Patience is not necessarily tolerance. Tolerance is not necessarily love. I tolerate all sorts of things for different reasons. I tolerate snow because there’s nothing I can do about it (except maybe move to Arizona, but then I’d have a lot more tolerating to do). I tolerate traffic and long lines for the same reason. Because I’m powerless over those things. I tolerate uninformed opinions because I’ve learned that uninformed opinions aren’t uninformed by accident. We all have a tendency to start with conclusions and ignore evidence to the contrary. Besides that, who wants to argue constantly? I mean besides me. Tolerance is often necessary for the sake of peace and getting along. But tolerance is misguided when it is divorced from a much deeper and fuller virtue: Prudence.
Prudence is a virtue that gives us the ability to recognize what is to be pursued and what should be avoided. In the Catholic sense, prudence allows us to discern what is good and what is evil—we should pursue the good and be fiercely intolerant of evil. And there’s more to prudence than simply knowing what is good and what is evil. Prudence also advises the course we need to take in pursuit of good and avoidance of evil. We can’t do evil in pursuit of good, and we shouldn’t take actions which generate evil in pursuit of good. Even if the goal is good, we cannot cause suffering greater than the good to achieve the goal. It might be easier to see this in a concrete example.
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to own and operate an alpaca farm. And anyone who knows anything about alpaca husbandry understands that the greatest threat to a successful farm is alpaca thieves. My farm will come equipped with high voltage fences strong enough to kill any potential thief on the spot. Of course, the fence could also harm alpacas and innocent human beings, but it’s worth it because I have the good and noble goal of preventing alpaca pilfering.
It sounds goofy (I mean the defense system and not my lifelong dream), but it’s not so over-the-top. Consider actions like the War on Drugs. Think about how much suffering and violence came from the imprudent pursuit of a good and noble goal. We do it in our own lives too. Look at the absolute breakdown in civil discourse over issues of faith, morals, and politics. How many friendships have broken due to disagreement? How many families hold a grudging peace at best and, at worst, outright division over similar disagreements? But are we supposed to then simply say, “You have your opinion, I have mine. Let’s agree to disagree since there’s no way of knowing who’s right?” Well, no. There’s another way.
Jesus presents the other way in a parable. A farmer sowed wheat, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds. When both begin to grow the servants suggest pulling the weeds. But the farmer prudently tells them not to, because that would kill the wheat as well. Wait until the harvest and then have the harvesters pull the weeds to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn. Jesus goes on the explain the meaning, which He doesn’t always do. Whenever He explains the meaning I think the parable must be particularly important. The field is the world, this life. The wheat are the children of His Kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one—Satan. The harvesters are the angels, sent by Christ at the end of time to separate wheat from weed. What does this mean practically speaking? Separating people into two camps, good and evil, isn’t our job. Being children of the Kingdom is our job.
What does being children of the Kingdom mean in light of this Sunday’s readings? First, we have to understand that the weeds don’t represent evil people. There are no evil people. Thoughts, actions, attitudes, beliefs, biases, words—all of these can be evil. But a human person, made in the image of God, cannot. They can be under the influence of evil forces, but that makes them victims of the enemy, not the enemy themselves.
Second, make sure you are wheat. Be prudent. Before you decide whose actions are good and whose are evil, make sure you yourself know the difference and live it in your own life. I’ve been a weed at times, and I’ve been wheat at others. By grace, through prayer, scripture, and, above all, the Sacraments, I work with Christ to be wheat.
Third, we can’t make the mistake of thinking that patience and prudence (seen as tolerance) are a tacit acceptance of evil. If we love others as we should, we would be as intolerant of evil within them as we would cancer within them. We wouldn’t want a little cancer, but would want every trace of it eradicated. The same goes for evil. But it is unwise and imprudent to take an unmerciful approach and wield truth like a sledgehammer. This hinders love.
Finally, do we just sit around and disparage the weeds around us, waiting for the end of the age when we will finally be separated? No, that’s not loving, not prudent, and it’s very weed-like. We hope for conversion and show how to be children of the Kingdom by our joyful example. Above all, we pray. Nature cannot change weeds into wheat, but grace can. For nothing is impossible with God.
“Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.”