Parable of the Wheat and Tares – The Church as a Hospital for Sinners

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The parable of the wheat and the tares or weeds is Jesus’ response to those who want to cleanse the Christian community of the impure and imperfect.  The Church, in this world, is more a hospital for sinners than a club for saints.  To LISTEN to this post read by Dr. Italy, click on the play arrow on the left, directly below this paragraph. .

At one time or another, we’ve all dreamed of a perfect world. Imagine a company where everyone is productive, a government full of honest politicians, a church where all are saints.

A Church of the Perfect?

Dreaming about such things is natural; expecting such things is dangerous. Unrealistic expectations lead to discouragement, despair, even cynicism. That would be bad enough. But the expectation that the Church is only for the holy has led people to embark on some very misguided projects throughout history.

Consider those who burned witches and heretics to cleanse the church of evil. Or the Puritans who were so appalled by ecclesiastical corruption that they planted a purified Church of the saints in a new land, legislating piety and subjecting the lapsed to public humiliation.

Parable of Wheat & Tares – Church, a Hospital for Sinners

Jesus’ own example should have prevented these errors. First of all, Jesus himself was criticized by the Pharisees for dining with the unclean. He accepted tax collectors and sinners as disciples. He knew the flaws in Peter, Judas, and the others, but he chose them anyway. And just in case his own actions weren’t enough to get his point across, he told the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24ff).

All this is not to say that Jesus was soft on sin. He commanded the adulteress to go and sin no more and sharply rebuked the apostles numerous times for their pitiful lack of faith. But he did not dismiss them after their numerous blunders. He had come for the sick, not the healthy. His church was to be a hospital for sinners, not a club just for saints.

Of course a hospital exists not to keep people sick, but get them well. If patients want to be admitted, they must be willing to accept treatment, occasionally even severe treatment. Harsh medicines must be used to fight deadly diseases such as cancer. Other times cancerous organs even need to be cut out. Electric shock therapy has even been employed to bring people out of depression.

Excommunication & Communion

This brings up an objection that has caused heated debate in recent years. If the Church is meant to be inclusive as the parable of the wheat and tares suggests, then why do we still have the penalty of excommunication on the books? Why do some clamor that Catholic politicians who support legal abortion should be denied holy communion? Isn’t this just a mean-spirited sort of Puritanism?

Not in the least. Withholding communion is done for two reasons. One is that the reception of Holy Communion means not only that one wants personally to receive the Eucharistic body of Christ, but that one is in full, visible communion with the ecclesial body of Christ, which is the Church.  That means fully accepting the Church’s teaching and submitting to the authority of its pastors.

To receive communion while living in a state of grave sin or brazen dissent from church teaching causes tremendous confusion. It could mislead observers into concluding that the sin or error in question is not so serious after all and induce them to also indulge in it. Secondly, it could also lead the communicant to the same conclusion–that his or her actions or opinions really are acceptable and fall within the boundaries of what is spiritually healthy.

Separating Tares, Uprooting Weeds

Excommunication is not snotty Puritanism. When employed, it is intended as a form of shock therapy. The patient is delusional and needs to be woken up to reality before it is too late. If we don’t act to bring the patient back to his senses, he will likely do himself in and perhaps even take others with him.

When to employ such therapy is a matter for Pope and bishops to decide. Our responsibility is not to worry about how to separate the evil tares from the wheat of the church, but how to uproot the weeds of wickedness from the field of our own hearts. That task is big enough!

For even more on the Eucharist, visit the EUCHARIST LIBRARY of the Crossroads Initiative.

This post on the parable of the wheat and the tares or weeds focuses on the church as a hospital for imperfect sinners.  It also addresses the role of discipline, withholding communion, even excommunication.  It is a reflection upon the readings for the sixteenth (16th) Sunday in Ordinary Time, liturgical cycle A (Wisdom 12:13, 16-19 Psalm 86, Romans 8:26-7; Matthew 13:24-43). 

Banner/featured image by Lugdivine Borello on Scopio. Used with permission.

  • Joyful Dad
    Posted at 23:09h, 20 July

    Thank you Dr. D’Ambrosio. You always break open the Word in ways that make sense to me. I have a question on this and hope you can provide some feedback.
    I totally understand the need not to ever minimize sin and excuse it in such a way that it becomes one more “acceptable” behavior, diluting right from wrong.
    Also, I believe in an immeasurably merciful God as well as in the power of the Eucharist to heal and to strengthen. So I question withholding Eucharist from anyone who comes to receive it. As a Eucharistic Minister, I cannot know what is in anyone’s heart; judgement, or more accurately, condemnation, is not for me to do. I think that as all of us are sinners, all of us need God’s mercy, all the time. Receiving the Eucharist brings with it grace and I hope and pray that it will have the effect of healing a sinner and turning their heart towards receiving reconciliation…and I worry that people who do not feel welcome to come up at Communion will, sadly, walk away from the Church. I do not want the really sick among us to run from the only hospital that can heal them.
    Is this an unreasonable idea?
    Thank you!

  • Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 14:30h, 21 July

    Great question! I don’t think it is the place for an extraordinary minister of communion to deny communion to those who come forward to receive it. If you think a person is living in a state of public manifest sin, I think it best to speak to the pastor about it and ask for director. If I were the pastor, I’d set up an appointment with the person to discuss the situation privately. St. Paul makes clear that receiving the Eucharist unworthily is not only inappropriate but dangerous (see I Cor 11). But a pastor needs to handle this discussion sensitively, speaking the truth in love and sensitivity. There can be no wooden rules here — conscience and the virtue of prudence must be our guides in specific cases.

  • Maureen
    Posted at 11:44h, 07 August

    What about non-catholics attending a funeral Mass? I guess I have a hard time accepting the part of this that comes after but: (Withholding communion is done for two reasons. One is that the reception of Holy Communion means not only that one wants personally to receive the Eucharistic body of Christ, but that one is in full, visible communion with the ecclesial body of Christ, which is the Church, fully accepting its teaching and submitting to the authority of its pastors). At my son Mike’s Mass, the pastor said “If you are not Catholic, you can not receive Communion.” without any explanation. Then he said, “And if you are Catholic but do not attend Mass every Sunday, you also can not receive Communion.” My older son was bewildered. He unexpectedly had to work the previous Sunday. I told him I didn’t know what the Priest was getting to but knowing my son, I told him to go head. Friends of my son Michael came to the service because Mike was much loved. His finance’s grandmother said she never felt so unwelcome. A one minute explanation could have prevented that.
    Back to: “fully accepting its teaching and submitting to the authority of its pastors.” Why. I sort of wonder if all Catholics do that. Elsewhere, you state, “In the early Church, there was a lot of debate about whether Christians could eat certain things, particularly meat sacrificed to pagan idols. Paul’s response was clear: “The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). If he were speaking today, he might instead say that the Kingdom is not a matter of Latin or the vernacular, novenas or prayer meetings, organ or guitar music.” That seems (to me) to contradict the former.

  • Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 18:31h, 16 August

    Maureen, regarding how to handle communion at a funeral or wedding when a large number of non-Catholics are in attendance, I would suggest to the priest that he word it a bit differently and more positively – Those who are Catholic and properly prepared are invited to come forward for communion. Those either not Catholic or not properly prepared are invited to come forward for a special blessing. Just cross your hands over your chest to signal that you’d like a blessing.
    Paul, in Ro 14:17, is speaking about common food, especially meat, bought in the marketplace that may possibly been offered to idols. He is NOT speaking of the Eucharist. In I Cor 10:14 to 11:34 you can see how strong Paul is about not partaking of the Eucharist unworthily. He basically says that when you do this, you drink condemnation upon yourself. Yes there are lots of folks who commonly partake of the Eucharist regularly in America who dissent from important teachings on faith and morals and are involved in lifestyles that involve, at least objectively, grave sin. Let’s pray for them and for wisdom for our pastors in leading them. And let’s do our best to approach the table properly prepared, and encourage those in our families and under our influence, to do the same.

  • Joseph JJ Visci
    Posted at 21:39h, 26 July

    Great topic, great article! It called to mind that St. Augustine addressed the issue of Christians carrying out secular duties in his writings. Once in particular when Apringius, an imperial judge and Christian, was about to dispense the death penalty upon two Donatist who had killed one Catholic priest and maimed another. Augustine recognized Apringius’ secular duty to carry out secular law that required punishment as a deterrent. Augustine instructed, in part, “We see in you a governor of exalted power, but we also recognize you as a son with a Christian idea of duty.”…. “Share, then, our fear of the judgment of God the Father, and show forth the mildness of our Mother Church. For when you act, the Church acts, for whose sake and as whose son. you act. Strive to outdo the wicked in goodness.” … ” Lengthen the years for these living enemies of the Church that they may repent.” Letter 134 to Apringius

    Mindful of the balancing act Christians face when carrying out secular responsibilities, Augustine doesn’t direct Apringius. He reminds Apringius that Apringius doesn’t stop being a Christian when puts on his judge’s robes, his actions as judge reflect on the church, and he should carry out his civil duty with a Christian mindset / intention of rehabilitation and compassion rather than vengeance or even justice. Though pushing Apringius and seeking to develop his conscience, Augustine leaves the decision to Apringius’ conscience.

    Dr. D’Ambrosio so eloquently states “those who receive communion while living in a state of grave sin or brazen dissent from church teaching causes tremendous confusion…[that] the sin or error in question is not so serious after all and induce them to also indulge in it. Secondly, it could also lead the communicant to the same conclusion….”. I could not agree more.

    Promising to increase abortion rights as part of a campaign platform does appear to be brazen dissent; calling it women’s health does mislead others, and threatening to stack the court does appear to be a manipulation of secular duty in furtherance of that brazen dissent. Such actions deviate radically form the standard of St. Augustine and seem to call for the remedy chosen by St. Ambrose’s when the Emperor Theodosius who rashly massacred a town in response to a riot….

    But I also agree with Dr. D’Ambrosio’s gentle well placed reminder look out for the plank in our own eye and be an example for others and leave it to our bishops who sit in authority as they handle high profile matters. I believe to do otherwise puts us on a slippery slope that can lead to our judging another – a role reserved to Our Lord. Thank you Dr. Italy!

    (Question: Is Augustine’s standard the standard the Church applies? What is the basis for the Church standard? Is it the thinking in this letter along with other writings of Augustine and others, or something else?)

  • Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Posted at 23:26h, 26 July

    Augustine does not absolutely command Apringius, but counsels him not to sentence the offenders to death. I think this illustrates the current position of the Magisterium on the application of the death penalty.

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