Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19; Psalm 85 (86): 5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13: 24-43
Sunday 19 July 2020
Last week, I made my annual eight-day retreat here in Melbourne. There’s nothing like a pandemic and a lockdown to help focus the retreatant’s attention on first and last things, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Looking back over the past year, I was conscious of leaving many things behind. We closed the Jesuit house in Canberra, the national capital, after 51 years of Jesuit presence on the very edge of the parliamentary triangle. My beloved mother died during the course of the year. I moved back to Melbourne, the Wuhan of Australia, after a 30-year absence. In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius Loyola has the retreatant commence with a consideration that we are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord and that the other things on the face of the earth are created for us and that they may help us in prosecuting the end for which we are created. Ignatius was fond of saying, ‘Whoever carries God in their heart bears the kingdom of heaven within wherever they go.’
In today’s gospel from Matthew, Jesus tells another of his agricultural parables. In this one, the kingdom of heaven is compared with the farmer who sows good seed in the field. An enemy comes under cover of night and plants bad darnel amongst the good wheat.
One option is to weed out the darnel here and now. The labourers who propose this option think that the best crop will be obtained in future by weeding out the dross immediately. The farmer knows better. Seeking the perfect here and now risks the whole crop. If you weed out the darnel, you are likely to dislodge the wheat as well. It’s best to leave the good and bad growing together. At harvest time, you can then separate out the darnel from the wheat. There’s darnel and wheat in every heart. There’s darnel and wheat in every field which we till in life. There’s darnel and wheat in every philosophical argument or moral deliberation we make. There’s darnel and wheat in every society, in every era, and in every Church.
There’ll always be those who think it best to weed out the imperfect here and now. Sometimes they’ll be right, but not always. Jesus suggests that it is sometimes best to let a thousand flowers bloom and to wait until harvest time. We don’t always have the definitive answer here and now. Here and now is not always the best time to separate out the wheat from the chaff.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, there has been a movement for the removal of statues of historic figures whose achievements are now seen to be a mix of wheat and chaff or whose achievements are seen to be nothing but chaff in contemporary terms, though judged wheat when they lived. With the benefit of hindsight, protesters see the sins of the past with a clarity which eluded those who exercised power at the time.
In the 21st century, there is no room for arguing that slavery had aspects of wheat as well as chaff. The consensus now is that slavery is inherently evil, wrong in all circumstances, and permitting of no exceptions. It wasn’t always that way. The patron of our college, the now canonised St John Henry Newman, had cause to reflect on the moral status of slavery in 1863 when his fellow convert and Oxford companion Thomas William Allies delivered a series of lectures on The Formation of Christendom. Newman confessed to being startled by Allies’ novel claim that slavery was intrinsically and per se evil.
Newman thought that ‘slavery is in the same order of things as despotism’. He hesitated to claim that despotism was per se evil as God could be a despot, and ‘a father is despotic over his young children’. Newman had no doubt that in most circumstances despotism was ‘practically and certainly a great evil’. He thought it was best destroyed by influence, and not by declaring its illegality. Writing to Allies on 8 November 1863, Newman said:
‘That which is intrinsically and per se evil, we cannot give way to for an hour. That which is only accidentally evil, we can meet according to what is expedient, giving different rules, according to the particular case. St Paul would have got rid of despotism if he could. He could not, he left the desirable object to the slow working of Christian principles. So he would have got rid of slavery if he could. He did not, because he could not, but had it been intrinsically evil, had it been in se a sin, he must have said to Philemon, liberate all your slaves at once.’
Newman went on to say, ‘I had rather have been a slave in the Holy Land, than a courtier of Xerxes or a soldier of Zingis Khan.’ Addressing a contemporary example given by Allies, Newman considered the case of a poor slave who ‘found South Carolina a more religious place for her than she would find the territory of the King of Dahomey’ back in Benin. No doubt very shocking to the ears of those pulling down statues in the US in recent weeks, Newman said, ‘American slavery admits the introduction of more antagonistic good, than African despotism.’
In hindsight, things can look much simpler.
And perhaps they are. But that does not necessarily mean that those who lived and made decisions back at the time of the events under scrutiny were moral bankrupts or fools. Some, or many, may have been. Others may have simply been allowing the wheat and darnel to grow together, confident or hoping that in time the darnel might be collected, tied into bundles and burnt, while the wheat was gathered into barns.
129 years after Newman wrestled with his moral categories, Pope John Paul II visited the former ‘House of Slaves’ on the island of Goree, Senegal and said:
‘These men, women and children were the victims of a shameful trade, in which people who were baptised but did not live their faith took part. How can we forget the enormous suffering inflicted, in defiance of the most basic human rights, on the deported populations of the African continent? How can we forget the human lives destroyed by slavery?
‘It is fitting that this sin of man against man, this sin of man against God, be confessed in all truth and humility. How long is the road that the human family must travel before its members learn to regard and respect one another as images of God, in order to finally love one another as sons and daughters of the same Heavenly Father!’
Now it is commonplace for Catholics of all cultures and nationalities to affirm that slavery is intrinsically evil. It is never justified. It never was. It is wrong in all circumstances. It always was. But it didn’t always seem that way. And those who had their doubts or who thought differently were not necessarily moral cripples or hypocrites.
It’s easy for us to be righteous when assessing the morality and mixed motivations of those who went before us. With the moral clarity we profess by perceiving the shortcomings of the past, let us look to our present situation, patiently letting the wheat and darnel grow together until harvest time, and then separating them out.
There may well be a case for removing some statues and for erecting some new ones which more adequately reflect the moral consensus which has taken generations to emerge. We might also look on the lighter side of debates about statues. George Bernard Shaw took great delight writing to the Irish Times about the statues on the street corners of his hometown Dublin. He wrote:
‘Dublin’s streets can never be called clean in the finest sense of the word until the appalling collection of statues, equestrian and pedestrian, which at present disfigure them are removed.’
‘I may add that I am not writing this letter merely to protest against these permanent outrages on the artistic conscience. I have another and more personal reason. It may be that my native city which has consistently refused to pay tribute to my genius during my lifetime may try to make posthumous amends by erecting a monument to me in the years to come….I have no desire, dead or alive, to become a unit in one of the melancholy collections of stone—mason atrocities which are at present scattered over your main thoroughfares and which must, until either the artistic soul of Dublin is aroused, or they are hit by a stray land-mine in the next civil war, remain to the intelligent visitor from abroad as the measure of your metropolitan culture.
G Bernard Shaw’
As I found on my annual retreat, there is a time to leave some things of the past in the past. In the present, we must be deciding whether to weed out the darnel here and now, or to live with the moral ambiguity, mess and complexity, waiting until the time is ripe to put our wheat into barns while throwing the darnel on the flames.
Let’s not be too hard or judgmental with the clear spectacles of hindsight when judging those who went before us.
Not even the greats like John Henry Newman always got it right even on topics now as morally straight-forward as slavery.
They made no pretence to be perfect or infallible. Some of them still deserve recognition whether in stone or in the heart, not for their sake, but for ours – being examples of honest human labour seeking to separate the wheat from the chaff, and at the most appropriate time.
Let’s be wary of those who are confident that they are always right.
They may be wrong in the moral assessment they make of their predecessors. Contemplating first and last things in a time of pandemic and lockdown, let’s pray for our community leaders who need to discern when to separate the wheat and darnel, when to lockdown for the good of health, and when to open up for the sake of the economy. They face difficult and fraught choices. No doubt, in hindsight when the plague has passed, we will once again think it looked so simple, separating the wheat from the darnel. If only, here and now, it were. The good farmer in the parable knows it’s not.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).