This is the third in a series of editorials designed to correspond with the Why Catholic? process, now taking place in our parishes, about Catholic moral and social teaching.
Coming from an agricultural community, Jesus used images and metaphors from nature to communicate the good news to people. As a master teacher of life in the Spirit, Jesus knew that there were several similarities between the agricultural world and the world of the Spirit. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives an image of the kingdom as a farmer who has weeds sown in his field of wheat. Even contemporary city-dwellers still comprehend the metaphor that Jesus provides, and I would like to comment on virtue and sin in light of the story of the weeds and the wheat.
The parable introduces us to a farmer who sows good seed into his field. Think of virtue as the good seed. Our Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that virtue is a “habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC 1803). It is a learned, intentional act that requires practice and that, over time, shapes us into people of character who desire to pursue what is good in life.
Our faith distinguishes between human virtues and theological virtues. The four cardinal human virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and all human virtues can be grouped around these four. The theological virtues are faith, hope and love. Forming the foundation of the good and virtuous life, these latter virtues are infused into the soul by God (CCC 1803-1841).
The good seed is sown into the field. Like good seed that is sown, virtues are cultivated by being taught and learned. One does not just become virtuous. Instead, we are taught how to practice virtue until it becomes habitual and a way of being in the world.
For children to learn patience, they will do actions that require patience, and learn why patience is good. Children follow the example of their parents, who witness the virtue of patience to them. By practicing patience, they cultivate the virtue, and it becomes a way of being for them. God wants us to be this way, and we understand that by practicing virtue, we approach the goal of the virtuous life: to become like God.
The servants noticed that there were weeds in the field. The weeds in the story are sins. Sin is an “offence against reason, truth and right conscience” (CCC 1849), and most of all, an offense against God. Sins can be major, mortal or lesser, venial. Mortal sin concerns an action that is committed with full knowledge and consent. Venial sins concern lesser material, incomplete knowledge, and without full consent. (CCC 1846-1876)
In light of this parable, what I notice is that the weeds are not supposed to be there. The field is meant for wheat, not weeds. In the same way, we are not meant to have sin in our lives. When we sin, we are not who we are meant to be and are led away from truth, friendship and discipleship with Jesus. God created us for the virtuous life and calls us to that life.
The weeds are noticed. It is important to notice and become aware of the darkness of our lives. Our tradition calls this an examination of conscience. If we do not practice an examination on a regular and frequent basis, we may become unaware of the weeds, the sin, that we have. It is important to notice our sin, name it and seek God’s mercy through the sacrament of reconciliation.
When the servants ask the farmer how the weeds were sown in the field with the wheat, the farmer says, “An enemy has done this!” Andy Otto, author of the podcast “God in All Things,” discusses how St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that there was an evil spirit that tempts us to do what is sinful. As humans, we have the freedom to choose between good and evil and being human, we are tempted by evil. We are called to persevere and choose virtuously even when it is difficult.
When the servants ask the farmer if he wants the weeds pulled up right away, he decides to leave them and have them removed at harvest time. God is merciful. God loves the good in us more than he hates the evil. Preserving virtue is more important than only the removal of sin. The good life, the life of a disciple, is cultivating virtue, naming sin, and seeking to imitate the one who created us.
Reverend John J. Stoltz is
pastor of St. Aloysius Church
in Pewee Valley, Ky.