fully ripe. St Gregory Palamas, from whom we heard at our Matins this morning, implicitly warns us against an “us and them” approach to the Church. For the mission of Christ was to make them into us. In other words, the Lord is leaving time for repentance, for the weeds can yet become wheat. Consider what Palamas teaches (emphasis added):
The tares (weeds/darnel), as the Lord tells us, are the sons of the evil one. Due to the fact that their deeds resemble his, they bear his mark and are always his offspring and adopted children. Harvest time is when this world ends, because although the process of harvesting started long ago and is active today through death, it will be fully completed then…
So, “He shall send forth his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity” (Matt. 13:41), meaning heretics and those who do not give up sinful actions through repentance – for all sin is iniquity. When the angels have collected them, “they shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42). Do you see, brethren, what a truly terrifying and dreadful harvest and separation this is? We were right to say that the angels were the reapers of this harvest, and that they had to do more than the Apostles. When the Lord’s servants, God’s angels, saw the tares in the field, that is to say, godless and evil people living alongside the good, and sharing in the life of Christ’s Church, they said to the Lord, “Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?” (Matt. 13:28), in other words, Shall we remove them from the earth through death? The Lord, however, replied, “Nay, lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them” (Matt. 13:29)…
If they had collected the tares, given the fact that they would have separated out the evil from the just even if they had cut them down together through death, how could wheat, good people, have been uprooted too? Many impious and sinful people, living alongside those who are godly and righteous, eventually change by means of repentance, learn to be pious and virtuous, and become wheat instead of tares. So if they were carried off by the angels before they repented, wheat would be uprooted when the tares were gathered. Again, many evil people have children or grandchildren with good tendencies. That is why He Who knows all things before they come to pass did not allow the weeds to be pulled out before their time.
The full number of the Kingdom includes many who, from the perspective of time and space seem to be weeds in the pastureland but whom God knows, from eternity, will “turn aside from evil and do good”, who will repent, who will become wheat. What distinguishes wheat from weed in this spiritual sense is not some genetic essence but fruit. Darnel becomes wheat when it too brings forth grain that can be ground into the Body of Christ. That is why we pray for the Church—popes, bishops, clergy, all the faithful: that the weeds among us may become wheat. And let’s be honest: that we may be found at the time of harvest to be wheat not weed, that we might be truly conformed to the Body of Christ.
So at this time of confusion, rampant from top to bottom, we can find some solace that this is all planned for by the Lord, for the sake of the Kingdom, that the salvation won by Christ may more fully suffuse the Church, that the gospel of repentance might have time to sink in and “batter our hearts”.
But with the solace comes the discomfiting, as weeds with wheat. Pray as we might, as we must, we will never be free from weeds in the pasturelands of the Kingdom until the time for eternity comes. There will never truly be peace for the Church or an end to her sufferings until Christ ushers in eternity. But even that can be a solace. For, after all, perhaps this morning found us to be weed not wheat. For now. There is time to repent, to effect the only identity change possible in God’s eyes, from weed to wheat:
Run while you have the light of life, lest the darkness of death overtake you. (John 12:35)
This is mercy— that we have time to repent.
And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways. As the Apostle says, “Do you not know that God’s patience is inviting you to repent” (Rom. 2:4)? For the merciful Lord tells us, “I desire not the death of the sinner, but that the sinner should be converted and live” (Ez 33:11).
(Rule of St Benedict, Prologue)