This homily is based on Matthew 13:24-43.
It’s not easy to find a commencement speech that’s both wise and witty. But I think that’s exactly what J.K. Rowling, bestselling author of the “Harry Potter” series, delivered at Harvard on June 5, 2008. The title she gave the speech gives you a fairly good idea of the gems of wisdom that she offered the Harvard graduates: “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.” Even for non-Harry Potter fans, the speech is worth reading in full because despite the recent social media flak that she (unfairly) received, her words are more relevant than ever.
What struck me in particular about her speech was what Rowling called some of her “greatest formative experiences” when she had worked in the research department at Amnesty International in London during the pre-Potter days. This is how she described those days: “There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.”
She spoke of one unforgettable African torture victim, who was no older than she: “…as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.”
She sums up her experiences in Amnesty International with the following observation:
“Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.
“And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before. Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.”
In describing what she witnessed at Amnesty International–both the great evils and the great kindnesses humankind is capable of–J.K. Rowling might as well be talking about today’s Parable of the Weeds and Wheat. In the parable, the Lord talks about a master of the field finding weeds among the wheat, but refusing to pull out the weeds for fear that the wheat might also be uprooted. So he decides simply to let the weeds grow–yet another strange strategy, if you ask me, not only in agriculture, but also in the universe.
Applied to our world, we see evil existing alongside goodness, and we can’t help but be bewildered, if not scandalized, about why the all-good, all-powerful God cannot–or will not–eliminate evil so that only goodness survives. Surely, as the parable teaches, God sows only the good seeds, so the weeds really come from somewhereelse, so why let them grow? Why not grab a sickle and eliminate them immediately?
No adequate explanation is given for this divine strategy; instead the Lord offers an invitation to trust that this is the best way and the consolation that in the end, all shall be well, when at harvest time, the weeds will be collected, tied in bundles, and burned, while the wheat will be gathered in God’s barn.
The parable is usually applied to good people and evil people–such as those whom J.K. Rowling came to know in her work at Amnesty International. But we can also apply the parable to the good and the evil within each one of us. Certainly we know all too well that in that field of our soul, we find not only wheat, but also weeds. Those among us who desire conversion and holiness sometimes can’t help feeling frustrated at our failure to weed out the evils within us. In fact, many end up giving up altogether because of our inability to be completely good.
But our Lord’s message to us today is as psychological as it is spiritual: We simply can’t remove our weeds without harming our wheat. The reason is that as some of us may have noticed, our greatest strengths usually constitute our greatest weaknesses. Our gifts are also our flaws. Our compassion, a keen ability to feel for others and listen to them, has the same source as our not-always-healthy penchant to rescue people. Our passion to make a difference in the world sometimes leads to an addiction for honor and power. Each of our qualities has both lights and shadows. Our Lord knows that to eliminate the shadows completely will mean extinguishing the lights too.
Today’s parable teaches us to let our weeds grow along with our wheat. We can’t rid ourselves of them altogether, but we can at least manage them so that they do not overwhelm the wheat. Letting the weeds grow is not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of humility, patience, and trust. The parable invites us to leave the weeding out to the Master of the Harvest, who will do that in due time.
Note: If you want to read the full text or to see the video, click here (courtesy of the Harvard Magazineonline).