16th Sunday – Awake to God’s Life

Matthew 13:24-43, Romans 8:26-27

The Sower, Vincent van Gogh

We are presented with three parables in our gospel today. I want to reflect only on the first of the parables, popularly called the parable of the tares and the wheat. I would like to focus particularly on three things within this parable – the Lord of the harvest, the sower of the darnel and the time of his sowing.

First, the sower of the darnel. It is not often that the Devil is mentioned, at least in the Lectionary readings. But he exists, and here, he is revealed for who he is. The devil is not an anti-God, someone equal and opposite in power to God himself. He is a creature, even if the most powerful being first created, which became perverse. He lives by ‘aping’ God. The world is not his to own, it is God’s. He cannot do anything that is truly creative. He sees God sowing and bringing forth something good, so he does the same, except he sows to pervert, to corrupt the good seed of God’s creation. In his self-declared opposition to God, he can only exist as a parody of himself and all that he was created to be. And he sows with the same aim. He wants to pervert as many creatures as possible, making them like himself, rebelling against God. Even what he sows, the darnel, is an imitation; it is something that looks exactly like wheat in its early stages, which is why it cannot be pulled up easily. All he does is a parody. His victory comes from making as many people believe that the parody he creates is who God is and what God does.

And then there is the time he sows. “While everybody was asleep…”. Sleep refers to a state when we are passive. We are explicitly warned not to be ‘found asleep’ at Christ’s coming (Matt 25:22) and Paul exhorts us to wake up from sleep, as salvation draws near (Rom 13:11). In the Scriptures, it is not so much the physical sleep that we require every day that is of concern, but a lack of spiritual or even conscious awareness, where we are not on our guard. Adam was commanded to guard the garden, but while awake, he was asleep in terms of understanding what God had commanded. To be awake is to understand the events that happen to us, to be able to discern ‘the signs of the times’ (Matt 16:3). 

In a state of spiritual sleep, one can be driven by all kinds of forces. We all like to think of ourselves as fully awake and in control of our lives. However, even if that were true in one area of our life – say work, where we might be very successful and clear about what we want – there might be several other areas where we remain passive. We end up being simply moved by the tide, be that our friends, what we see in the cinema, pick up from popular culture or what not. That we are so influenced at a sub-conscious level, is something that the advertising industry has known and exploited for a very long time. We are riven by all kinds of contrary desires, which seem to move us in one way today and another, the next. Sometimes we pursue something with a lot of effort, only to realise at some point that it is not something we really wanted. While there is a lot of good things we learn throughout life at a conscious level and make it our own, the enemy will also use every opportunity in our sleep-walking to sow his darnel to corrupt our heart, twisting God’s work and his plans for us.

If we can be passive and sleep-walk through our life as adults, this passivity is even truer of our childhood and particular circumstances of our history. None of us come completely empty, as a tabula rossa, into the world. We are born already with our own character, and characteristics, inherited from our parents and others. We have had all kinds of life experiences, both good and bad. As children, particularly, we do not have the capacity to make sense of them. Some of these experiences can have a huge influence in our life, and we might not even be fully conscious of them, especially when they have been a cause of distress or trauma. The enemy has sowed darnel, while we were asleep, darnel which can control and drive us. In front of this history, especially things which have gone wrong, we can easily become resentful. Sometimes people grow up and continue blaming their parents for everything bad in their life. We can also, just as easily resign ourselves to our wounds and vices, giving in to all our wrong impulses, refusing to believe that change is possible. We can live as prisoners of our history. 

Confronted by our own weakness, even as we find ourselves powerless to change, and stalked by a powerful enemy, this gospel comes to us as good news. The good news comes from the Lord of the harvest. If everyone was asleep, he is the One, Israel’s God who never sleeps (Ps 121:3). Nothing escapes his notice. He is not unaware of the wiles of the enemy or the precarious state of his wheat. He recognises the seriousness of the situation and the pain of good work being perverted, but he is not fazed. And here we see what is true greatness, true power, true creativity. The Master will not react to the Evil One. If the enemy sowed darnel in his field, very well, the Master will take ownership of both the wheat and the darnel. He will use the very things that have been planted for destruction to bring forth something truly good, maybe even better than what would have been. In spite of the destruction of the Evil One, he has the ability to guarantee the growth of the wheat he has planted. The workers panic and react as we would react; they want to pull it out. We are always quick to spot things wrong with others and even with ourselves; we react with violence, we want to correct, set right, punish. But the Master gives both the wheat and the darnel, time. This time is his grace. In that time, the Master has the capacity to protect his wheat while also giving the darnel the ability to change. For finally, the devil cannot create, it can only corrupt something that is already present. And what is corrupted, and appears as darnel, can be restored. 

St Ignatius of Loyola

  This gospel – good news – is offered to you and me today. What can we do in our situations, with our confusing desires, our past, our wounds? We can pray. To his little wheat, the Master of the harvest gives abundantly of his Spirit who ‘comes to help us in our weakness’ as it says in the reading from Romans. This help is far greater than anything that the Devil can do. St Thomas Aquinas used to say that it is only in prayer, that our true desires can be brought to light. Hence, we should pray, he says, surprisingly, even of the things in our heart that we find contrary to God’s will. Because, even these desires which are wrong, are simply parodying something which is good, which is what we truly desire. They are the tares sown by the devil. He can make us believe that it is the parodies we want, but in the light of the Spirit, God can bring up and grant our real desires. And one saint who understood very well, how to do so, was St Ignatius of Loyola. His own conversion, (an account, quite relevant to us, here), would reveal to him the power of our sub-conscious, wandering thoughts and desires. In the prayer of the Examen (a very helpful guide, here), God would give the Church through Ignatius, a simple, yet powerful way to heal them. The daily Examen can be very helpful in bringing to the surface all our unconscious desires, the movements of our heart. And the Spirit knows and intercedes according to God’s plans for us, even as we ourselves are split in our desires. By the power of the Spirit, we can be freed of the darkness that binds us. We can find freedom from the corruptions of the Evil One and become fully the children of God. 

6 Comments

  1. Recently a tweet introduced me to Imagine. I will not say I achieved enlightenment on the first session, because I didn’t. I found it rather difficult, especially staying still without falling asleep. However, thereafter, it started making sense, and flabbergasted (in hysterics really) that it is prayer! Sadly work sometimes gets in the way and I missed the last 2 session. They are available on YouTube but without the breakout sessions. The breakout sessions, although, sometimes uncomfortable, are helpful, as there’s always something to learn from listening to someone else’s experience. Also, the session doesn’t just end. The subject lingers on, even if just for a few minutes, it’s as if back at school consolidating what we learnt that day.

    I’d heard of Examen before, on ‘Pray as You Go’, it made sense but that was it. This video you shared from ‘Pause for Faith’ gives it a different perspective, and just like with Imagine, makes me want to try. Nice if it had breakout sessions…

    One of the challenges I have with prayer is saying someone else’s. It’s not that I don’t find them beautiful, or inspiring, they are! However, it was the writer’s thoughts which led to them, and many times I am left feeling a copycat. Imagine, and from what I see Examen, let us be ourselves, explore our thoughts, acknowledge them and, hopefully, let go of the unwanted.

    Thank you for this homily, and links. It also led to an interesting article on Flannery O’Connor!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not sure I know what ‘Imagine’ is. Praying written prayers can be helpful to start with, and can be helpful along the way, but it is not the best staple diet. Ideally, the written prayers can lead to a more intimate relationship, one that is truly one’s own. The Examen is a great help towards that! Glad you found it helpful. There are more helpful videos on methods of prayer at the same Pause for Faith.

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  2. Your thoughtful article on this week’s Gospel reading caused me to reflect both on Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, ‘Reconciliatio et Paenitentia’ and his Encyclical Letter, ‘Dominum et Vivificantem’ and the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’. These highlight the obscure and intangible element hidden in sin which is the ‘mysterium iniquitatis. The mystery of evil is revealed only if the evil that sin contains can be revealed and this is so often masked by deceptive attempts to present evil intentions and actions in a positive light. Against this background, our hope and trust can only realistically be in the redemptive sacrifice of love in Jesus Christ to his Father, enabled by the Holy Spirit, so that through the ‘mysterium pietatis’ love can reveal itself as stronger than sin, as is so clearly expressed in the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. That’s a lovely comparison, mysterium iniquitatis and the mysterium pietatis. I wrote a small section on the mystery of iniquity and later removed it because it was becoming too long!

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