The Patience That Makes Us Humans
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
A superficial reading of the parable of the wheat and the weeds might give us the impression that there are two categories of people: the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one, those who are good and get the reward and those who are bad and are destined to burn. As always with parables, the details are simplified to emphasize the main lesson, which in this case is not the genesis, social distribution and reward of evil, but the way God deals with the unavoidable mixture of good and evil in the world. If anything, the whole of the New Testament consistently contradicts the idea that people can either be wholly good or wholly bad. On the one hand, we are told that nobody can consider themselves just or right before God (cf. Romans 3.9-20) and on the other that God wants all people to be saved and for that reason that we should pray for everyone (1 Timothy 1.1-4). Nobody can ever be so damaged that all hope is lost. This also is the reason why we should never judge anyone: we are in no position to do so because we are all complicit with evil in one way or the other, and we are not able to see the heart of people. We can only guess other people’ motives from the outside and we know how deceptive appearances can be. Visually, this message is powerfully expressed in the scene in which Jesus says: “If anyone of you is without sin, let them be the first to throw a stone” and it is confirmed by the fact that everyone dropped the stone, “the older ones first” (John 8.7ff). No need to be Christian or religious or even particularly wise to know that we all harbour a great deal of ambiguities in our heart. We just need to have been around long enough to be taught this lesson by life itself, often through searing humiliations.
So what is the main point of this parable? It lies in the refusal of the householder to allow his servants to disentangle the weeds from the wheat before the harvest – and this for the simple reason that good is inseparable from evil in the hearts of each one of us. Again, it takes a minimal amount of experience and self-knowledge to realize that nothing of what we do will ever be pure. This does not require us to become cynical about human nature. It is just realism. If we think about it, is not precisely this complexity of the human heart that endears people or even fictional characters in novels, plays or films to us? Among the countless examples that immediately spring to mind, none, I think, is more compelling than the memorable characters of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. It is no accident that the most winning character of the novel (famously played by James Dean in the film version directed by Elia Kazan), Caleb, is ridden with contradictions and ultimately causes the death of his brother Aron. He does wrong and yet we cannot avoid being intensely relieved and moved when his dying father forgives him. But with regards to evil, the most telling character of the novel is Cathy Ames, the mother of the two brothers, who has a "malformed soul”, delights in using and destroying people, kills her parents, shoots her husband, abandons her children, ends up running an infamous brothel and blackmails her clients, until she dies by committing suicide. I wonder whether I am the only one to have experienced this, but her character in the novel was by far the most riveting. Over the years, I have often asked myself why (this is a novel I keep going back to), and the image that comes to my mind is that of a cosmic black hole: such a degree of almost absolute darkness can be observed only indirectly and remains mindboggling. Maybe this is the reason why it is impossible to avert the eyes from it. Interestingly, in the midst of the universal praise that Steinbeck’s masterpiece has always been awarded, one of the few hesitations of many critics concerns the plausibility of Cathy’s character. Whether or not we agree with this criticism, its very persistence is telling: even from a purely secular viewpoint, we struggle to believe that any human being can be that evil.
The point of referring to Steinbeck’s novel is that the quality of fiction depends on the moral complexity of the characters and the ability of novelists to evoke the readers’ empathy even when they might be uncomfortable with behaviours from an ethical point of view. Wheat and weeds are inextricably mixed and this tension is what makes us human, in the double sense that this is the unavoidable lot of our “human condition”, but also, and especially, that this is what makes us more “human”, that is able to bear with each other, be understanding with one another.
Patience of course is not cheap. Evil causes suffering and pain and when we are on the receiving end we would like God to act immediately to dispose of this evil - we find his restraint scandalous. And yet, we all need this patience, we all benefit from it. Where would we be if God punished us each time we act wrongly and we caused other people to suffer, in one way or the other. Being a Christian is becoming more and more children of our heavenly Father who “causes causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5.45f), because we know that evil will not be conquered by punishment but by forgiveness, that healing it is not instantaneous but the result of a process, often agonizingly slow. It is consoling to know however that in the meantime this patience, this understanding and this forbearance not only makes us better Christians but also more human.