Taylor Swift is a household name. She’s famed for her honest, almost “confessional” songs, and for an instrumental prowess that has influenced a surge in girls wanting to learn guitar. She has received many awards and accolades, and is to be admired for her philanthropy if not necessarily for her private life or the causes she champions.
Swift’s 2012 album Red tells of a series of “semi-toxic relationships” and heartbreaks she went through in her early twenties. It was the fastest selling album in over a decade, topped the charts here in Australia as elsewhere, and the album tour was the highest-grossing country music tour of all time. Given that the theme of all the songs is her failed affairs – with titles like Treacherous, I Knew You were Trouble, The Last Time, and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – this may well highlight something troubling about the difficulty of maintaining lasting and healthy relationships today.
Which might easily make us cynical about romance. Yet the album ends with a moving song called Begin Again, the very title of which speaks of a hope we might think unwarranted after the tragic endings of the other relationships described in the album. Amidst conflicted emotions following another unpleasant break-up, the natural fears of making herself vulnerable again, there is the therapy and sheer joy at a burgeoning relationship with someone new and wholly different. In the chorus Swift sings of her previous conviction that “all love ever does is break, and burn, and end”, but now, she tells us, “on a Wednesday, in a café”, she “watched it begin again”. Hope springs up again, the possibility of new love, even after the betrayal and pain of the Cross. And here we find a resonance with our Gospel parable today (Mt 13:24-43).
At first glance, the parable of the wheat and tares seems to say this: there are good guys and there are bad guys and, in the end, they sort themselves out and get their comeuppance. But as usual there is more to Jesus’ story than first meets the eye. For one thing, He does not say some people are good grain and others just weeds. He is very specific: some are darnel, others are wheat. Now, darnel is a particular kind of weed, one that looks almost exactly like wheat until the ears appear around harvest time. When the Master farmer tells the hands not to try to weed out the darnel before the harvest, it’s because the two are so very much alike, and in their enthusiasm to identify and get rid of the guilty, they were likely to mistake and falsely convict some of the innocent. As St Augustine observed when commenting on this text: “Sometimes people are considered by human estimation to be grain, when in fact they are weeds; others are reckoned to be darnel, but are in fact really wheat.” (Sermon 73A)
As St Paul’s advised the faithful in Corinth: “Do not rush to judgement, but wait till the Lord comes” (1 Cor 4:5). You might say this is the beginning of our legal presumption of innocence – a presumption the quick-to-gossip and those who like to engage in trial by media have yet to grasp.
But, we might wonder, is it really so hard to tell the good from the bad? Well, as St Augustine points out, it’s not just that the good grain guys and wicked weed people can be hard to tell apart … the one person can be a bit of both, or sometimes one, sometimes the other. Wheat and darnel are so closely intertwined that we find them both everywhere, even in our own hearts.
Each one of us here today has darnel growing within us, hidden perhaps among the wheat, but there nevertheless. Each one of us here today turns away from God at one point or another in our lives, planting the seed of sin with bad choices, big or small. Here the central Christian themes of resurrection and reconciliation, echoed however unconsciously by Taylor Swift, might bring some comfort. The first song in Swift’s Red album is in fact called State of Grace; that and the subsequent songs tell of an inexorable fall from grace, emotionally, morally, spiritually; but the last one, Begin Again, recovers the Christian instinct. It is never a simple matter of the good guys destined to heaven and the bad guys made for hell: no, we are all made for heaven, we are given many opportunities, many graces, many fresh starts, we all have cause for repentance and new hope. Though we might indeed “break and burn and end” in relationships with God and our fellows, God never breaks with us.
The Old Testament presents the relationship between God and His people as like a marriage covenant (e.g. Jer 31:32; Ezek 16:8-14, 59-60). God is Israel’s husband (Isa 54:5; Hos 2:7; Joel 1:8) and the relationship is good to begin with (Jer 2:2; Hos 2:15; Ezek 16:43). As the marriage matures God remains ever the faithful husband, even when Israel strays – and stray she does, at times spectacularly (Jer 2:32; 3:20; Ezek 16:32-34; Hos 1:2; 9:1). Eventually things are patched up (Jer 3:12-14; 31:31-33; Hos 2:14-16,19-20; 3;1-3; Isa 54:6-8; 62:4-5; Ezek 16:62), especially through Jesus Christ’s unbreakable marriage to his Church (Eph 5:25-33; Jn 3:29; Mt 9:15); 2Cor 11:2; Rev 19:7-9; 21:2,9-10; 22:17).
God in Jesus Christ waits in that café that is the Church, for us to join Him and begin again. Each time we choose the passionate, exciting, but ultimately unrewarding relationship that is sin, each time we see the distance this puts between us and God, us and our fellows, us and our better selves, each time we experience the pain this brings, He is ready to forgive and give us a new start. The harvest is close, no doubt. But the command to the hands to go cut down the crop has not yet been issued. There is time for us to sort out our hearts and choose to be wheat rather than darnel. Decide today: begin again.
This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Mass of the 16th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year A, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 23 July 2017.