The following is a homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A. The readings can be found here.
As someone who grew up in the suburbs, I have to admit that it is very rare that Jesus’ parables about farming or herding sheep ever touch on anything I have ever experienced, but today is an exception. When I was in my first year with the friars, our director took the whole group of students for a day of service on a farm. Not exactly my idea of a good time, but hey, whatever floats your boat. It was an organic farm, meaning it didn’t use chemicals of any kind, and so every field had to be hand-picked for weeds. Which is what we did… for about six hours. Again… not my idea of a good time.
Besides the fact that we were on our hands and knees all day, a tiring task in itself, what made the job particularly difficult was that the leaves of the weeds looked almost identical to the leaves of the carrots we were supposed to be protecting. I cannot stress this enough… we were not good at this. For every five weeds we pulled up, we accidentally uprooted a carrot, often irreparably damaging the plant . As hard as we worked, I’m pretty sure we did more damage to the field than the weeds themselves. Especially when you consider the fact that one of the friars just gave up and started pulling out the carrots and eating them… we were probably better off just not doing anything. Which… is probably why we weren’t invited back.
It’s because of that experience that I get what Jesus is talking about today. I understand how easy it is to mistake the good from the bad, and to hurt the very thing you are trying to save. I understand the frustration and horror of accidentally doing harm to the good plants.
Of course, the purpose of Jesus’ parable is not to give farming advice; his care is not for the actual wheat. He’s talking about people. He’s using an experience that the people knew well, the difficulty and frustration and even shame of uprooting what is actually good, the loss of of something important, to warn his followers about the dangers of judging people too quickly. “You think it’s frustrating to accidentally ruin a good crop? Yeah, well, it’s far worse when you incorrectly judge a good person for bad and ruin their life.”
Even if you’ve never had an experience like this weeding plants, I’m sure each and every one of us knows what it’s like to misjudge someone, to think we know who someone is only to be proved wrong.
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to catch our mistakes, to eventually see the person we judged in a different light and find that they are actually quite a good person. Lucky for my sisters and I, this is what happened with my parents—the first time my mom met my dad, she thought he was a buffoon. Really. Everyone thought he was so funny and she couldn’t stand him. And knowing my dad, he probably deserved this judgment, but imagine if she would have stuck to her first impression, judged him quickly and moved on. I wouldn’t be here.
When I entered the friars, I thought one of my classmates was incredibly immature. I couldn’t stand to be around him, and I wondered what he was even doing in the friars. It made me angry, actually, that the friars would accept someone like this. I looked down on him and wanted nothing to do with him. That was, until we moved into the same house and I got to know him a bit more. I saw the person he was under that goofy exterior, and realized that I could not have been more wrong. This was a really good man. A thoughtful man. Oddly enough, a mature man that I respected, and I enjoyed living with him immensely. How easy it would have been to dismiss him, how sad if that’s how our relationship ended.
Unfortunately, this is the case too often in our lives. We make judgments of others, we dismiss them, we say that they are dead to us because of who they are or what they did, and a relationship is broken. Unfortunately, as we well know, permanent harm is done to our families, to our communities, to our world, because of a misunderstanding, because someone jumped to a conclusion that wasn’t correct.
This week in the United States, we have seen the gravest example of this on display as three federal inmates were executed in four days, the first in 17 years. Three men were put death by our government, uprooted from the field before the harvest because they were believed to be weeds. And maybe they were. I don’t know.
What I do know is that we have shown time and again that we can be wrong, that in our pursuit to get the weeds we actually uproot the wheat, we actually kill innocent people.
In 1983 a convenience store was robbed and the clerk was stabbed to death. Police arrested a man matching the description of the killer walking a few blocks away carrying $149 in cash. A witness, viewing the man through a windshield from the other side of the street said it was him, and he was executed a few years later. No knife was found, the man had no criminal record, and he gave testimony that it was another guy who looked very similar to him, a man who later was arrested for stabbing someone with a knife matching the murder weapon. In 2012, Columbia University completed a six year study of the case, determining that he was innocent.
In 1981, a 17-year old was accused of raping and killing a nun who lived across the street from him—a heinous act for sure. He was executed for this crime, but DNA evidence later showed that he was innocent, and another man confessed to the crime. A 17 year old boy, falsely accused and killed.
These are not uncommon stories. Since 1973, this country has exonerated 170 people from death row. 170 people who were tried in a court of law, found guilty, and sentenced to death, only to find out later that they were innocent. That’s more than 10% of the executions. And those are only the ones that we know about. How many more are wrongly accused? How many innocent people have we mistakenly put to death, weeding out the wheat by mistake?
This is a question that should trouble us as Catholics. Admittedly, for centuries, the Catholic Church did allow the death penalty. It was never a good thing, never to be done our of vengeance, always a lesser of evils that we tolerated. We believed that it was necessary for the defense of society, could quicken the rehabilitation of the guilty, served as a deterrence to crime, and offered retributive justice to those who were harmed. For centuries, popes and saints recognized it as a necessary evil that could produce some good. We believed that we could be a good judge of human beings, that we could remove the weed without touching the what.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. We are not very good at playing judge; we are not as just as God in our judgments. As our understanding of capital punishment began to grow over the years, as we reflected more on this Gospel passage, we began to see that the benefits we once held to were not as great as we once thought, and the evil it inflicted was just too intolerable. In 1992, St. John Paul II promulgated an updated teaching. In the revision of the catechism, he stated that there was only one legitimate justification for capital punishment: the defense of society. As pope, he continued to teach that, when the common good was in question, if there was a risk that the killer could get loose and kill again, the state had a responsibility to protect its people. But as he wrote later, “Such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Very rare, if not practically nonexistent.
Which brings us to pope Francis, who, just two years ago, adjusted the teaching once more. While many expressed their anger towards him, believing that he changed years of Church teaching, all he did was close the loophole: there is no longer any exception for this. The death penalty is a moral evil that should be avoided in all cases.
Effectively, for the vast majority of the world, his words have added nothing to what the Church had already taught as a result of John Paul II. For places like the United States, well-developed countries with effective penal systems, the possibility of defending capital punishment as a faithful Catholic ended in 1992, not 2018.
But really, the possibility of actually supporting or insisting on the death penalty, ended with Jesus. It may have taken a while to get there, but we know now that we have no right to take a life because it it not our life to take; because Jesus told us to wait until the harvest; because we’re not very good at it. As Christians, there has never been a time in our history in which the death penalty was a desirable outcome, never been a time when seeking revenge, blood lust, or happiness at another’s death was acceptable. Regardless of what any recent popes have taught, we are still a people of peace and mercy, a people who recognize the wonderful gift of life, a people who do everything in our power to protect it.
As much justification as we might find for taking another’s life in the Old Testament, let’s never forget that we have been ratified to a new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ, a man who tells us not to judge, a man who tells us to show mercy and forgiveness, a man who knows all too well what it means to be killed for a crime he didn’t commit. May we always be on the side of Jesus, and not his executioners.