Sunday, July 24, 2011

Year A Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kgs 3:5.7-12; Ps. 119:57.72.127-130; Rom. 8:28-30; Matt. 13:44-52

Today’s readings unmistakably are about wisdom. Wisdom means something like the ability, or, more precisely, the result of an ability, to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, and common sense. In other words, wisdom is bound up with and arises from reality. Hence, wise sayings tend to be very concrete, building as they do on universal human experience often described by a singular person. Most of the wise sayings with which we are familiar are aphorisms, a term which refers to a saying that is neatly and effectively concise. The Scriptures are full of just this kind of wisdom. In fact, the entire book of Proverbs conveys to us wisdom in exactly this way. Hence, the axiom for all biblical wisdom is found in the Book of Proverbs: "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Prov. 9:10). Indeed, the wisdom conveyed in our readings for today seems not only to presume this axiom, but to prove it and show us that, indeed, knowledge of the Holy One is true wisdom.

In our first reading, God, by means of a dream, offers to give the young King Solomon whatever he asks. Solomon asked for "an understanding heart" with which to properly judge, with which "to distinguish right from wrong" (2 Kgs 3:9). It is evident that the Lord God was most pleased with the young ruler’s earnest request for wisdom, commending him for not asking for a long life, wealth, or vengeance against his enemies (2 Kgs 3:11). By his request, Solomon demonstrated that which we sang in our responsorial Psalm, "Lord, I love your commands" (Ps. 119:72). He showed his love for God’s law by valuing it more than he valued "thousands of gold and silver pieces" (Ps. 119:72).

This is all fine and well, a good lesson in how to be good, how to be moral, how to be ethical. But what recourse do those of us who recognize our distinct and frequent lack of wisdom have? What do we do when we do not love the Lord’s commands, when we do not fear him, that is, revere Him, when our thoughts, words, and actions are utterly devoid of wisdom? It is precisely here that the great apostle of God’s grace given us in Christ Jesus comes to our assistance. He assists us by telling us that "all things work for good for those who love God" and "who are called according to [God’s] purpose" (Rom. 8:28). What might easily be missed is that, according to our English translation, St. Paul writes that "we know all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). The Greek word of which "we know" is a translation is oidamen, which literally means, "We have perceived." So, another, perhaps more accurate way, to translate oidamen is, "We have seen, for ourselves," or, "We have experienced firsthand." Earlier in this same chapter of his Letter to the Romans (chapter eight from which we have been reading for a month), Paul alluded to how he "knows" all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purposes, when he wrote: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us" (Rom. 8:18).

So, it is through suffering that I come to experience for myself just how God, who because of Jesus Christ I can call "Father", makes all things work together for my good, uses everything to bring me to my destiny, which is Himself. I am never more conscious of my need than I when I suffer. This is why Paul, just a few verses after the last verse of our second reading, writing from his own experience of being stoned, whipped, beaten, imprisoned, ship-wrecked, and embattled within the Church, was able to write:
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword. As it is written: "For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us (Rom. 8:31-37)
All of this may bring up the question in your mind about whether you are called according to God’s purpose. This question can be answered in two ways, depending on your circumstances. If you are legitimately baptized, you can be certain that you are called according to God’s purpose. If you are not baptized, but feel the love of God, which is best discerned by your realization of your great need for a Savior, you are also called and only need to respond. Our Lord said: “Many are invited, but few are chosen,” meaning that not everyone who is invited responds to the invitation (Matt. 22:14). It is a fact, revealed to us in Sacred Scripture, that our loving and gracious God desires “everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

St. Mary Magdalene from the cover of Magnificat

In our Gospel today, Jesus reinforces what the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth termed "universal election," by which he referred to the fact that all are called, but not everyone responds to God’s call. The reinforcement of this point comes in the third, perhaps least well-known, of the three parables Jesus employs in our Gospel. In this parable, taken very much from the experience of the people of His native Galilee, which roots it in reality so that it does not remain abstract, He likens the kingdom of heaven to "a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind" (Matt. 13:47). But not all the fish are what we call "keepers". The fishermen sort the fish, separating the good from the bad and cast the bad aside. Jesus tells us, who are His listeners today, a truth we work hard to avoid, especially in Church, that at the end of time, "The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous," casting the wicked, not back into the sea, but "into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth" (Matt. 13:49-50). So, you must respond to His invitation, purchase the field with the treasure, buy the pearl of great of price while they are on offer!

The fundamental question the Lord poses to you today is exactly the question that baffles so many who claim to be wise: Does your life have a meaning and a purpose, a point and an aim, a rhyme and a reason, or not? Do you have a destiny, that is, do you walk a path that leads somewhere, or wander aimlessly all your days? My friends, discerning the purpose of your existence, which amounts to a relentlessly honest search for what/who will truly satisfy you, certainly requires wisdom, the beginning of which is the fear of the Lord. Keep in mind that in this context "fear" is not synonymous with being frightened, or scared, even of hellfire, but being in awe, respecting, and revering that which endows your existence with purpose.

Jesus Christ is the pearl of great price. He is wisdom. He wants nothing more than to grant you what God granted young Solomon, by giving you Himself, doing so over, and over in and through the sacraments and in a most profound way in the Eucharist. To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him is the apogee of wisdom. In turn, He asks you to give yourself to Him.

On Friday we commemorated our great patroness, St. Mary Magdalene, who truly found wisdom and shows us what it means to be wise, which, paradoxically, often looks quite foolish. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is mentioned three times in the account of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. First, she is one of the women "looking on at a distance," one of the women "who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him," as our Lord died on the cross (Matt. 27:55-56). Next she is written about with regard to Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, where we read that after the body was buried and a great stone had been put in place to prevent entry, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb" (Matt. 27:61). Finally, we read that at dawn on the first day of the week, the two women who sat facing the tomb two days earlier, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, "came to see the tomb" (Matt. 28:1). As they arrived "there was a great earthquake" and "an angel of the Lord descended from heaven… rolled back the stone, and sat upon it" (Matt. 28:2).The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead…'" (Matt. 28:5-7). In response, “they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples” that He had been raised (Matt. 28:8).

Because, like young King Solomon, Mary of Magdala truly loved wisdom, she was able to offer herself completely to Christ, her Lord. Despite her uncertainty about the future, Christ rewarded her, overcoming her fear with joy and making her apostula apostulorum, that is, apostle to the apostles. God has made her memory eternal. So, to be the people of St. Mary Magdalene means to be a people of wisdom, a people who live always in the awareness that God, who is love, is their origin and destiny, and who offer their lives as witnesses to the One who is Wisdom incarnate.

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