I became a fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's when I was barely out of my teens. If we canonized Protestants, he'd be my first choice.
Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who was executed by the Nazis just three weeks before the end of World War II. He'd been part of the plot to assassinate Hitler and active in the German resistance.
It's no wonder he fascinated me when I was young—the exciting title of a recent biography tells it all: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. But as I get older, I get more interested in him as a young man, standing up to the liberalism of German Christianity years before he stood up to the Nazis.
Although he was born into the intellectual establishment—you might say the scholarly elite of pre-war Germany—Bonhoeffer understood early on that much of the theology he was taught had little connection with real Christianity. Basic truths of the Gospel, and the person of Jesus himself were routinely robbed of their power and their true meaning.
One reason why Bonhoeffer was able to stand alone was his considerable experience ministering to those who weren't typically pious. He taught a confirmation class in Germany that almost required him to have a bodyguard; in New York he worshiped mainly with African-American congregations; and while serving briefly in Barcelona he wrote that he had to deal with people he'd otherwise never have said a word to: bums, vagabonds, criminals, lion tamers who'd run away from the German circus on its Spanish tour, music hall dancers, and murderers on the run.
Yet he wrote to a friend that he was meeting people as they are, far from the masquerade of the so-called "Christian world." Using typically Protestant language, he observed "that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace."
In terms more familiar to us, the young pastor had learned the truth of these words of Jesus: "I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you."
Now what does all this have to do with us? Well, it's a way of reminding ourselves not to jump to conclusions when we read the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
My first reaction to this parable is always "Ah yes. Put up with those thorny weeds in the Church and let God take care of them in his own way." The parable thus is reduced to a means of coping with the people whom I judge don't belong in the harvest of the Lord.
But what if I myself am a weed among the wheat? What if I'm the one whom the Lord is leaving alone until the day comes for the harvest?
There's no reason to assume that weeds will never be transformed into good wheat. The Letter of James says "Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient."
The Lord is patient with us, so we should be patient with one another—in the family, in the parish, in our workplaces and schools. To make this clear, St. James adds "Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged."
It's true that God himself will sort out the weeds from the wheat, the bad from the good. But since in this life we can never be absolutely certain which plant we are, we must imitate his patience—with one another, and with ourselves.
Perhaps I am stretching the point, but I feel sometimes that the field of my own heart contains both wheat and weeds—that virtues and vices coexist, waiting for the purification that may come only in Purgatory.
Maybe that's what the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was thinking when he wrote "My own heart let me have more pity on; let me live to my sad self hereafter kind."
Last Advent, Pope Benedict spoke of the need to strengthen our interior persistence, the resistance of the soul that keeps us from despair ... and to prepare for Christ's coming with hard-working confidence.
That's the best way to approach this parable—with hard-working confidence in God's mercy and help. As for judging the others alongside of us, we can best remember the old line "There's so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly behooves any of us, to talk about the rest of us."