It’s been a difficult summer, in that we’re still trying to figure out the ifs, whens and hows of our school’s re-opening because of the confusing messages we’re getting about it from the state, the diocese and all the so-called experts who pontificate on it in the news media. As we try to sort out the messages coming forth, we sometimes are in more of a quandary than what we had expected. I surely will let you know what will take place when the dust has settled. Until then, and, so, the plot thickens….
In our readings from the Gospel of St. Matthew for the past couple of weeks, we notice Jesus speaking in parables that define discipleship for us. He draws our attention to the kingdom of heaven, in order to focus our work as disciples, on what the kingdom of heaven is like. But, just as those around Him didn’t quite understand, so it is not always easy for us to grasp the meaning of these parables. One of the key characteristics of these parables is the surprise ending or “plot twist” that many of them contain. This change, from the way that we thought the parable would end to how Our Lord actually concludes it, should invite us to look more closely at how we can apply the message of Jesus to our lives as we strive to be His disciples.
This week’s Gospel contains a plot twist from what many of us would have thought the outcome would be. Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, we children spent some bits of time in the spring and summer in our own garden, learning how to grow fruits and vegetables. The tedious part of all this was the job of keeping weeds out of the garden. Our initial instinct was to get rid of the weeds as soon as possible. But, in the parable of the wheat and the  weeds, Our Lord recommends letting the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest, at which point the weeds and wheat will be separated, and the weeds will be burned, while the wheat will be saved.
For us to understand this parable correctly, it’s important for us to know that the weed to which Jesus was referring – and with which His listeners would have been familiar – was called cockle-seed, which is a plant that is often found growing in cereal crops in the Middle East. It resembles wheat so closely that even to a farmer’s practiced eye it’s impossible to tell the two plants apart until the stalks begin to mature, at which stage the cockle can be recognized by its slender ear and emaciated grain. It’s quite toxic to humans and, if mixed with flour, will ruin bread. Sowing cockle among the wheat was a form of revenge not unheard of in those countries. Periodic plagues of cockles were very much feared by the peasants, because they could cause them to lose their entire harvest.
The early Church Fathers understood the cockle to be a metaphor for false doctrine which isn’t easy to distinguish from the truth, because it’s common for the devil to mix falsehood with truth, and if error is allowed to flourish it always has catastrophic effects on the people of God.
In today’s world, there are plenty of false teachings contrary to the word of God that pop up in various places: on TV, on the internet, in newspapers, magazines, movies, and even in songs on the radio. Obviously we can’t get rid of all the false messages, but we do have to learn how eventually to distinguish the true doctrines of Christ from the false doctrines of the world. In the end, not only will false teachings be discarded, but Jesus says that “all who cause others to sin and all evildoers” will be thrown into the fires of hell.
In light of this parable, the question that we must ask ourselves is whether we nourish the good seed of sound doctrine that the Lord has planted in our lives by striving to follow His teachings and live as His disciples each and every day, or whether we let the weeds, the false teachings and temptations of the world around us to grow up and choke out the grace that’s given to each of us. I would hope that we all can say that we unequivocally nourish ourselves with God’s grace each and every day. If, however, we don’t always succeed, we need to draw closer to Our Lord and ask Him for the grace to distinguish between things that nourish us spiritually and things that cause us to starve. For, if we want to live as His disciples, we had better learn to distinguish the things that lead us closer to Our Lord from those that lead us away from Him.