It’s your first baby. It has been great. Sure, it has been hard work, but what a bundle of joy. And tomorrow is the last day of maternity leave. You have a great job and love the people you work with. Maybe you should stay home longer? Maybe the family can get by on one salary? But there is a great day care center near work. Maybe we could nanny-share with a neighbor? But the big project that you really want to be part of is coming up…. Such is the circumstance of ambivalence.
Ambivalence is one of those words I suspect people misunderstand. Some think it means to be indifferent, that either option is OK, or it is some middle-of-the-road-whatever attitude. The word comes from the Latin ambi– “both, on both sides” and valentia “strength.” It means to simultaneously experience opposing or contradictory feelings, beliefs, or motivations. In other words, to be pulled in two directions at the same time by equal strengths of feelings, beliefs, ideas, etc.
There are any number of situations in life that will drop us in the stew of ambiguity. And keep us there – here is a short list of just some of life’s ambiguous moments:
- The great college you have been accepted to or the one that you and your family can afford.
- Midnight at the dinner table, a stack of bills, and you know there is not enough to cover it all – and one of your children’s birthday is a week away.
- The dance recital, swimming meet, soccer tournament, or event for which your child has been practicing so hard, and the scheduled celebration of First Communion or Confirmation.
- Keeping you aging mother in her own home or moving her to a managed health care facility
- …and these days of this viral pandemic, being present at Mass or staying home with the live stream; dinner party at a friend’s house with people you don’t know that well or safer-at-home; and you know the rest of the list – you are living the list!
In this year of the viral pandemic the upcoming family decision about schools is a perfect stew of ambivalent forces impacting the multiple generations of families. Consider the house in which:
- Both parents work – maybe one or both are at home, maybe not.
- You’ve already had the experience of distance learning – and it was mixed results – you were not trained as an elementary school teacher! You remember last spring: work, taking care of the kids, entertaining the kids, and the ever-narrowing scope of family life.
- Is it healthy and safe to send your kids to in-classroom education? What about the impact of homeschooling on socialization and education? What if the child catches the virus? Can they be infectious agents?
- What if you sent the child to in-classroom education, is it wise to let them see their grandparents?
What does this have to do with our Scripture readings? Everything.
You look at your friends and family and you face a sea of ambivalence as your loved ones tell you how you should vote, whether you should or need not wear a mask, or how you should think about any number of policies and practices that swirl around us.
You are the landowner in the gospel. An unseen enemy has planted a toxic weed amidst your wheat harvest. When the plants are both seedlings you can’t tell the difference. If you let them grow together the weed’s roots will intertwine with the wheat, so that when you can finally tell the difference, pulling up the weeds may also pull up the wheat. How infested is the field? Should you just plow the whole thing under? Can you separate the two at the harvest to ensure a toxic-free produce? Or will the whole thing just be a financial disaster, or will it be profitable? You face a harvest of ambivalence.
These are the things playing out in the Gospel. The wheat is fruitful, the weeds are toxic. The workers in the field have their idea of what is right or just and want to use might: “Do you want us to go and pull them up? ..The owner replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest.’” (Mt 13:28-30)
In all the ambivalent situations, there will never be clear, perfect information. And you might not be able to wait until the weeds are revealed among the wheat – decisions have to be made while things are at the beginning, just seedlings. And still you have a decision to make.
In the first reading today, we are told “For your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.” (Wisdom 12:16) Might (authority), justice, leniency rooted in compassion are the characteristics of your decision – no matter how ambivalent the situation.
Perhaps the most ambivalent dynamic you will face? Look deeply in the mirror. Each one of us is wheat with weeds sown within by the enemy. We are pulled in many directions by the world to do good as well as less-than-good. We are measured by what we have done and what we have failed to do. We are called to a higher sometimes inconvenient divine Truth.
I am particularly taken by the simple line in the first reading: “Those who are just must be kind.” (Wisdom 12:19). The word in Greek means “kind, loving, benevolent.” And there is the starting point of our deliberations in ambivalence. There is never enough information, there is never enough time, but there is a starting point: kindness – even if the decisions have tough consequences. “Mom and dad, I love you, and let me tell you why you won’t be able to see your grandkids for a while.”
In the midst of all of these situations that lack clarity and obvious choices, the gospel asks us to also be mindful that, we are promised, in the end, God will sort things out. Which doesn’t mean everything will turn out just fine in our estimation.
The promise here isn’t that Christian faith prevents hardship; the promise is that we are unconditionally loved by God in the midst of all our choices. Some decisions we’ll get right, others wrong, and still others we won’t know whether we were right or wrong for months or years to come. But we still need to make them. We live in a world colored by ambiguity that can sap our strength and make us question our decisions.
And so, we pray as the second reading tells us: “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.” And we begin with a kindness in our hearts for the Spirit already knows our heart.
Let’s us pray.
Dear Lord, our lives are colored by ambiguity and we don’t always know the right or best thing to do. But we do know that your love is guiding us and that you have called us to live as your people in the world. When we face hard choices, give us eyes to see the best path forward and the courage to follow it. When we make mistakes, forgive us. When we are hurt by our choices, comfort us. When we hurt others, help us to reach out to them in love. And above and beyond all these decisions, remind us that you still love us and call us back to this place that we may be forgiven, renewed, called, and sent forth once more as your beloved children. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.