. . . . but while everybody was asleep . . . . Matthew 13:25
Though it’s now more than a decade later, I remember that evening just about every time I drive north on Route 29 from Collegeville toward Schwenksville. It was a Thursday in July when I turned right off of 29 onto Graterford Road and then took Prison Road to the visitors parking lot for the now old Graterford Penitentiary. There I met a group of religious leaders including a couple of nuns, a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Muslim Imam and Graterford’s Chaplain, Lutheran Pastor Ed Neiderhiser. We’d all been invited by Sister Josephine Kase, who served in the Philadelphia Archdiocese Office of Ecumenical Relationships, to be part of an interfaith dialogue organized by some inmates.
Our ID’s were checked, hands stamped and visitor badges clipped on. Then we stepped through the metal detector. The iron gate into the prison opened. We walked through and the door shut behind us with a clang. Before us was a long, wide hall of concrete and metal bars. Looking through a door on the left, I saw prisoners outside playing baseball, in the right, medical offices, the barred gate to a cell block, an auditorium, another cell block, a weight-lifting yard with muscled men working out, a cell block, an immaculate garden, and then two more cell blocks as we walked ¼ mile from the prison entrance to the chapel way at the other end of the massive building.
Meanwhile, Chaplain Neiderhiser told us there were 62 acres within the 30-foot high walls of the prison which contained 3,500 plus inmates. Many greeted him with a smile, calling him by name while acknowledging us, the visitors, with a nod. They wore faded maroon uniforms, while the priest and I were in black suits with white clerical collars, the Rabbi donned a colorful yarmulke, the Iman, a simple prayer hat and the nuns, light blue wimples, clearly distinguishing visitors from prisoners — or to put in the context of Jesus’ story, wheat from weeds.
This, of course, is the distinction we want to make. We are the wheat planted in the good soil. It is self-evident, for here you are in the midst of a pandemic, tuning in to Virtual Church or showing up in person, wearing your mask, sanitizing your hands, keeping social distance, doing the right things as children of the kingdom. We’re the wheat and we can rest assured that, at least, some of the weeds are in the new SCI-Phoenix, which two years ago replaced SCI-Graterford at a cost of $400 million dollars.
When we finally arrived at the large square room that served as church, synagogue and mosque, there were about a dozen men sitting in a circle. Each one stood up, shook our hands and introduced himself. Sister Josephine explained the group had prepared questions for the visiting clergy. The first topic: “Are religious practices divisive? Why can’t all religions come together as one and fight poverty and other community problems? Why is it that the common folk in all religions can get along, until they get together with their respective leaders? The rabbi looked at me. I looked at the priest. The Imam stared straight ahead. So, I launched into an explanation of the difficulties that arise whenever people try to work together and that religion was not different. On and on I went, while at the same time wondering how the weeds dared to accuse the wheat, especially a priest, pastor, imam, and rabbi of being the problem, of being weeds. That we, religious leaders, were the cause of the division in the world and the reason for the continuation of poverty. Now, it wasn’t so clear who’s wheat and who’s weeds.
This is precisely why the farmer refuses to pull up the weeds. When they are young plants, wheat and weeds can look a lot alike. It’s difficult to discern which is which. Besides, the roots of the wheat and weeds become so intertwined that the bad can’t be pulled out without destroying the good. Perhaps you too, have been asked such a difficult question when talk turns to religion and you’re the only one in the group who attends church. I don’t remember what I said, but I was profoundly grateful when the Catholic priest intervened and spoke about sinfulness throughout the world, including religious leaders. Listening to him, the men nodded knowingly.
With the walls between wheat and weeds breached, the topic shifted to the role of scripture in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and then into a deep discussion on forgiveness. The men leaned forward to catch every word as the Rabbi shared the prayer of confession that is said every Sabbath and talked about Yom Kippur, the yearly day of atonement. “If you ask, God forgives. If you repent, God forgives.” The priest spoke about the sacrament of confession and the comfort found there. He also said, “Forgiveness has two parts. God forgives, but we must forgive one another.” Now it was the pastor’s turn. I talked about the consequences of our sin in our relationships with each other and how hard it can be to ask to be forgiven by those we’ve harmed and yet it is utterly necessary. “What if they won’t forgive?” an inmate asked. “Try again and again,” the Rabbi responded. A Jewish inmate asked, “Isn’t it true Rabbi, that according to Torah, if after you ask another forgiveness three times, and it isn’t granted, the sin is on them?” He replied, “Yes, that is what Torah says, but keep repenting, keep asking.” I thought of our Rabbi, Jesus, telling us to forgive seven times seventy.
Whenever weeds and wheat live together, it always gets down to forgiveness. Inevitably one takes from the other. The weeds crowd out the wheat robbing them of nourishment and moisture. The wheat snub the weeds as good for nothings. “Once a weed, always a weed,” they self-righteously proclaim. Perhaps Jesus was intentional in the word he used, apheta which is translated as “let”. Apheta is directly related to the Greek verb, aphiemi which in English is “forgive.” What we hear as “let both grow” those in the early Church heard as “forgive.” Might this be the way to deal with weeds, with evil, with those who trespass against us, with us when we trespass against others?
It sounds so naïve, so simple and easy. But it’s not. Forgiveness is hard because it involves letting go of justified anger and hurt. As we talked about forgiveness, I wondered what sins these men had committed and if those they trespassed against would ever be able to forgive them. I also wondered what kind of prison cell their crimes had consigned their victims to and if they would ever be free. Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Did he do so because everywhere weeds are mixed up with wheat?
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it this way: “Forgiveness and reconciliation are not cheap, they are costly. Forgiveness is not to condone or minimize the awfulness of an atrocity or wrong. It is to recognize its ghastliness but to choose to acknowledge the essential humanity of the perpetrator and to give that perpetrator the possibility of making a new beginning.” He continued, “Forgiveness is an act of much hope and not despair…for ultimately there is no future without forgiveness.”
At 8 pm, Sister Josephine wrapped up the discussion. Thank yous were extended all around. The inmates went back to their cells to be locked in for evening count, while the religious leaders walked back down the long hall that lead to freedom. As Sister Josephine walked besides me, she said, “They always want to talk about forgiveness. Because it’s the only way they will ever be free.” That’s true for both weeds and wheat, isn’t it?