In 1879, Ivory Soap was introduced to the world. James Gamble worked for years, yes years, to produce a soap that met his standards of purity. Since that first bar was sold, Americans have purchased over 40 billions bars of Ivory Soap; if you lined up 40 billion bars of Ivory soap end-to-end, they would circle the Earth 101 times. That line of Ivory would be 2,525,253 miles long. Ivory Soap’s success was built, at least partially, on brilliant advertising. The message in Ivory’s ads was always the same: purity. Ivory is 99.44% pure, which in my mind only makes you wonder what the other .66% could possibly be. My guess is duck poop. No matter, Ivory is so pure it floats, much like the innocent at witch trials.
If the whole of human history has taught us anything, purity is not just for bars of soap. There are any number of beneficial human impulses, that when taken too far, lead to the worst of human behaviors. Out of all of them, the impulse toward purity is by far the most sinister. Purity can be good of course; who doesn’t want to be pure of heart and soul? Who doesn’t want pure food and water, who doesn’t want to hear the pure truth? But taken too far or taken outside of our own souls, purity is a disastrous impulse. Recent examples are not hard to find. The Temperance movement and Prohibition, the banning of alcohol as a means to purity, conjures up images of stern-looking Methodist women, gangsters, and speakeasies. No humor is found, however, in the images conjured by some other means of purity. American Slavery as a means of race purity. Hitler and his minions purging Germany of “impurities.” “Whites Only” water fountains. P.W. Botha and the Homeland System.
Purity is a rough slog, and the idea that one can enforce purity on someone else is at best an occasion for sin, at worst, it’s the justification of everything from petty prejudice to genocide. Enforced purity is something Jesus warned us about, at least in parables.
This week we get another farmer, this one a bit more careful with his seeds. This “farmer carefully plants an entire field of wheat. He did it all right and went to bed that night content that he had done everything he could to ensure a bumper crop some months down the road. But while he took his well-earned rest, an enemy came in and, with equal care, planted weed seed in the same furrows. Worse, the weeds he planted were something called “darnel,” which looks almost identical to wheat.” Not a huge deal, “But if you don’t separate the darnel from the wheat before grinding, the resulting flour will be inedible. [These weeds, that darnel coming up with the wheat] was no accident, no stray spores that drifted in on the breeze one day. This was an act of agricultural terrorism!” The servants want the master to immediately pull out the weeds, “But contrary to all agrarian good sense, the farmer tells the hired hands to leave it be. They’d sort it all out later at the harvest. If Jesus’ listeners knew anything about farming (and presumably a lot of Jesus’ audience did know about such things), then the shock of this story is the idea that any farmer would do nothing about such a situation.”1
That shocking conclusion gives us the clue that this story is more about the Kingdom of God than about responsible farming. We have here Jesus Himself as the farmer, and the wheat, the good stuff, is the Church, or at least all that is good and pure in the Church, good and pure people of God. The enemy is the devil, doing his best to sow impurity, sin, and discord right into the good, pure stuff. Jesus tells us what will happen in the end. The wheat and the darnel will be harvested, taken up and separated; what is pure will attain to heaven, what is impure will receive the usual reward of sin. But what happens at the end is not what this parable is about. The parable is about what happens now, while the wheat and the weeds are growing, while the pure and impure grow up together in the Church and in the world. The parable is about patience.
We’re not so hot on patience, but God is. Like St. Peter tells us, the Lord is not slow in delivering His promise to us, He is not slow to come back to us for the sake of slowness, but He is rather patient; patient with us so that none of us may be counted as weeds, as impure before Him. So it’s not for us to lose patience, to enforce a false purity on the souls of others; it is for us, however, to keep ourselves pure, to serve as examples and teachers, not policemen or reapers. Patience, patience with others in their failings, is the outcome of righteousness; lack of patience, that impulse to cleanse our surroundings of anything that offends us, is the outcome of self-righteousness. Jesus tells us in this parable to remain pure, yes, to be the good wheat; but He also warns us that purity, our own purity, is a product of that divine Farmer, who laid down His pure heart on the hard wood of the cross, so that we may be pure in the eyes of His Father, so that when the angels gather up the harvest, we might not burn like the weeds, but rather shine like the sun.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week.