Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
There is a wisdom motif running through today’s readings. The first reading describes King Solomon’s request for the wisdom to govern wisely and the gospel extract is from Matthew’s chapter of parables, which contain wisdom for those who take the trouble to consider carefully the message of riddles and parables. Through the whole of his gospel Matthew presents Jesus as Wisdom incarnate. Everything Jesus says and does is Wisdom in action.
1 Kings 3:5. 7-12
The two books of Kings offer us a coherent but very selective history of Israel from the death of David (c. 970 B.C.) to the release of King Jehoiachin from prison in Babylon (c. 560 B.C.). The original work underwent editing, with additions and deletions, probably in the time of Hezekiah (c. 700) and again during the Babylonian exile (c. 550 B.C.).
While Solomon is set up in today’s reading as a good man with noble aspirations, there is a hint in the verse before this passage that Solomon would fall from grace. His infidelity occurred when he sacrificed to false gods and allowed the worship of other deities in the land of Israel. Nevertheless, Solomon goes down in Israelite history as the patriarch of wisdom.
The irony of this psalm following the reading about Solomon is that the psalmist declares uncompromising loyalty to the directions and expectations of God. The psalm is a poem of commitment to keeping the obligations and commandments that are expressions of a loving relationship with God. It was his worship of other deities that led Solomon to stray from his commitment to God.
In these few verses from Romans 8 Paul is affirming that committed Christians who respond to the divine call to discipleship become images of Jesus Christ.
When we live out the values and priorities of Jesus, we are in the process of growing to wholeness.
Paul is saying that God works things out for good in the lives of committed disciples of the Son, not that they will be spared hardships and suffering, but that all will be well for them in the end.
Today’s gospel reading contains three familiar parables, which, like many of the parables of Jesus, have been domesticated and moderated by centuries of Christian interpretation. The parable of the pearl and the treasure in the field seem to be similar at first sight and yet they are designed to disturb us in different ways.
The treasure in the field is found by someone quite by accident but the finder recognises its value and goes all out and virtually bankrupts himself to buy the field. But he is not telling anyone why he would go to such lengths to buy a plot of ground. If, as Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to this treasure, then what is it? What is it in our life and experience that will enable us to be part of the community of God?
Is there a treasure that I am not recognising or a priority I have not set as a goal to strive for with all my energy – a treasure that will enhance my relationship with God through becoming what I can be?
Many of us have been trained or brainwashed to think of the kingdom of heaven as ‘heaven’, an afterlife thing, when Jesus is pretty clear that it is a here-and-now thing. Our life in the community of God is not a coming attraction; it is screening now in full colour. So, do I have my priorities arranged so that I can be fully part of it? Am I waiting for something to happen or am I getting on with the business of my spiritual growth to wholeness?
What are we doing in our spiritual life that will give us life to the full?
The merchant in the next parable has set his sights on fine pearls. He is on a quest and is quite clear about his priorities and his goal. But the lights go on and the band plays when he hits the jackpot. His quest is ended, but instead of fine pearls he recognises his treasure in one single pearl and liquidates all he has to buy it.
Imagine a man in prison who is asked what is the treasure he would dedicate himself to own. Would we be surprised if he said ‘freedom’? And we would understand that to get that treasure he would do his best to qualify for an early parole? His every thought and action would be dedicated to gaining the treasure. Jesus is asking us, ‘What are you doing in your spiritual life, in the attitudes that govern your behaviour and your relationships, that will give you possession of life to the full in the community of God?’
Notice these are not primarily parables about church or giving all our possessions to the poor or about sacrifice. They are about priorities; they are about not being distracted from our pursuit of the treasure by material possessions; they are about steering clear of an environment that chokes us with poor values, self-centred priorities and a desire to please people of dubious character.
We could well ask what the two fortune finders will do with their treasure, and if we raise that question, we will have missed the point of each parable, which challenges us to define what is of supreme value in our life’s journey. When we establish our treasure, we will not use it for other ends, we will unpretentiously live up to it.
A little by-the-way: what if we had a Rip van Winkle sleep for a few years and woke up to a church that was not crippled by left-brain thinking; where control was not a feature and privilege did not exist? What if women and men had equal roles in administration and ministry, and authentic synodality, marked by consultation and genuine listening, was a normal and well-tried modus operandi? What if transparency and accountability were management strategies in place of obfuscation, stage- management and inertia? What if there was a genuine and observable return to the values and spiritual dream of Jesus? And, almost out of left field, what if we woke up to a church that was fully committed to protecting our environment in tune with the attitudes and principles put forward by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’. Surely that would be a treasure hidden in a field. Surely that would be a realisation of the community of God in our world.
We need to approach parables with imagination
The parables of Jesus do not so much have meaning as they challenge us to make meaning that relates to our lives. When Jesus said, ‘Those who have ears to hear with, let them hear,’ he was daring us to take from the story what we can. Pious platitudes like, be humble, be thankful and generous, pray earnestly, practise love, are not the way forward. Remember, these are parables not allegories in which we have to work out how A stands for X, and B stands for Y. No! they deserve to be seriously and imaginatively pondered.
Consider that the parables came from the imagination of Jesus, so, we need to read or hear them with imagination. Every parable contains a mixture of detail along with ‘big picture’ scope. The pennies will drop only for those who are open to the unpredictable moves of the Spirit.
Jesus concludes with a wisdom statement to the effect that true understanding leads us to appreciate value in new things and old. Blind progressives may not see the good that lies in the old, and may be convinced that only a clean sweep will bring about worthwhile change. Hardened conservatives may not see that growth necessarily involves change.
True wisdom can discern reality and appreciate authentic value where it exists. Choosing the best of new things and old with careful discernment makes for a balanced and harmonious outcome.
It is curious to see how the opponents of Pope Francis and his efforts to spark needed change in the church do not seem to fully understand that he is not advocating novelty or change for the sake of change.
In fact, he is calling us all to old values that are straightforward and authentic, the values of Jesus no less. These are enduring values based on profound respect for relationships – our relationship with God, our fellow humans, a healthy relationship with self, and a great reverence for our natural environment.
Getting back to origins means superannuating practices, trends and even theologies that have contributed to abuses and a culture of certainty and authoritarianism that are not in harmony with Jesus’ challenging reversal of values.
Imagination is more important than knowledge - Albert Einstein
If there had been three wise women who went to Bethlehem, they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a meal and brought along some practical gifts.