16th Sunday of the Year: The Kindness of God
Today’s watchword in the readings from Scripture, in case you might have missed it, is “kindness,” a commodity in seeming short supply in these Covid-critical
days. But there also stunning evidence that kindness is still among us and may yet hold the day. The amazing degree of kindness people have shown in this crisis is reassuring. It is so much more than waiting impatiently for the pubs to reopen or simply wearing a face mask in public.
The week began and ended with the death of two giant figures. In England, Jack Charlton, the English coach who transformed the Irish football (read: soccer) team into a formidable squad and eventually a world championship, died on July 10th, greatly beloved on both sides of the Irish Sea. On July 17th, John Lewis, the long-time Georgia Congressman and civil rights champion died at the age of 80 of pancreatic cancer.
What struck me in the many salutes that followed on the passing of these great examples of humanity and courage was how often the word “kindness” appeared in stories shared by those who knew them best. Neither was a wuss, for sure, and it seems evident that true kindness reveals itself at its finest when shown by the powerful. What we hear in today’s readings is that such kindness stretched to divinity is where it manifests its true character.
“Kindness” (epieikeia) and its equivalent expressions appear over half-a-dozen times in the readings, most often linked the terms for justice or “righteousness.” The point is always the same: lenience or forbearance is a sign not of weakness but of divine power and strength.
This is brought forward cleverly in Jesus’ parable about the good seed and the “zizania” or “darnel,” a weed that a man’s enemy sows in his field just after the wheat was planted. The early form of this parable is about the word of God, but it was later extended to include enemies of the faith. And as with the parable of the mustard seed, it would have been obvious to Jesus’ listeners that he was no farmer, or, more likely that he reversed the standard logic to make his point. (He wasn’t much of a fisherman, either.)
Farmers and gardeners would also have known that the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds nor does it grow into a ‘dendron,’ a tree so large that birds build nests in its branches. Jesus is obviously having a bit of fun with the Semitic tendency to hyperbole and exaggeration. But he would surely have grabbed their attention. The same is true with the parable of the wheat and the darnel or “tares.” (It’s all zinania, by the way, a pernicious weed that closely resembles wheat when it matures.)
Years ago, I spent a week researching agricultural practice in the Middle East at the time of Jesus to do some fact-checking. It was for a university sermon for today’s liturgy, in fact. What I learned made me realize even more that Jesus was not only a master story-teller but had a developed sense of humor.
Best practice demanded that as soon as the zizania sprouts, it must be plucked up, because that is the only time in which it can be clearly differentiated from sprouting wheat. If the farmer waits, the entire crop will be ruined. It would take a truly angelic intellect to sort them out at harvest time.
But, Jesus is telling us again, things are different with God, just the opposite of what passes for human wisdom. Whether zizania or rascals and real sinners are found among the just is not a matter for our primary concern. Clearly, we can’t eliminate all crime, meanness, and selfishness in the world. But the rest of the parable is important: God’s justice will prevail. Our job is to increase the kindness in the world, to eliminate crime, greed, and corruption more by our example than by force. Just doing the right thing.
This is a lesson that is difficult for many to hear. And to be sure, allowing evil to run amok in the fields of the Lord when we can prevent it is irresponsible. But waiting for heroes like Jack Charlton and John Lewis to save us is also foolish. We are called to imitate them, not idolize them — to dream impossible dreams and tell truth to power, as the sayings go. Ultimately, God’s justice and kindness will prevail. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson said it best,
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” (“Notes of the State of Virginia,” Query 18, 1781. Cited by Abraham Lincoln.)