by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
He was not quite the Karate Kid:
no Jaden Smith,
no Ralph Macchio,
nor budding movie star … after all, he only had one arm,
having lost his left one in a devastating car accident.
To build up his confidence
and with much encouragement from his family
he decided to study judo with a seasoned Master.
The boy did amazingly well,
but after three months of training
he had only been taught one move.
“Sensei,” he asked, “shouldn’t I be learning more moves?”
The Master replied, “this is the only move
you will ever need to know.”
Trusting his wise teacher, he continued training.
Months later, the Master enrolled the boy in a public tournament.
He did amazingly well, winning match after match
until, to everyone’s surprise, he ended up in the finals.
His opponent in that match was not only older
and more experienced,
but was considerably stronger and towered above him.
Concerned that the boy with only a right arm might get hurt
the referee wanted to call off the match
but Sensei insisted that it go on.
With this daunting challenger
a grueling struggle ensued
but when his opponent dropped his guard
the boy used his one move to pin his opponent
winning match and tournament.
On the way home, after some silence
the young champion asked his Master,
“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only 1 move?”
Sensei replied, “You won for two reasons:
first, you mastered one of the most difficult throws
in all of Judo,
and second, the only known defense for that move
is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”
There you have it,
a baptized equivalent of a Sheldon Cooper “bazinga”
the unexpected final twist that catches us off-guard
ambushes us with wisdom,
pulls the rug out from under our presumptions
and delivers a considerable dose of humility
to those who think they understand.
It’s called a parable!
Jesus was a master of the parable
his most characteristic form of instruction
on full display again in today’s gospel.
Like other teaching strategies
parables have multiple dynamics,
which is why they are so effective.
One obvious dynamic,
like in the right handed karate kid story
employing a move than can only be countered
by grabbing a missing left arm,
is the element of surprise
that knocks the listener off balance.
In the process the parable dismantles our presuppositions
disrupts our usual line of thinking
and proposes unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable
These dynamics are effective
because parables are the ultimate narrative onion
comprising increasingly complex layers
whose central message cannot be skimmed off the surface
but requires thoughtful excavation.
A superficial reading of today’s parable about wheat and weeds
could give the impression that God’s reign is binary-
black and white,
good and evil-
that there are only wheat and weeds:
saints and sinners,
Christians and non-Christians,
and Irish and those who want to be –
one is obviously good … the other is highly questionable.
We are wired for this instinctive and problematic kind of thinking:
a source of much humor and critique:
Like Mark Twain’s: “There are basically two types of people.
People who accomplish things
and people who claim to have accomplished things.
He concluded: “The first group is less crowded.”
Dear Abby suggested that the two kinds of people
are those who walk into a room and say, ‘There you are!’ and those who walk into a room and say, ‘Here I am!’
Humorous Robert Benchley summarizes:
“There are two kinds of people in the world,
those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world
and those who don’t.”
Jesus is clearly in the second category.
In his ministry he did not divide folk up
into redeemable and irredeemable,
worthy and unworthy,
or lovable and despicable.
Rather, his ministry was nothing less than an extended parable
that continuously scrambled traditional thinking,
upended well established categories,
and redefined the very reign of God.
That disruption is clearly operative in today’s parable
that in some ways raises more questions than answers.
From one perspective you could argue
that the agricultural advice Jesus is dispensing here is
‘don’t pull out the tares, the darnel, the lolium temultentum –
the weed that looks like wheat,
but is bitter to the taste and even poisonous.
Instead, a surface reading has Jesus saying “wait!
Hold on until harvest when we will savor the wheat
and torch that bothersome weed,
that weapon of the enemy. Justice will be served.”
But like every parable, things aren’t always what they seem.
Maybe the weed is the equivalent of the wheat’s left arm!
In the topsy-turvey Jesus program
maybe this isn’t the obvious “last judgment parable”
a warning to all evildoers that they are going to burn,
and instead a warning to Jesus’ followers
that we were not anointed to be weed hackers,
or field cops.
Instead, we were planted in God’s kingdom of diversity
and instructed to live in harmony
not to uproot each other, and instead
to share the soil with apparently invasive species,
even to embrace the crabgrass.
At base level, I think Jesus was a weed lover
While this interpretation might verge on the outlandish
it appears less so when considering how this tale of two seedlings
is deeply rooted in Matthew’s gospel:
- written in turbulent times,
- shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem
- when a growing Gentile population confronted his largely Jewish audience
- and his community was challenged by false prophets, internal tensions and sometimes outright conflict
- spiritual crabgrass was everywhere.
So is the Jesus program the divine equivalent of
a Scott’s lawn care program designed
to execute any Dandelion family
that dares to set foot in our community?
Or is it more like the prairie restoration programs
that increasingly grace our region,
revitalizing important native ecosystems
and serving as important sanctuaries
for migratory species, native plants,
and essential pollinators?
Let’s face the facts: the Chicago park district does not have
a weed eradication program
for the Burnham Wildlife Corridor
though plenty of movements and legislatures today
do have programs intent upon
excluding migratory peoples, and ignoring
the graced pollination only these strangers can bring.
Ironically, maybe in their eyes, we are the weeds
trying to choke them out of their own human dignity.
Suzanne Simard is a Canadian scientist and forest ecologist
who forever changed how people view trees,
their interconnection to each other and other living things.
Maybe you know her moving memoire, Finding the Mother Tree.
Born into a logging family in British Columbia
she began working for the public forest service
whose approach to sustainability
was clear-cutting large areas of the forest
and replanting a single, marketable species.
This approach was based on the notion of species competition
and the need to eliminate all competing plants or trees
in order to get the best, sustainable economic value.
Simard proved that this approach was counterproductive
that trees communicate through a complex web of fungi
that birch and fir were not competitors but collaborators,
that magnetic hubs or Mother trees at the center of forests
communicate, nourish, and protect their environment
and in their dying become even more generous
sharing their carbon nutrients
with whatever species was in need.
Somehow with my Latin squares and factorial designs, my isotopes and mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, and my training to consider only sharp lines of statistically significant differences, I have come full circle to stumble onto some of the Indigenous ideals: Diversity matters.
In his stunning exposé on Soviet labor camps
the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
in his The Gulag Archipelago, warned
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The Gulag Archipelago (Collins, 1974), 28.
Instead of destroying hearts,
weeding out differences,
or eradicating strangers like invasive species
the Jesus program for kingdom care offers a different path:
to share soil
learn to cross-pollinate
nourish the flowering of others
even to develop holy envy for their flourishing.
In a word, hearts are not to be destroyed but changed:
softened, opened, extended, and transformed
mirroring that Sacred Heart of the only begotten,
so vulnerable and accessible
that it was ultimately pierced on the cross,
dramatically splayed open
that all might be nurtured in its love.
And so with the poet we pray
change our hearts
change our hearts
change our hearts O Lord
through Christ our Lord. Amen.