Monday, July 28, 2008

Year A Seventeeth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 3,5.7-12; Ps. 119,75.72.76-77.127-130; Rom 8,28-30; Matt. 13,44-52

Do we, like the Psalmist, love the Lord’s commands? What an odd question, but a no less important one for its oddness. After all, what can it mean to love commands, especially when we think of commands as being restraints, rules, and restrictions externally imposed on us? We find a provisional answer in Psalm 119, which is our responsorial today. God’s commands move us forward, that is, along the pilgrim path of life, the revelation of God’s words is what sheds light on our path and prevents us from following "false ways", that is, paths that do not lead us to our destiny, the kingdom of heaven.

Suffice it to say that loving the Lord’s command is what it means to be wise. Wisdom is not magically achieved through some kind of blind and/or fear-driven obedience. Rather, it is to come to know that the path we are called walk is the true path and that we need God’s help to discern it and to stay on it. In other words, our obedience must simultaneously be intentional and humble. Intentionally following God’s commands means understanding that righteousness does not consist of mindlessly doing some things and avoiding others because the Bible or the church says so. Rather, it consists in seeking God’s face by trying to understand why God asks what he does of us as well as making an effort to learn how the constant practice of doing what is good and avoiding what is evil, as difficult as this can sometimes be, transforms us and, in turn, those with whom we come in contact. Doing this also requires humility because a sterile observance of God’s commandments all too easily leads to self-righteousness, which leads us off the narrow path to the kingdom of heaven.

In our first reading today a young King Solomon, given the opportunity in a dream to ask God for whatever he wanted, asks for wisdom. He specifically asks for the wisdom to be able to rule the kingdom of united Israel he inherited from his father, David. It is not too much to say, at least for an Israelite of that era, that Solomon is asking for wisdom to rule the society of the people of God, which amounted to something like God’s kingdom on earth. While Solomon’s rule began with great promise and even saw the expansion of the Israelite kingdom, it ended with a kingdom on the brink of division, on the verge of splitting apart. This was due in large part to Solomon’s advancing the interests of the earthly kingdom at the expense of being to faithful to the covenant, ignoring God’s commands, specifically the injunction against the toleration of false gods among the chosen people. Almost immediately following Solomon’s death, Israel divided in two, which weakening led, in time, to exile for Israel. So, we see in Solomon an illustration as to why intentionality and humility are necessary for the obedience that leads to wisdom.

Our Gospel picks up from where we left off last week, which is in the middle of no fewer than seven parables in one chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. A parable is simply a comparison. These parables compare experiences recognizable to first century Jews to the kingdom of heaven. Take our first parable, when Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a person who finds a very valuable treasure buried in a field. Instead of reporting his find to the owner of the field, or stealing it, he reburies it, sells all that he owns, and purchases the field. The take home point is simple, as it is meant to be with parables, through the use of which Jesus tries, in the words of the psalmist, to give "understanding to the simple"; receiving the kingdom of God is more valuable than everything we own. (Ps 119, 130).

Now, lest we reduce these parables to a boring moral lesson, we have to shed some light on exactly what, or, more precisely who, the kingdom of heaven is. Jesus of Nazareth is the kingdom in person. This unveiling that Jesus is the kingdom is called by that great father of the church, Origen, autobasileia. Commenting on this insight, the Holy Father, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, writes: "Jesus himself is the Kingdom; the Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he" (49). That is how, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus can proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3,2). In these parables Jesus seeks to bring us to the realization "that he is God’s presence" (Jesus of Nazareth 49).

This brings us, via a circuitous route, to our second reading. Paul, in writing about being conformed to the image of the Son, is referring to the full restoration of Christians, through baptism, to the original image, deformed but not eradicated by sin, that we are created and intended by God to possess. This image is nothing less than the divine image, made known to the world by incarnation of the Son of God. At this point, it is important to note that Jesus Christ is still personally present, not only among us, but through us, as we are his body, the church. He tells us himself that "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18,20). Therefore, we are reassured that the kingdom of heaven is not taking an intermission until Christ comes in glory.

Along these lines, it is necessary to point out that the Greek word that we almost always reduce to mean Christ’s second coming, paraousia, really "means ‘presence,’ as opposed to ‘absence’" (Paul: A Fresh Perspective 54). New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright, commenting on Paul’s messianic apocalypticism (try saying that fast three times), writes that, for Paul "heaven and earth are not . . . separated by a great distance" (ibid). Rather, Paul sees heaven and earth "as overlapping and interlocking dimensions" (ibid). For Paul and for us, "what matters is not Jesus’ ‘coming’ from a great distance, but his ‘personal presence’" here and now (ibid).

My dear friends nowhere do heaven and earth, the kingdom that is already and not yet, overlap and interlock more than when we assemble, as now, in eucharist. Our gathering makes the kingdom of heaven a present reality, even if not yet fully present. Just as we cannot separate Jesus and the kingdom, neither can we separate the Lord from his commands. To wit: if we love the Lord, we must strive to observe what he commands in order that we may be fully conformed to his image. We are here in obedience to his command to "do this in memory of me", thus giving lie to the false distinction between being spiritual but not religious. Our striving is intentional and humble because we recognize that such a transformation can only be brought about by the power of God, which is most manifest in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. In turn, we are called to make known his image to the world. We do this by seeking to follow the Lord in all we do and say. Only in this way do we make present the kingdom of heaven, which is, indeed, like a "pearl of great of price," worth more than all we can ever possess (Matt. 13,46).

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