Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mixed Motivations

(16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The Lord’s parable the weeds and the wheat is first of all a continuation of the parable of the sower which we heard last Sunday. You will recall that in that parable we had an image of God scattering the seeds of goodness and righteousness over the world. Some of these seeds of grace get into people’s hearts and bear the fruits of prayer and devotion, justice and charity, “a hundred, or sixty, or thirty-fold,” as the Lord says. Today’s parable, though, recognizes the fact that within this great harvest of righteousness and goodness that God is planting and tending in creation, there are also weeds: injustice, violence, hate, disregard for life, and every other kind of evil—and these seem to grow in the world as well. Just like weeds in a garden, they rob the good harvest of space and nutrients. So we have a fairly accurate picture of our world in this metaphor of the field or the garden, in which the good harvest of justice, righteousness, and love is in competition with the weeds of sin, violence, and injustice.

What is Jesus’ advice to us who find ourselves in this world of wheat and weeds? As he counsels his disciples, at the end of the age, when the harvest is complete, the good wheat will be harvested and the weeds burned. So in our world of conflict between good and evil we must have a stance of patient endurance, confident that in our final destiny the good will prevail and evil be destroyed.

To me, though, there’s a deeper level to the parable. For the wheat and the weeds aren’t just out there in the world; there’s also in here, in the heart and the mind of each of us. Each of our hearts is a mix of motivations and most things we do come from a complex mixture of good and evil intentions. Even the most beautiful things we human beings are capable of, loving another person for instance, are often partly made up of admixture of evil motives, like possessiveness or control, for example.

This is nowhere more true than in religion. What motivates us to be religious? What drives us to prayer? What makes us get up early on Sunday and drag ourselves here to church, while so many who blissfully ignore God are resting easy? Certainly it’s because we love God. God is infinitely adorable of course, by definition. We are also moved by our gratitude for the regeneration we have received in our rebirth through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Finally, we are here because we look forward in hope and anticipation to the joy and peace of the eternal life which is ours in Christ.

But we all know this isn’t the whole story of our religious motivations. There are imperfect motives for our religion, and even evil ones. For example, there’s a little bit of fear in the heart of every religious person who isn’t yet a saint. For me, it’s what drives me to say the Act of Contrition over and over on take-off and landing. Even though the Lord has assured us that he calls us friends rather than servants, there’s often a little bit of fear mixed in with our devotion and faithfulness to God. Or we might pray sometimes not because we love and are grateful to God, but because of what we think God can do for us; that’s the story behind the so-called ‘gospel of prosperity.’ Or, worst of all, we might be at least partly motivated in our religion because we like the idea of being a faithful and religious servant of God; we are enamored of ourselves and make an idol out of our own goodness.

Finding ourselves in this situation of mixed motives in our faith, we must not despair! True, our motives are so mixed that, as the Lord himself says in the parable, to uproot the weeds too fast might endanger the roots of the wheat as well. So let us be content with our situation of mixed motives, and let it teach us humility.

God promises in the parable today that, despite our mixed motives, he will harvest the good that is in us. This means that in this life God will use the good that is in us to bring his own goodness to others, and even to multiply it. In the end, God will harvest the good motives in us for eternal life. And when we leave this world, the brilliance of the vision of God will burn and clean away all of our impurities and sins and bad motivations. The wheat will be harvested and the weeds burned. To really see God, as we will after this life, is to love him perfectly, and everything in us that isn’t love will fall away. That, by the way, is what we call purgatory, and it’s something to look forward to.


Dymphna said...

Very hopeful post--thank you!

Edward Green said...

Thank-you. I preached the very same message from an Anglican perspective here:

Purgatory is a wonderful affirming and life giving doctrine.