In the beginning

Column: Final ‘sorting’ a favorite theme of Matthew

by Fr. Mike Stubbs

In 1209, the Crusaders were waging a war against the Cathars in southern France. When the Crusaders captured the city of Beziers, they faced a dilemma. Amid a crowd of about 7,000 people were hiding 20 important Cathars. But how could the Crusaders separate them from the crowd?

“Kill them all,” suggested Armand Amaury, one of the leaders of the Crusaders. “God will sort them out.”

Perhaps he was thinking about the first parable in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 13:24-43. Often called the parable of the tares, it tells about a crop sabotaged by an enemy who planted weeds (tares) among the wheat. When the owner of the farm is asked by the workers if they should pull out the weeds, he answers that they should allow the weeds and the wheat to continue to grow together until harvest. Only then can they be safely separated.

The Gospel later provides an interpretation that explains that the wheat and the weeds stand for the good and the bad who live together in the world. At the end of time, God will judge them and sort out the good from the bad. “God will sort them out.”

Despite Amaury’s suggestion, this parable does not encourage us to force God’s judgment. Rather, the parable explores the mystery of how good and evil coexist in the world in this present age.

At the same time, the parable maintains that God’s justice will eventually triumph. Through faith in God, we trust that this will happen.

The coexistence of good and evil in this present age, with the triumph of God’s justice in the age to come, appears as a favorite theme in Matthew’s Gospel. That theme reappears in another parable at the end of the chapter, which we will hear in the following Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 13:44-52, the parable of the net. Once again, the parable points to an eventual sorting out of the good from the bad: “Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

These two parables of Matthew, the parable of the tares and the parable of the net, fittingly anticipate that impressive scene toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Christ the king judges the human race (Mt 25:31-46). Although it is not a parable as such, it shares in the imagery of parables when it compares the good to sheep, and the bad to goats. It shows us that final sorting that the two parables only hint at.

It is significant that these two parables — that of the tares and the one of the net — and the scene of the last judgment, are found uniquely in Matthew’s Gospel. The other two parables in Sunday’s Gospel reading, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast, both have parallels in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.

But only Matthew provides us with these parables, which point to a final sorting out of the good from the bad. After all, it is a favorite theme of his.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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