The trickiest dysfunctions in the history of the Church have come from individuals and groups seeking to be purer and more perfect than their ordinary, mediocre neighbours. Ronald Knox wrote about many of these movements in his great book Enthusiasm. Look at where enthusiasm has often led people, he concludes. On the other hand, where would Christianity be if, from time to time, there was not some enthusiasm for it.
Today’s first reading records a moment when the children of Israel were, once again, enthusiastic about belonging to the covenant. ‘All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do’, they say. How likely is it that they will be so perfect, heeding and doing all that the Lord has said? We do not have to read very much further in the Bible to see how difficult – practically impossible – it was for them to abide by their commitment. Rather than a record of perfect observance, the history of the people is a record of repeated failure and frequent renewal of the covenant.
The gospel reading is, then, more realistic about the moral and spiritual condition of God’s people. ‘Shall we make the place perfect?’ the slaves ask their master when they find weeds sown among the wheat. Why not root out all corruption, all badness, and all sin? We need a radical reform, a root and branch renewal. We need to cut ourselves off from anything connected with the weeds if we are to have a perfect crop growing perfectly.
But the farmer is prudent and experienced, and he understands the nature with which he is dealing. Let weeds and wheat grow together, he says, lest in rooting out the bad you uproot the good as well. When the time comes for the harvest, then we can safely separate the wheat and the weeds.
It is the Son who has established a new and everlasting covenant. He alone, we believe, is perfectly obedient. The first reading provides much of the imagery and vocabulary Jesus uses when he speaks at the Last Supper about his sacrifice: ‘this chalice is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you and for the multitude for the forgiveness of sins’. Moses’ act of sprinkling the altar and the people with the sacrificial blood is a type of Jesus’ sacrifice, shedding his blood on the cross for our salvation.
The cross is the judgement of God on the field of this world. It is the sword that divides wheat and weeds, reaching even into our hearts where the roots of both have become entangled. The redeeming blood of the Saviour dissolves that entanglement, drawing a line between good and evil, strengthening us in the one and rescuing us from the other. We believe that this process is underway in us but that we still need to be prudent with the Master’s own prudence lest in seeking to root out evil we tear up good as well. Then the last state of that ‘perfect’ soul would be worse than the first.