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Homilies from St Etheldreda's

Darnel Everywhere

Posted July 25, 2014

Many interpreters think that the weeds referred to in the parable (Matthew 13: 24-30) are not just any old weeds, but a particular weed known as darnel.  Darnel, sometimes called ‘false wheat’, often grows up among wheat and it is very difficult to tell the difference between them until the fruit ripens around harvest time, for at harvest time darnel ears are black, whereas wheat ears are golden brown.  But in the meantime it is hard to tell the difference.

If that is the point of the parable, then the parable is not talking about good people and bad people in general (for they are not difficult to distinguish) but it is talking about genuinely good people on the one hand, and people of counterfeit goodness on the other; and it is reminding us that it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between the two.  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, only God sees the difference.

Well, that is a very useful reminder, I am sure.  But if that is the whole point of the parable, then, to be honest, I find it a bit of a let-down.  I am left wondering why Jesus chose to use a parable just to convey the lesson that some people are false.  After all, parables are not meant just to give us a general profile of society or to make us streetwise.  They are meant to convert us and put us on the road to salvation.  Parables are not about people ‘out there’ and how we ought to deal with them: they are about you, and what is happening in your soul.  They are meant to confront you with yourself.

I am reminded of King David’s reaction to the parable that the prophet Nathan tells him in the Second Book of Samuel.  The parable was about a cruel, evil man.  When King David began angrily to condemn the man in the parable, Nathan stopped him in his tracks with the words: ‘You are the man.’  For David had secretly got a man killed in order to have his wife.  Parables unmask us.

I wonder therefore if the lesson of today’s parable is not simply that it is difficult to be sure who is genuine and who is counterfeit around us, but, more importantly, that we cannot be sure about the counterfeit and the genuine in ourselves.  For even if it is sometimes easy to detect prejudice or self-righteousness and hypocrisy in other people, it is often well-nigh impossible to spot those vices in ourselves.  For what is prejudice in you, in me is heartfelt conviction; and what is self-righteousness in you, in me is righteous anger.  But how do I know if my anger is pure and truthful, originating in God – and not, rather, self-generated to mask something counterfeit in my soul?  We just don’t know how much of us is pseudo and how much of us is real; how much of us is darnel and how much of us is wheat.  For darnel is everywhere, interspersed with the wheat, and only time will tell.

If you accept that Jesus in the Gospels offers us profound insights into human nature, and reveals to us, as it were, a divine verdict upon the moral condition of individuals, then it is interesting (and perhaps frightening) to reflect that he devotes far more time and energy to challenging counterfeit goodness than he does to condemning simple, unambiguous evil.  Perhaps it is because he knows that counterfeit goodness is far more dangerous, far more destructive, far more decisive for an individual’s ultimate destiny, than straightforward moral evil – for there is no more pernicious a foe than the one you don’t see.

We need, therefore, to be cautious and self-critical about ourselves.  We need not go as far as the prophet Jeremiah, who in one of his grumpier moments said: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?’  But even so, a healthy scepticism about our own righteousness would not come amiss.  As St Paul tells the Corinthians:  ‘My conscience does not reproach me, but that does not necessarily justify me.  It is the Lord who judges me.’   We need wisdom, the most precious of God’s gifts.  Wisdom is not imbibed with mother’s milk, nor necessarily obtained through a lifetime of learning or church-going.  As the Old Testament puts it, you cannot cross the seas to purchase it with the purest gold.  Only God imparts wisdom.  We must pray for it always, for God’s pure light and truth to unmask all that is counterfeit in our hearts.

Should we, in the meantime, feel gloomy and constricted, never motivated to do and speak out about what we see as genuine, in case there is an admixture of falsehood lurking in our souls?  That was not the conclusion of the New Testament writers, and certainly not of St Matthew (who alone gives us this parable of the darnel); nor of St Paul, or St John.  Although they all knew about the constant danger of self-deception among religious people, they were confident that a costly, persevering, Christ-like love of other people scatters the darkness and purifies the soul.  For that kind of love is the one thing that the devil cannot simulate.  It is pure wheat, and what joy when it comes to harvest!  ‘Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who loves his brother remains in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.’

Fr Tom Deidun

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