“Where did these weeds come from?” (Matthew 13.27)
In today’s gospel Jesus talks about people: the majority of good people who bear fruit, but also of those who are evil. These are the weeds.
Now, first of all, let’s not understand this as being that people are simply born a particular way, they stay that way, they die that way. People are born weeds, they stay weeds and at God’s judgement, they’re cast into the fire.
As Catholics, we take the whole of Christ’s teaching, assume that it is consistent, and then reconcile those things that don’t seem to fit with the overarching themes of his preaching and teaching. And what we can safely assume here is that the reason that one person is, metaphorically speaking “wheat” while another is a “weed” is because of what seed has been planted in their minds, their souls; what ideas have hold of them. Get rid of the “weeds” and a person can return to being “wheat.”
Now as the parable tells us, the servants of the farmer, God, ask how it is that he sowed only good seed, but when they look at what has actually grown, they can see weeds, or tares, in amongst the wheat?
It is, as our Lord tells us, because others are sowing bad seed, and we need to be aware of this as Christians. Not everyone who says they are offering something good, are actually doing so, not every teacher teaches true wisdom, every leader leads us by the narrow road of righteousness, not every preacher preaches God’s Word. They all scatter seeds that if allowed to grow in us, can turn us from good wheat to weeds.
At our last home, B. and I kept gardens and there were small lawns front and back of the place. The property is adjacent to a big public park—the backyard is divided from it by a wooden fence; the front yard, there was one property between us and the park. Lots of nice greenspace, but there was a huge problem with weeds.
Cities have limited weed abatement programs because of the issues involved in using herbicides. Yet there are ways for keeping weeds down that minimize the use of chemicals.
And by the way, weeds are real. It’s not a matter of perspective— “it’s only a weed because I don’t want it in my garden.” A dandelion flowers, but it’s a weed because it overwhelms other plants. Creeping Charlie is invasive, and snakes through the yard, supplants grass turning a lawn into a mass of these tiny vines.
Living next to the park, I watched it transform into fields of yellow with dandelions, then see all those white puff balls forming in the thousands. Then, with a good gust of wind, all those seeds on their little white umbrellas were airborne, drifting over my home, dropping down and implanting everywhere. The Creeping Charlie would get under the fence.
It was a constant fight. For all of the decade we lived there, my summer evening routine was to spend an hour pulling weeds while mumbling the rosary!
It was through those hours that I began to see and understand my war with weeds in symbolic terms. For just as I was forever, it seemed, pulling up weeds in my garden; so too was I doing so in other parts of my life.
The noxious weeds of our popular culture are something that I have become all too aware of, and I see so many people “seeded” with horrible ideas through the entertainment industry, the news media, the schools and even their own families.
I mention families because I came to recognize that my own parents did little in the way of controlling what came into the home by way of the television, the newspaper and magazines (the old media). In part, they didn’t think about these things because they trusted them, even when what they were seeing and reading disturbed them or struck them as inappropriate, even wrong. They deferred to these “institutions” forgetting that they are commercial enterprises, departments of government, and so on, all run by human beings who aren’t necessarily spreading “good seed.”
I’ve mentioned before that I am a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication. I learned to be a reporter there; but as a teaching assistant on the academic side of the school, I was also taught to be critically aware of the problems of the media.
As a reporter I was taught some simple tricks for knowing what news was. Anybody guess how a reporter knows what news is?
Before you think too long on that, I’ll tell you what we were told to do: read the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Toronto Star and the Globe & Mail. Scan them everyday to pick up on what is trending, what the big ideas are, and then see if you can do something to match them locally. And why? Because these were the paragons of journalism. The major league, what we all aspired to. They set the standard.
However, on the academic side one learned the dirty secrets. One of the more notorious is how The New York Times has been, and continues to be highly ideological, and has a long history of covering up or making excuses for some of the most horrific and criminal governments in modern history. I learned about Walter Duranty, Pulitzer Prize winning Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times. In the early 1930s, he actively worked to prevent news of the government engineered Ukraine Famine that killed 10 million people getting out. Why did he do it? He was a convinced socialist who rationalized his actions by saying, “If you want make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs” Ten million or so, apparently. That was just one story, one bad seed.
If you follow the media, not as a source of information, but as an object of study, you will know that there has been a spate of resignations from leading publications because of the intolerant, politically correct environment. Only certain stories are told, and only from a certain perspective. Those who dissent from this are harshly criticized, attacked by their co-workers and their working lives made hellish. One such resignation has been very public, Bari Weiss. She has published her letter, and you can read it on the internet.
Similarly, in the world of entertainment, the programs we watch are written and produced by people who likely don’t share in the values of the gospel, who have a very different vision of what paradise is.
If you’re older, you might have wondered, “why don’t they make shows like Green Acres or The Beverly Hillbillies anymore?”
It’s because of a deliberate decision taken in 1969 by new leadership in the U.S. television industry. They dumped popular programs in favour of producing “relevant,” “hard-hitting” and “adult” programs. Watch any of the sitcoms like Maude from that era, and it’s hard to miss the hammering away at the audience with messages that were really quite revolutionary.
Now the defense of this has been that shows like All in the Family and MASH forced us all to address problems such as racism, sexism and war; but they were all discussed from a very particular perspective. Unwanted pregnancy was shown as solved by abortion, for example. Wars were all bad, which in one sense is quite true, but it is simplistic to say that we should never go to war in defense of the good. Racism? Well, we can see how well five decades of programming has helped.
Over the course of time, scheduling conventions that kept adult programs in the later hours disappeared, and sit-coms like Friends are watched by elementary school children after school. They then learn that dating leads to sex quickly, and if it doesn’t, then you’re really not meant for each other. Casual drug use is shown on That 70’s Show running on several channels at all hours. Nowadays the whole family sits down together (or each apart on their own device) to watch programs that feature graphic violence and sexuality in a way that would not have been contemplated even ten years ago.
This stuff isn’t good for any of us. It’s particular damaging to the young.
And no, this isn’t about old cartoons leading children to believe that violence is harmless, that you can drop an anvil on Wiley Coyote and aside from seeing stars he is fine by the next scene. It’s the ideas inherent in what is shown and those explicitly expressed that are troubling. Realistic violent killing that is becoming more common in today’s programming is often absent signs of remorse and the real psychological trauma that one suffers—this misrepresents reality while being compellingly realistic. That in both comedy and drama sex is something that is used, whether as a means of cementing a new adult relationship or as mere recreation, without any indication that this damages men and women. It is a lie that guides most of us in terms of what is acceptable behaviour.
The question is raised, do these shows and other cultural productions reflect reality, or shape it? It’s a complicated process, but it’s fair to say that we are caught in a cycle of reinforcing trends in our collective behaviour and the information and entertainment we consume.
However, for all this, we know that Christ still haunts the cultural landscape; when programs cross a “line,” we know they’ve transgressed because somewhere in the minds and hearts of the writers and producers, in the souls of those who watch, read, listen, somewhere there is the half-remembered gospel.
The seeds were planted long ago; but the field has not been properly tended. Insofar as we see people consciously persisting in their Catholic faith, it might be a matter of “self-seeding” from within faithful families and among those who by grace have heard God’s voice and responded.
Jesus tells us that the weeds are destined to be burned in the fire. We can understand this in two ways.
One, that among us, in the fields of the Lord’s planting are malevolent forces, people who consciously reject the gospel and are trying to choke it out, lead us into their vision of paradise by expressing themselves in terms that are very appealing to Christians—“peace,” “love,” “brotherhood,” “compassion,” and the like—they hold the idea that humanity can win some kind of secular salvation by manipulating the social and cultural environment. These movements are counterfeits of Christianity; they have an emotional appeal for many because they echo parts of the gospel.
But those weeds are also in us, growing up next to what has come from the good seed. Compassion sprouts in us, but so does selfishness; mindfulness flowers, but winding its way around its stem is strangling rationalization, born of the pop psychology of so many advice-dispensing talk shows. That psychology has no room for the concept of sin, and tells us that we are “OK” as we are.
The fields are filling with weeds, is a sign. Now it was bound to happen. Jesus tells us as much. And as his parable explains, the full consequence of the weeds in the field will not be seen until it is long past our ability to do anything about it. We must act now, and plant good seed; and come to know a weed when we see it.
One simple strategy for keeping a weed-free lawn is to plant good seed and to fertilize it. The grass grows strong, with deep roots and the weeds are are forced out. That’s got to be our job as keepers of this garden that is our parish, as field hands at work in the fields of the Lord: plant, nourish, pluck up weeds as we are able, but trust that God will look after the rest. In the harvest, the weeds will go to the fire, those that persist in us and that we struggle against, God will remove, purge from our hearts with fire of His love. So, let’s get planting, the harvest will then be great. Amen.
A story on the recent film Mr. Jones that tells the story of the cover up of the Ukraine famine by leading members of the Western press.
New York Times writer Bari Weiss’ letter of resignation from the Times.