July 17, 2011
The Fourth Sunday after TrinityCharlie Bucket and Veruca Salt. A good seed and a bad weed. Charlie’s honest, kind, brave and true. Veruca is a spoiled-rotten brat.
Both get a chance to enter the mysterious chocolate factory of Willy Wonka, a place that has been sealed up tight and closed to the public for a decade. Charlie and Veruca have found Golden Tickets in their Wonka chocolate bars. Charlie’s ticket was in a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, to be exact; and because of this they get to go on a tour of the chocolate factory, along with three other lucky children.
Their tour guide is none other than the reclusive and eccentric Willy Wonka himself, a part played by Johnny Depp in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When the children walk through the factory doors, they enter an amazing world known only to Willy and his staff of Oompa-Loompas.
The tour is a dream come true for Charlie, a child born into poverty, but it turns into a nightmare for the other members of the group. Willy Wonka is beset with problems: There’s Augustus Gloop, whose hobby is eating; Violet Beauregarde, a dim-witted gum chewer; and Mike Teavee, a gangster-wannabe who is obsessed with television.
As for Veruca Salt, let’s just say that Willy is not amused when she demands of her father, “Daddy, I want a boat like this! ... And I want lots of Oompa-Loompas to row me about, and I want a chocolate river and I want ... I want ...”
Now it wouldn’t be right to give away the secrets of the chocolate factory, but suffice it to say that a number of the children get in trouble when they disobey Willy’s orders. One by one, the nasty are punished and the good are rewarded, in some spectacular and disturbing ways.
That’s what we love about this flick: The good kids get rewarded, and the bad kids get what’s coming to them. It’s a replay of primal, dualistic, good vs. evil, light vs. dark, and in the end goodness and light triumph.
And we love this because in real life, it doesn’t always work this way. The psalmist paints a far more accurate picture when he complains about the wicked prospering while the righteous suffer. For the Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk, it was a faith-threatening reality: “The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4).
So we love it when the wicked are punished, when the unrighteous are mowed down, when the weeds are uprooted in the garden. It may not seem like a very Christian sort of thought, but let’s be honest, as humans we think these thoughts, even if we aren’t suppose to.
This is the subject of the text. Here Jesus seems to be acting an awful lot like Willy Wonka. He tells the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and concludes his story with the command to “collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn”.
But there is more to this parable than its crisp and clear conclusion about judgment day, when the evildoers of this world will burn and the righteous will “shine like the sun”. While we certainly have to take seriously this prediction of God’s final judgment, we also need to listen to what Jesus says about the danger of making judgments of our own along the way.
Here’s the point: Leave the weeds to me, says Jesus. You just worry about growing up as wheat.
This is counter intuitive but important advice because we live in a gnashing-of-teeth culture of shouting and name-calling. One person’s weed is another person’s flower.
And it’s not just in the world. The church has caught this infection as well. Christians, right and left, are strutting around these days in the garments of self-righteousness suggesting that those who disagree with them are the weeds in the garden of life, while they themselves are the beauty and flower of the garden.
It’s a rush-to-judgment world we live in. Some are judged harshly for being too radical, others for not being radical enough. Some are judged for embracing doctrinal errors, others for appearing not to have any doctrine at all. Some are condemned for not caring for the poor, others for caring only for the poor. And so it goes.
No wonder, then, that Jesus counsels us to hold off on the weed-pulling “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them”.
The parable goes like this: a householder sows good seed in his field, and then an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat. It’s a nasty little case of agricultural terrorism.
When the plants come up and bear grain, the weeds appear as well. And the slaves of the householder come to him and say, “Master, we’ve got a problem. Weeds among the wheat. Do you want us to go out and pull up the weeds?”
This seems like a logical response, but the householder gives them a very different command. “No,” he says; “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest”. The master senses that a full-scale attack on the weeds would disturb and possibly even destroy the good wheat, so he instructs his slaves to do nothing about the bad seeds now. At harvest time the householder plans to tell the reapers, “Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn”.
Jesus takes a totally non-Wonkish approach to rooting out evil. Whereas Willy doesn’t bat an eye as Augustus plunges into a chocolate river, Violet turns into a blueberry, Mike disappears into a transporter beam, and Veruca slides down a garbage chute into a furnace, Jesus is committed to preserving the weeds until the wheat is fully developed. He doesn’t have any desire to rush to judgment, preferring instead for nature to take its course.
The point of this parable is not that Jesus is going to go easy on the weeds. No, he fully intends to put evildoers into the furnace of fire, as it were, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
What Jesus is trying to teach us is to leave the judgments to him. He knows that we are consistently off the mark when we try to make an accurate assessment of the moral character of a friend or a neighbor, and so he orders us to put our energy elsewhere.
Here’s an example: A seminar leader recently showed a class of government workers a series of pictures. The pictures began with a view of a person’s face, and then broadened the view to reveal the person’s entire body. It was only when the entire picture was seen that the class could make anything approaching an accurate judgment.
The first picture showed the face of a grizzled man, scowling and straining. He looked to be a member of a motorcycle gang, perhaps gripping the handlebar of a chopper. But when the entire picture was revealed, it became clear that he was a maker of customized wheelchairs for the handicapped, and he was pushing one of his creations.
Picture two showed the face of a lovely woman with a beautiful smile. She appeared to be a flight attendant or a hostess at an upscale restaurant. But when the view was expanded, what the class saw was an exotic dancer, ready to do a pole dance.
We don’t have the whole picture, says Jesus. We too often judge the book by the cover. We should be honest; we all fall into this trap now and again.
The challenge for us is to put our energy into being good wheat, instead of trashing the weeds around us. Rather than erecting walls, building boundaries and trying to purify our community of faith, our job is to grow up healthy and strong, and leave the judging to Jesus. The problem with trying to pull up weeds is that we might grab some wheat by mistake, and hurt ourselves and others who are part of the good-seed set.
Forty years ago some Christians condemned Martin Luther King as a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker. Some Christians denounced Dorothy Day because she did some writing for a socialist newspaper, and missed her great Christian work on behalf of the poor. Some call U2 singer, Bono, an airheaded, irreverent rock star, and he may be for all I know, but we would do well to not fail to heed his call to respond to the AIDS emergency in Africa.
Don’t rush to judgment, says Jesus. Let the weeds grow up with the wheat. It will get sorted out in the end.
The best news is that growth and maturity are probably the most effective forms of weed control. If you are responsible for taking care of a lawn, you know that healthy grass is extremely competitive and will crowd out most weeds all by itself. If your lawn is healthy, you shouldn’t have to dig out many weeds at all; in fact, the presence of weeds is a sign that your grass is weaker than it should be. If you find yourself dealing with weeds, one of the best things to do is simply let your grass grow. Don’t cut it so short.
In the end, it’s enough to know that we are “seeds” who have been planted by the “Son of Man,” and that we’re part of a healthy harvest that will someday be reaped by the angels of God.
We don’t really want a Willy Wonka in the church. It would be enough to be like Charlie Bucket, a kid who was kind, brave and true.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.