Catholics are tempted to construct in our minds an imaginary Church of the pure.
We are tempted to say to ourselves, “Only those who are ‘intentional disciples’ really belong to the Church. Good riddance to the cultural Catholics!”
We look around at less committed Catholics, at Catholics who don’t practice the Faith in the same way that we do and (in our worst moments) muse, “Do they really belong to the Church at all? Don’t they know what a real Catholic looks like? Tell them to get serious or leave!”
Our Lord warns us about this attitude in the Gospel of Matthew, showing us the patient mercy of God that is the currency of God’s reign.
The first parable describes a man sowing seed in the field. Good seed falls upon fertile soil, but the sower’s enemy comes along and places weeds amidst the wheat. The sower learns of this from his slaves, but he is a prudent farmer. First, he harvests everything together (the wheat and the weeds alike), and only then does he separate them.
As Jesus shows at the end of today’s passage, the final separation is the great judgment awaiting the Church:
“The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as weeds are collected and burned [up] with fire, so will it be at the end of the age” (Mt 13:39-40).
Notice in the parable that it is impossible at present to judge the difference between the wheat and the weeds, between the righteous and the sinner. Both are planted in the field of the Church.
Those who seem like they’re wheat in the present actually could be weed and vice versa. The angels, God’s messengers, will judge us at the end of time. God alone can separate.
Jesus follows this first parable with two others that point toward the hiddenness of the kingdom of God.
No one would imagine that a small seed could produce a large bush, sheltering the birds of the field.
No one can see the way that just a bit of yeast invasively permeates an abundant quantity of flour (nearly 50 pounds or bread enough to feed 100 people).
The kingdom of God is not the result of the raw exercise of the human will, exerting itself no matter the cost. It is not the product of evangelization movements, of new programs of faith formation, of shrewd planning of small groups.
The kingdom is the hidden work of God in the world.
It is the hidden work that waits until the end of time to separate the righteous from the sinner.
It is the patient mercy that invisibly transforms a small seed into a large bush, flour into bread through a bit of yeast.
For God is active in a hidden way in the human heart. In the kingdom of God, we never know until the end who is in and who is out. For salvation is not the fruit of human commitment.
The salvation of the world unfolds through the hidden work of the Spirit of God: “[T]he Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26).
The kingdom of God works in a hidden way.
And that’s good news for those of us who await the final judgment, longing for God to bring all of humanity into the great barn of the kingdom.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.