Sunday of week 17 of Ordinary Time

July 30, 2017

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Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5.7-12: Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52

WE HAVE TODAY the third and final set of readings centred on the parables of the Kingdom from Matthew chapter 13. If you have not read last week’s reflections you might like to go back and refresh your memory on what is understood here by the Kingdom of “heaven” (i.e. of God).

We are again presented today with three parables, two of which are closely linked in meaning but with slight differences. The people of Jesus’ time would have understood them all very easily. They were drawn from scenes of everyday life with which they were perfectly familiar.

The first and second parables are in effect saying that to know God and to live according to the Gospel are the most precious things in life. Through Jesus and the Gospel we come to know and understand what is the real meaning of life, what are the most important things in life.

Discovering a treasure

In the first parable Jesus compares entering the Kingdom to a man who finds treasure in a field. We need to remember that in those days, ordinary people did not have banks. Only the rich had access to places where their possessions were secure. If ordinary people did have valuable things, the simplest and safest thing was to hide them under the ground. Of course, because of war or some other unforeseen calamity, they might have to leave a place suddenly and not be able to take their belongings with them. They might not be able to return or they might die before they could do so. Someone else, then, might stumble on their treasure and, according to Jewish law, the finder could regard it as his own.

In this parable, the man comes across the treasure but the field where it is hidden does not belong to him. He sells everything he has in order to get ownership of the field and hence of its buried treasure. The idea obviously is that when one really discovers Jesus and his vision of life everything else becomes secondary. In the service of the Kingdom there are no half measures and in that service there is a special kind of liberating joy. This was Paul’s experience: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8) and again “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 2:21).

To have a personal relationship with Christ and to have made his view of life one’s own is the most beautiful, the most precious thing in the world. It is not enough, of course, just to say this; one must personally experience it as a fact – as many have done and many, unfortunately, have never really tried to do.

In search of treasure

The second parable is similar. A businessman is looking for fine pearls. When he finds the one he wants, he sells everything else he has in order to acquire it.

A slight, if significant, difference has been pointed out between the two stories. For, in the first, the man was not actually looking for the treasure. Perhaps he found it while digging the ground or ploughing the field, that is, in the course of his ordinary working day. Jesus – and the real meaning of Jesus — may come to me unexpectedly through some daily experience. Many people have described their conversion to Christ as happening in such an unexpected way. There is a need, as the Gospel constantly urges, for us to be ready whenever and however Jesus comes into our lives.

In the second parable, however, the man is on the lookout for the “pearl of great price”. He knows it must exist and he uses all his energies to find it. Although we are baptised Christians, we still need to pursue constantly the true and full meaning of the Gospel which can escape us for many years. We always need to understand more, to love more, to serve more.

Example of Solomon

It is in this context that we can take a look at the First Reading from the First Book of Kings. The young King Solomon is told by God, “Ask what you would like me to give you.” It is a question that Jesus sometimes asks in the Gospel and he is asking it of me in today’s Mass. How am I going to answer? What do I most want to have or to be right now? We can make a good guess at what a lot of people, including ourselves, would be likely to ask. For many it would be likely to have some connection with money or material security. What did Solomon ask for? “Give your servant a heart to understand how to discern between God and evil, for who could govern this people of yours that is so great?”

In other words, he asked for wisdom and discernment. Wisdom is much more than knowing a lot of things or having prestigious university degrees. Being endowed with wisdom is much more than being just a morally very good person. Wisdom gives an in-sight into what is truly important in life, an awareness of the meaning and purpose of living, of what really matters. It is an understanding of where our real wellbeing and happiness lies.  That is indeed a pearl of great price, price-less in every sense of the word.

Wisdom as seeing

Solomon did not ask for wealth, or power, although these things came to him. He did not ask just to have things, or to have obstacles in his life removed. He asked to be able to see. A constant theme running through the Gospel is the healing of blind people and of the incurable blindness of those who thought they could see. The true disciple is the one who begs Jesus, “Lord, that I may see.” The one who sees is the one who has wisdom. The one who has wisdom knows how to cope with the situations of life whether they bring ease or difficulty, pain or joy.

This is what Solomon asked for and this is what God gave him. “Since you have asked for this and not asked for long life for yourself or riches or the lives of your enemies, but have asked for a discerning judgement for yourself, here and now I do what you ask. I give you a heart wise as none before you has had and none will have after you.” And, of course, the ‘wisdom of Solomon’ is a by-word down to our day.

This is the treasure hidden in a field for which a man sells everything to have. This is the fine pearl for which a merchant sells everything he owns in order to get it. The ability to see is what opens the door to the Kingdom of God, that world of interlocking relationships between God, human beings and our world which brings to all security, happiness and peace. For here there is truth, here there is love and caring, here there is freedom and peace.

For much of the time, we are chasing false treasures, mainly money, status and pleasure. For much of the time we are locked into the past – full of nostalgia or regrets, or focused on the future – not yet achieved longings and desires, or depressing fears and anxieties. Meanwhile the enriching present passes us by and the treasure is never discovered and the really valuable pearl is never found.

A mixed bag

This brings us to the third parable today. While the first and second parables speak of the total commitment and dedication which are the ideal of every follower of Christ, this third parable helps to put our two feet firmly back on the ground. While the ideals are valid and still beckon us, they must not lead us into any form of elitism. This parable reminds us that the Church and even the Kingdom in the process of its evolution is full of all kinds of people. Our Church is a Church of both saints and sinners. And we might say it is primarily for sinners. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The role of the Church is to accept into its bosom “the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame” (Luke 14:21) and lead them to the treasure and the pearl of great price.

The lesson of this parable is similar to that of the weeds growing up with the wheat, namely, that the kingdom is a mixed body of saints and sinners (good and rotten fish). There will be always be a temptation on the part of some who feel they are more “faithful” to separate themselves from the “bad eggs”, from the weeds, but Jesus is here telling us that that is the work of God in his own good time. In the meantime, it is for us to learn to be tolerant, compassionate and understanding of those who seem to fall far below the requirements of the Gospel and the Kingdom. And, as we said in discussing the parable of the weeds, there are very few of us who are not, in the one person, a mixture of the good and the rotten. If there are some who clearly do fall by the wayside we can sincerely say, with Saint Augustine, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Judgment is for later. Right now, it is for us to use the time given to us to go in search of the treasure and the pearl of great price, of the gift to be able to identify, with Jesus, the really true, the good and the beautiful, and to help others too in the same search.

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