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Wheat, Weeds and the State of the Church

Last Sunday, as the Bishops of the United States began to make their way to Baltimore, those blessed with the opportunity to attend the Tridentine Mass heard Matthew 13:24-30 read as the Gospel. The following is a synopsis of this parable as I heard it explained by a diocesan priest who wishes to remain anonymous:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.

Why would an enemy—no matter how vicious—expend an incredible amount of energy to sow weeds? Why not just pour salt on the ground, or burn the harvest and be done with it? Was Jesus over- exaggerating for effect?

Interestingly, historians have been able to link the devious activity found in this parable, to historical fact. The weeds that Jesus spoke of were very likely those known as darnel—or Lolium temulentum—an intoxicating and poisonous plant that looks almost identical to young wheat. In fact, this plant was so concerning to the ancients, that the Roman Emperor Justinian published, in Digest,, a legal case that was enshrined in Roman law: “The jurist Ulpian referred to a case considered by the second-century Roman statesman Celsus. Weeds had been sown in another person’s field, and as a result, a crop was ruined.” Roman law forbade such an act, with dire consequences.

The rustics who followed Jesus would have known, very well, what type of weed would cause a harvest to be ruined. They knew an act such as this would possibly cost a farmer his life, if harvested wheat mixed with darnel was sold and consumed. This enemy was seeking to cause his rival true suffering.

The servants in the parable, however, recognized the difference in the plants. Seeing the deed had been done, they warned their master of the danger. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ If such a poisonous weed was growing alongside the wheat—and both were young enough to have just sprouted—how could the servants confirm the suspicion that darnel had been planted? They wouldn’t have alerted their Master at the risk their livelihoods, without substantial proof. The only way would have been to reference a basket of good wheat—confirmed as such, perhaps from another field—and compare this to the suspicious plants.

References and prior knowledge are important — even vital — tools in the Church today. How is one to distinguish sound Catholic teaching from poisonous error? Just as darnel, known as a “mimic weed”, “looks and behaves so much like wheat”, so, too, many contemporary Catholics preach a Gospel that only “looks and behaves” enough like the real one to fool the unwary.

It is insidious that the enemies of God would sew into the Harvest apes of His Word, and yet we know this has occurred. Christ said it would. The very fact the Church is enduring such violence through scandal should be proof enough. “An enemy has done this.” So much of what we are hearing from those who are supposed to shepherd us today echoes — but does not equate to — sound doctrine. They behave almost like Catholics, but not quite. Their compassion stops at the need for temporal things, short of what is needed for salvation. Their words may ring true at first, even be declared as following the hermeneutic of continuity, but often disintegrate into confusion. St. Paul seems to have written of these times, saying that “they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears. And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.” (2Timothy 4:3-4)

What is the Faithful Catholic to do? From the foundation of the Church until now lies a span of nearly 2000 years of sacred theology, Tradition, and doctrine. Such a wealth of resources—and much of it, thank God, is easily accessible. A good foundation point would Spirago’s “The Catechism, Explained.”

The Master in the parable of the wheat and the tares did not need to hold his servant’s hands and guide them as the crisis unfolded. He expected them to know their duties and how to carry them out. They used their experience and their resources—both obtained under service to Him—as well as their initiative to prove their loyalty when it was needed most. If the servants of the Master could distinguish young wheat from poisonous darnel using their wits and knowledge, then certainly we—the Faithful—are called to do the same in order to preserve the Church from the poison of error.

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