HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for the SIXTH SUNDAY after TRINITY (A) 2017
During the week just past, my thoughts for various reasons have turned to the area of computing. I guess that – like most of us – I use a computer almost every day of my life now, without giving too much thought as to how the thing works, what makes it ‘tick’ – or not as the case may be!
Most of our digital computers work through a collection of bits which may only be in one of two possible states – represented by a zero or a one. The so-called binary computing model. Information has to be translated into these bits, and therein is the immediate limitation – despite the speed and complexity of many of our modern computers.
However, a much more sophisticated system called quantum computing may be the future of computing. It came into prominence in this last week’s news because of its ability to help us understand and treat the diseases of dementia and Alzheimer. Instead of bits, this system uses qubits (spelt differently to the cubit of biblical measurement) and it is able to mirror much more complex systems than the previous binary system. Including an ability to live with contradiction or even to behave as if in two places at once – and this extraordinary, though as yet largely hypothetical ability, indicates to us how close we may be heading towards meaningful artificial intelligence. A computer that has an ability to at least mirror certain human thought patterns – and at the very least will help us to understand rather better the complexity of the human brain. As to how it may do this – well you’ll still have to ask someone else as it involves quantum physics!
The interesting point about this potential development is really to illustrate a parallel between two different ways of thinking. Something that comes across to us in today’s Gospel reading.
So often these days we find human thinking has been reduced to something akin to the binary system of computing. Black or white. You’re one of us, or one of them. Good or bad. Worthy or unworthy. And this simplistic way of thinking has been capitalised upon by the populist politicians. Simplistic black or white answers to complex issues. That is very much the binary way of thinking.
But the quantum method allows for complexity – allows a view of things where there can be inconsistencies and even contradictions, where the solution is found not in a single place alone.
Let’s look at today’s Gospel parable. And I warn you now that I am going to be a bit controversial here. Because I don’t think that the interpretation of the parable of the wheat and tares that we heard from Jesus in the Gospel was an interpretation given on the lips of Jesus at all. A good number of scholars agree that the vocabulary used in the interpretation is so different from that of the parable that the interpretation is the work of the evangelist Matthew. I would also say that as soon as I see the words weeping and gnashing of teeth I suspect that this is Matthew writing. It is his favourite phrase. I cannot believe it was one of Jesus’ favourite phrases, though of course I could be wrong.
It’s very interesting, though, to note that from what we know of the method of the parable and Jesus’ distinctive use of it, interpretations are just not given. The parable is to suggest ideas, to help us form thoughts, to open our eyes. And not least to open our eyes to the complexity of situations that lie before us, to encourage lateral thinking. To help us see that there are more ways to view things than in terms of black and white. Maybe the quantum versus the binary is a useful parallel here.
Jesus presents us with what must have been a common enough kind of agricultural situation. I gather that, even today in living memory in that part of the world this situation has arisen. A field of wheat has been grossly corrupted with darnel, a poisonous weed Lolium temulentum which in early stages of growth is indistinguishable from bearded wheat, and botanically closely related. Of
course the servants suggest that the darnel should be weeded out. That was the normal procedure. But there is so much of it – and the owner suggests a different strategy. Let the wheat and the darnel grow together, because pulling up the darnel will almost certainly result in an even lower yield of wheat. Then, at harvest time, separate the two.
And now comes the sting in the tail of the parable – which is missed by Matthew’s binary thinking.
Both the wheat and the darnel will be useful. Darnel was gathered, dried and used as fuel – not an inconsiderable asset in a country without much forestry.
Unfortunately, Matthew has a much more black and white interpretation. The wheat is good the darnel is bad. And the suggestion is that at the judgement, the fruit-bearing individuals join the kingdom of heaven, and the poisonous weeds go into the fires of hell. Not a picture that sits easily with a God who judges with mercy and love.
The parable is about a number of things. Certainly it is about judgement. But it is about the kind of judgement that Christ makes. First, it is patient judgement. Time is given – nothing should be done hastily. And then it is judgement with mercy. Seeing how a situation which on the surface looks disastrous can actually yield unexpectedly positive results.
We know from the Gospel records how notoriously difficult it was to truly listen and understand what Jesus was saying. Time and again, even those closest to him got it wrong, or heard what they wanted to hear. So it shouldn’t surprise us that Matthew, faced with writing for the early Church community that he knew well, should put his own gloss on these particular words of Jesus. It’s easy to take that route – we see it every day in the 21st century just as it was in the 1st! Complex problems – our populist friends tell us – have simple solutions, whether it is kicking out illegal immigrants, leaving a larger European Union and going it alone, or whatever.
The reality is that life is too complex for simplistic solutions. In his teaching through parables, particularly this one of the wheat and tares, Jesus addresses this and encourages us to do some lateral thinking.
Incidentally, S. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th and 5th centuries, had recourse to this parable in dealing with the heresy of the Donatists. They believed that there should be such a thing as a ‘pure’ Church which kicked out everyone who failed to make the mark of holiness (defined of course by the heretics in a particular way). Augustine pointed to this parable as a reminder that all have place within the Church, and all will face judgement by Christ at the end of time – not before!
And thankfully for us, the judgement we face is that made by a most merciful judge – Christ our Lord. One who shows us how to see things not in black-and-white but in the most vivid of technicolours. Every human life knows the reality of evil just as it knows the power of good. That is part of the human condition. And, with God’s grace, that mixed-bag humanity can become something both beautiful and useful in the service of God’s reign.
No matter how unpromising it may seem on the surface just now.