Sunday, July 30, 2017

Year A Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5.7-12; Ps 119:57.72.76-77.127-130; Rom 8:28-30; Matt 13:44-46

We just heard, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). We might well ask ourselves, do I know this, either from my own life or from looking at the world? As is often the case, our world is enmeshed in violence, poverty, and strife of all kinds. A little closer to home, life is often hectic, stressed, and seemingly devoid of any meaning beyond the next thing we have to do. We might well ask, is God making these things work for my good? Such knowledge, however at odds with the facts as it may seem, constitutes wisdom because it informs me how I am to live my circumstances. Our question, then, might be: “How do I use my circumstances?”

Answers to such a wide-ranging and complex questions as these can only be tentative and provisional. Suffice it to say, even the wisest and most learned among us labor under the limitation of being human; try as we might, we cannot see the whole picture. Solomon recognized this limitation and sought a transcendent source of wisdom.

When told by God in a dream, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you,” Solomon asked for “an understanding heart,” for wisdom (1 Kgs 3:5.9). His humble request pleased God so much it was granted. So, the young king received from God “a heart so wise and understanding” that the inspired author proclaimed, with a bit of hyperbole, no doubt, there had been no one like him up until then and that nobody who would come after him would be equal to him (1 Kgs 3:12). Indeed, even today we revere King Solomon for his wisdom.

In the Jewish Scriptures wisdom is typically concerned with everyday life, not esoteric knowledge about otherworldly mysteries. Hence, wisdom concerns practical matters and guides people in living godly lives. Throughout the various books of the Old Testament wise people are not always the most intellectually gifted. Generally, when a person is depicted as wise, s/he is presented as in tune with God. The wise person and God have a strong, intimate relationship that translates into the wise person being very practical and possessed of what usually turns out to be quite simple, but by no means always well-received, knowledge.

The divine gift of wisdom, which the Church teaches is one of the seven gifts of the Spirit, is important for each of us in living out our Christian vocation, especially in the many ambiguous situations we in which we find ourselves. Presumably, each of us wants to live a good life, a life in tune with the divine life we received in baptism. To that end, we repent of those things that were unwise that pull us away from God, damage our relationships with others, and create disharmony in the eucharistic fellowship we share.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field..." (Matt 13:44)

All of the parables in today’s Gospel begin with the words, “The kingdom of God is like . . .” (Matt 13:44-45.47.52). These analogies are in keeping with Jesus’ basic message that in him God’s kingdom has come near. As one of the great Church Fathers, Origen, stated it, Jesus is autobasileia, that is, God’s kingdom in person. God’s kingdom is present wherever and whenever God’s will is done. That seems simple enough, but we live in a technological age that demands exactness and precision. We are uneasy with paradox and ambiguity. If only Jesus had satisfied our need for exactness and given a precise definition of what the kingdom is and exactly where and when it occurs. I guess that's why we have systematic theologians.

Take today’s first parable as an example of the Lord’s indirectness. One might well respond to this story moralistically and say that the person who found the treasure in the field, reburied it and bought the field acted dishonestly. The treasure should have been reported to the owner of the field, not concealed until after the finder of the treasure could purchase the land, thus securing the treasure for himself. However, Jesus is not teaching here about honesty. It is not uncommon for his parables to feature characters who act in what we might see as slightly shady ways. Jesus sometimes used worldly stories to further open the eyes of those who could see, revealing to them the often-surprising ways God works in the world. Hence, the focus of this parable is on the realization of the value of the treasure - it is worth everything the finder owns and even more! The transaction in the second parable is more straightforward, but the point is much the same.

Two weeks ago, the discourse we are still reading (the third of 5 discourses in Matthew) began with Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching the crowds. In this discourse Jesus is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, but also as wisdom made flesh- divine, transcendent Wisdom engaging human limitation. The actions and words of Jesus are our practical, if often paradoxical, guidance for everyday life. Reading scripture daily, especially from the Gospels, is an indispensable way that we sit and learn at the feet of our Lord. Like the knowledge written about by St Paul in our reading from Romans, only those with ears to hear and eyes to see benefit from divine Wisdom. In other words, only those who are open to letting themselves be challenged and changed can see and hear. This excludes those who read and listen only to confirm what they think they already know- who hear only what they want to hear and only see what they want to see.

Linking wisdom to the knowledge “that all things work for good for those who love God,” it is safe to say of the lives of the saints and of our own lives that God is not so concerned about what happens to us as he is with how we respond. Indeed, do we have the wisdom to affirm with St Paul, who, later in this same chapter of Romans, wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered?’” “No!” Paul emphatically continues, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:35-37). Such is the value of knowing Jesus Christ that knowing him is worth all we have in order to become all God created, redeemed us, and is now sanctifying us to be; without Christ, all we have amounts to nothing. As the title of popular Christian book written a few years ago by a now disgraced Evangelical pastor put it: Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

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