The first time I read this morning's Gospel in Latin, I was taken by the appearance of the Latin word for "weeds" which is "zizania." The "z"s just somehow evoked a mental picture of crooked and misshapen plants growing in the midst of the farmer's wheat crop. Of course, sometimes, even weeds can be rather pretty -- but there is still a certain crookedness to them when they appear in the garden you are trying to cultivate, and have spent so much time on.
But our Lord was not giving the crowds an agricultural lesson -- it seems pretty clear that He was explaining why God does not interfere with or put a stop to the evil in the world. Were He to do so, He would be like a hasty farmer, digging up and spoiling as much of his good crop as of the weeds he is trying to eliminate. Instead, God allows things to proceed in the world according to the laws of nature, interfering only at the end, when it is time to reward the good and punish the evil. Only at the time of judgement does God figuratively bind the weeds into bundles to be burned, and gather the wheat into His storage barn.
There are a few different things in the world that our language refers to as "evil." They are not exactly the same, just as all weeds are not alike.
First we can speak of "moral evil," the positive refusal of a person with adequate intellect and free will to conduct himself according to the unchanging moral law of God. For short, we might just think of one who violates the Commandments. And it is often convenient to think of the Commandments as being divided into "the two tablets" of the law -- that is supposed to evoke the memory of Moses coming down from mount Sinai with the Commandments written on two stone tablets. The first three Commandments are said to be on the first tablet, the remaining seven on the other. It is reasonable to say that the greatest moral evils are those sins on the first tablet -- sins where a free willed creature refuses the honor due to his Creator. The first sins ever committed fall into this category -- the fallen angels who thought they were too beautiful and too important to serve God, and the fallen man and woman who thought that by disobeying God they would become like gods themselves -- "I will not serve!"
On the second tablet of the law we find the various sins against our fellow men and women -- those evils which diminish human society and make life more difficult and painful for the innocent -- Obedience to parents and other legitimate authorities, and a list of things not to do. For the most part they are pretty common sense, for society just cannot function if we go about kicking, and killing, and beating, and cheating, and lying to one another. We should have figured out these Commandments even if God had never mentioned them.
Yet we break the Commandments, all ten of them. And very often we see people get away with breaking them. "Getting away with murder" has become a popular expression in our language. And we do hear of people getting away with murder and with all of the other "thou shalt nots" -- seemingly without any intervention on God's part. But, God is simply acting as the prudent farmer -- not trying to continually pull up the weeds, but to let everything grow. Certainly, if God were to yank us out of His garden after our first sin (or even after our hundredth or our hundred thousandth sin!) there would be few people left in His world. He knows that people -- unlike weeds -- can change, and become good and holy if given the chance. And the same free will that is capable of offending God, is the free will that allows us to love God and to do with enthusiasm the things that please Him.
There is also "physical evil" in the world. Sometimes through human accident or indifference, and sometimes with no human influence at all, the forces of nature can work serious physical evil on us. Fresh in our minds is the example of the space shuttle. At this moment we do not know exactly what happened (and we may never know) -- but if we exclude any possibility of foul play, we can still see that in such an endeavor there are many possibilities for things to go wrong and great physical evil to result. Here in Florida we are intimately familiar with the damage hurricanes can do -- certainly not the result of human endeavor gone wrong, and sometimes far more powerful than any protection man can devise.
So, we might ask ourselves, "why doesn't a loving God step in and avert these natural evils?" An all powerful God could have switched off the pull of gravity, or suspended the laws of nature that cause air friction to generate tremendous heat. He could reach out his hand and give that counter-clockwise spinning storm a little right-handed shove to keep it out of populated areas or neutralize it altogether.
But this intervention, which so many demand of God, would be just another example of trying to pull the weeds and damaging the wheat. Human life depends on the laws of nature being reliable. If every morning we got up wondering how God had rearranged nature this day, mankind would make no technical progress and probably starve to death. We depend in gravity working the same today as yesterday and tomorrow, we depend on the wind, we depend on things like friction. Fire, and wind, and water, and all of the other elements can be dangerous at times, but we would cease to exist without them -- and particularly, we would cease to exist if we had no way of predicting their general behavior. A miracle here and there is wonderful to strengthen our Faith and to help the helpless -- but a world of continuous miracles, where nothing could be predicted, would be a nightmare.
It is probably not a coincidence that the Church has us read this particular epistle today to compliment the Gospel about the weeds and the wheat. In writing to the Colossians, Saint Paul is describing the best way that mankind can deal with the "weeds" in our world. The suffering due to moral evil and physical evil can be alleviated somewhat, and sometimes completely, by being good to each other. An abundance of "mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience ... and charity"2 would eliminate most of the moral evils in this world, and would go a long way toward relieving the sufferings that result from the unavoidable physical evils.
Finally, we ought to ask ourselves one more thing about this parable: "Are we the weeds among the wheat?" Every so often we ought to examine our consciences to determine if God looks down on us from heaven favorably, or, perhaps, when He looks down He makes a mental note to remember that at the day of judgement we will have to be gathered in bundles to be burned. Remember that human beings are capable of change -- that even if we have generally behaved like the weeds, it is still possible for us to become like the wheat.