Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

The Scandal of Weeds

In the wake of scandal, it is true that we live in a time and place where the moral authority of the Church is severely weakened. But as soon as we admit that, we are also obliged to be clear about what scandal actually is. Disapproving of or feeling morally outraged by something is not scandal; that is something else. No, taking issue is not the same as taking scandal. To put it most succinctly, giving scandal is to act or fail to act in such a way as to lead another into serious sin.[1] It is to put an obstacle—a skandalon—in the way of another’s attainment of the good.

Nevertheless, scandal given or taken cannot quite be the last word—for we have Christ’s parable of the Weeds and the Wheat to reckon with: “And his men asked him, Wouldst thou then have us go and gather them up? But he said, No; or perhaps while you are gathering the tares you will root up the wheat with them. Leave them to grow side by side till harvest.”[2]

The experienced gardener knows all about weeds. Certainly the purpose of a seedbed is not to grow weeds, but to grow flowers and crops and herbs. And yet that same gardener is not shocked—and certainly not scandalized—when the weeds appear. The weeds are undesirable and must be removed; their growth will, eventually, sap and crowd the soil; they are unattractive to behold; they are simply not the point of a garden. But in the presence of weeds, the flowers do not instantly lose their bloom nor the fruits their sweetness; the whole thing does not have to be uprooted; there is a harvest on the way to put everything in order.

It is well worth noting, too, who are the actors in the parable: it is the gardener and his servants and the enemy, that is, God and his angels and Satan. The wheat (understandably enough) doesn’t even have a speaking part in this parable, let alone the free agency to do any landscaping of its own.

Scandal given is a tragedy; there is nothing frivolous about it. But it must not be taken as the last word either—though a certain worldly spirit often does this. In much the same way as the gardener does not fear the weeds, souls must not fear the presence of evil characters in the Church or elsewhere. ‘An enemy has done this.’ (Besides, we each have enough sins of our own to keep our compunction well occupied.) But it has been foreseen.—Christ has already warned us that it would be so. When the weeping Saint Mary Magdalen mistook Christ for the gardener,[2] she was not altogether wrong. Christ is the Divine Gardener; and see how faithful he is to us. The real integrity of the Church is not harmed; the whole system is not invalidated; it does not need to be uprooted.

Had Christ not taught as he did, we might certainly wonder. However, this parable is a most vital proof text, and it is well that it should be kept very close to heart by anyone who would have a mature Catholic faith in the world today.


[1] Cf The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn 2284, 2236.

[2] Matthew 13, 29-30.

[3] John 20, 15.

{Art Credit: The Weeders (1868), Jules Breton (1827-1906).}

Lightning Meditations