Sunday, November 7, 2010

24th Sunday after Pentecost (resumed 5th Sunday after Epiphany)

Colossians 3:12-17 / Matthew 13:24-30

"Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? Whence then hath it cockle?"

 A professor I know (whose name I intend to leave charitably to the side) asserted that there was no basis on which elements of culture could be excluded from the celebration of the liturgy. On her view, any attempt, historical or present, to refuse the inclusion of any cultural idiom or any indigenous understanding of God and the divine was cultural imperialism of the worst sort. Such a move, she argued, would undo what she took to be the Spirit-led and divinely sanctioned call for a full inculturation of the Gospel.

One student in the class, less than certain that the professor actually meant what she had said in such absolute terms, posed the following question: "If true inculturation of worship demands the acceptance of all indigenous norms of conceptualizing the divine, then would a proper inculturation of the Gospel of the Aztecs have allowed for bloody, human sacrifice as part of the Mass?" The student was certain the professor would deny the suggestion, and in so doing clarify her position. Strangely, and inexplicably, she did not, and found herself unable to state, without ambiguity, that human sacrifice has no part in Christian worship.

On another occasion, the same professor asserted that she held no theological position as absolutely ruled out by the Gospel, and declared a willingness to allow any position a place at the theological table. Again, someone who heard this claim spoke up and asked, certain he had mistook her position, whether she would seriously entertain celebrating a National Socialist themed Eucharist. Once again, strangely, and inexplicably, the professor refused in principle to say, without ambiguity, that Nazism and the Gospel were incompatible.

Sadly, this professor is not alone. I have no doubt that she, and the many like her, regards human sacrifice and Hitlerite ideology as abhorrent. I have no fear that she actually would live out the position she is twisting her mind and her words to defend. Moreover, I suspect it is an unhappy reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares that fuels her confusion, and the confusion of many in our world. On a certain reading of the parable, the key problem faced by the servants of the goodman of the house was ignorance. Quite simply, because they did not, and indeed could not, tell the difference between wheat and cockle, they were to leave all judgment to the harvest time. Understood this way, only at the eschatological horizon is any distinction between truth and falsehood possible, and thus even what seems obviously needing to be rooted out, the servants' request Wilt thou that we go and gather it up?, is found to be misguided, and indeed dangerous.

As with most unhappy readings of scripture, there is much that is true in this perspective. It is certainly the case that, prior to harvest time, wheat and cockles look amazingly alike. Only a keen eye could tell one from the other, and even then with inevitable error. Indeed, the parable depends precisely on this fact. Also, it is certainly true that real harm has historically been done in trying to determine with rather too coarse a grain what and who is, and what and who is not in accord with the Gospel. The goodman's appeal for patience — No, lest perhaps, gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it — and tolerance — Suffer both to grow until the harvest — have perhaps been less well heeded in the past and present than would be desired.

However, what the professor's view, and we might well say the all-too-prevalent permissive view of many Christians today, fails to note is that the parable is not uniquely, or even principally about our inability to distinguish wheat from cockles, right from wrong, orthodoxy from heresy. On the contrary, the parable depends as much on the fact that we can and do know the difference! After all, the servants are aware, as is the goodman, even well before the harvest, that not everything in the field is wheat, that an enemy came and oversowed cockle among the wheat. Moreover, the goodman does not criticize the servants' zeal to separate the wheat from the tares. Indeed, he shares the same desire. What is more, he will depend on their ability to know one from the other, to value the one and reject the other, at the time of harvest. Gather up first the cockle and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn.

So what to do in the meantime? Do we allow the false teachers and false living masquerading as the Catholic faith go unopposed, rooted and sown among the faithful? On the other hand, must we not stay our hand for fear that we root out what in our zeal we took to be cockles, only to find that, unlike our gentle Lord, we have broken the bruised reed, torn up the fragile shaft of wheat?

While there is no simple answer, it is helpful to recall that the servants, the reapers of the parable are not the faithful men and women of the Church, but the angels. Theirs is the task of staying their hand, theirs the glorious burden of enacting God's judgment on that awful and tremendous Day. Our task, our obligation in the present, is to be wheat. That is, we serve the Lord not as reapers, sifting wheat from tares, storing the one in the barn and burning the other with unquenchable fire, but rather as being worthy of the harvest, being bountiful in charity, which is the bond of perfection. Our duty is to be thankful, lettinh the word of Christ dwell in us abundantly, in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God.

This is our happy task, our blessed burden, to grow daily more abundant in the graces sown in our hearts by the love of Jesus Christ, in great things and in small. All whatsoever you do in word or work, do all in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by Jesus Christ our Lord.

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