24 July, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Solomon prayed for the gift of discernment, something that we all need as our guide in making decisions. All things have their own intrinsic value, but if we over-value any of our favourite “things”, we devalue God. Deep down, I need to loosen my grip on what is transient, and hold firm to what is eternal, in the spirit of faith-filled discernment. I need to find what is the real treasure, the one thing really worth seeking.
1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12. King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom: he prays for a heart that would discern between good and evil.
Rom 8:28-30. If we simply love God, everything that happens to us will work for our good and bring us closer to Christ.
Mt 13:44-52. Three parables: the treasure, the pearl and the net. The kingdom of God, our relationship with our blessed Lord, is to be prized beyond everything else.
– for the gift of discernment between good and evil, in the often complex circumstances of life.
– for the spirit of faith-filled detachment, not to become possessed by material things.
– for addicts everywhere that they may be released from their addiction and experience a healthy freedom of spirit.
– that we may prize our relationship with our blessed Lord, as the pearl of great price, beyond everything else in life.
The Price of a Pearl (Liam Swords)
There is no greater indictment of the quality of life than the sight of an old man clinging on desperately to his holding. To him, this miserable patch of grass and bog is his only insurance against abandonment. But hanging on is not the answer. It only sows bitterness and frustration in sons whose best years are squandered in waiting. Sons who in turn never learn themselves from the mistakes of their fathers. Love alone can guarantee security and care in one’s declining years. Possessions provide only the illusion of security.
Elderly farmers are not the only ones who hold on to things for security. Others have their own holdings from which only death can separate them. It may be property and wealth, status and prestige or power and influence. It may even be an awful lot less – trivial comforts and an easy life. It may be a sixteen-hour day or the thankless responsibility of high office. Or a reputation we can no longer live up to. There is nothing more pathetic than an ageing beauty queen who refuses to accept the ravages of time.
“Ask what you would like me to give you,” God said to Solomon. “Give your servant a heart to understand how to discern between good and evil,” he replied. It is the kind of gift we all need. Possessions come in many forms. It is not so much these possessions that we should rid ourselves of, as the demon of possession itself that should be exorcised. Poverty has become a dirty word in the world we live in. We should not let an Ethiopian famine or a Rwanda disaster make us forget that poverty is also a Christian virtue. It is no accident that Christ began his Sermon on the Mount with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Or that the only condition for his followers is that “they leave all things.” Or that the rich young man should have failed all because he failed this one test, “for he had great possessions.” Or that the pearl in today’s parable could only be bought by “selling everything he owns.”
The trouble with most people is that they want it both ways. All this and the good life too. But they can’t have it both ways.
There is a pearl for everyone. And there is a price for everyone to pay. A price tailored to each individual circumstances. Detachment is that price. To be able to walk away from what we cherish most without so much as looking back with regret. Our tragedy is not that we cannot find the pearl but that we are unwilling to pay the price.
High-Priced Pearl (John O’Connell)
Illustrating the Kingdom (Jack McArdle) The farmer finds a hidden treasure in the field and sells everything he owns to buy that field. The merchant finds a pearl and sells everything to own it.
If God appeared to you in a dream and asked you to make one wish, what would you say? I suppose the immediate reaction would depend on one’s circumstances. A sick person might ask for health; a person doing an important exam would want to pass the exam; the person playing in Croke Park or Lansdowne Road would wish to win this vital match… The following verse has helped me to get a deeper understanding of the pearl of great price:-
‘When I was young I never knew one half as much as now I do;
I never realised that fame may prove an empty hollow game;
That wealth despite all it can do, rarely brings contentment too;
That beauty, though its powers be strong, will not hide emptiness for long.’
Don’t get me wrong. There are other pearls of less value. There is nothing wrong with a bit of fame for yourself, your county or your country. See the efforts players put into winning for their county or country. We all like our own bit of fame. But fame does not last. Think of the stars of yesterday. Many of them are forgotten and live lonely lives.
There is nothing wrong with having money and being able to afford a good life style. I wish more people in Africa and elsewhere could afford at least the basic necessities of life. But we know that riches do not guarantee happiness.
Beauty: we all like beautiful things – beautiful house, clothes, people. But again beauty does not last. According to the author of the Rose of Tralee:- ‘It was not her beauty alone that won me. Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever shining that made me love Mary, the rose of Tralee’.
Ronald Rolheiser tells the story of a young man dying of cancer who said to him: ‘There are things worse than dying young’. And what is that? To live to old age and not know love. To have never loved or be loved. That leads me to conclude that the pearl of great price in this life is found somewhere in human relationships: the pearl of a happy family, good friends and people who love and accept you, even if none of them is perfect. Even these we can lose through departure, falling out and, more radically, through death.
What then will sustain us except that deep faith in God which is implied in accepting his kingdom. In the words of St Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’. I have known people who have had to cope with old age and debilitating infirmity and yet their faith is so deep that they have an inner peace which is amazing. I think of John Paul II at the end of his life.
Recently I was talking to a woman who had just celebrated her seventieth birthday. She had lost her husband eight years ago and is now living on her own, but at the celebration she had her four children, their spouses and her twelve grandchildren. Suddenly it dawned on her that she was one of the luckiest people in the world. She had found life’s true treasure right under her nose, as it were in her own back yard.
A message for us all – maybe we are looking for the pearl of great price in the wrong place, out there away from home. Maybe we should look closer at our everyday situation.
In the Gospel story they sold everything to get what they wanted. We will also find that the pearl of great price is costly. No amount of money will buy it. It must be purchased with your very life. You have to invest yourself in it. It is never cheap, otherwise it would not be called a treasure or a pearl.
What To Ask For? (John Walsh)
The words of popular songs, most people would agree, are by and large repetitive and without much meaning, but some lyric writers at times have an uncanny knack of getting to the heart of human situations, what people are looking for in life. There was one song some years ago, which intentionally or not, parodied the approach of many of us to God in the prayer of petition, and one of its lines went, “Lord, please send me a Mercedes Benz.” At first this appears a bit silly and rather amusing, but then when we start seriously to examine those things we keep asking of God, we begin perhaps to have second thoughts. How often is our prayer an attempt to manipulate God, to make God change his mind, to pressurise God into bringing about the kind of things that we want in our lives. If so, we would do well to ponder over the significance of this saying from a famous spiritual writer (Meister Eckhart) of the Middle Ages, “To use God is to kill him.”
If our prayer is only inspired by concern for material things, then when these are not granted, prayer, in our estimation, becomes pointless. And as soon as we cease to pray, our faith begins to vanish. For every prayer is an act of faith in God, and without it God is removed from our lives; for us God becomes, as it were dead. This is the lesson we should learn today from the Old Testament reading, which suggests that God was pleased because Solomon did not ask for a long life, nor for riches, nor for the downfall of his enemies, but instead sought something spiritual – that inner wisdom which would enable him to discern good from evil, and consequently make the right choices in life.
Every day of his life the devout Jew – and Jesus in a pre-eminent way was one such – repeated these words from sacred scripture, a tradition which is maintained up to this day, “Hear Oh Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be written on your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut 6:4-7).
This in effect is what Christ too is saying to us in the gospel, through the parable of the man who sells all he owns, in order to acquire the treasure he desires, and likewise through the story of the merchant prepared to part with all he possesses for the sake of the one pearl of great value. For the hidden treasure and the pearl that is worth everything, both symbolise something far more precious, the grace and love of God, which come to us in Jesus Christ. It is these latter which will guide our prayer towards the things that really matter, in particular towards the acceptance of God’s holy will for us. As St Paul reminds us in the second reading, for those who love God, everything will turn to their good.
Genuine prayer is the act of coming before God with a generous heart and with open hands. There are so many things in my life that I cling to, and hold tight with clenched fists – my work, my position, the friends I have, the esteem of others for me, my ideas, my views on things, the image of myself I like to project to others. If, however, I come before God with an open mind, and open my fists, these things may still remain. And if I am prepared to wait long enough with fists open, with mind uncluttered by longing and selfish desires, the Lord will inevitably come. He will look at the things I have been clutching in my hands, may even be surprised that there are so many. Then perhaps he will begin to ask, “Would you mind if in turn I take out this little item?” And I perhaps answer, “Of course, that’s why I have come here with open hands.” Then again the Lord may take a second look, and ask, “Would you mind if I put something else in your hands?” And once more I answer, “Of course, you may.”
This truly is always the heart of prayer. It is putting into practice the lesson learned by Job, who had travelled a long and painful road before becoming resigned to God’s will, no matter what he demanded, a lesson summed up in his own words, “The Lord gives, and the Lord also takes away.” My response should likewise be, “Blessed be the name of the Lord; may the will of my Lord, in all circumstances, be done in me, even as it is done in heaven. ”
An apt illustration for preaching on the first two parables of the Gospel would be the person who has been looking for something in the shops or market, He or she knows exactly the object which is wanted, and is unwilling to settle for anything else. Eventually the desired object turns up, and the person’s reaction is one of excitement, joy, relief and haste to acquire it before anyone else does.
The best theme to take might be that of total commitment to the Christian life. The theme of renunciation is perhaps not fully appropriate when speaking to a general audience. The teaching in the Gospel itself is given privately to the inner circle of disciples, not to the people as a whole, and the idea of giving up everything is riot possible for most Christians. But the idea of sitting lightly to possession or material things is worth stressing. We have the theme of discernment suggested by the first reading. Solomon is given the choice of anything he wants, but he asks for wisdom, not for his own benefit, but because wisdom is that which will best equip him for the task for which he has been chosen by the Lord The characters in the Gospel are faced with a decision: is the treasure they have found more valuable to them than all the other things they possess Apparently it is. In the light of that decision they act Nothing is allowed to come between them and that which they most desire.
Nothing then should come between the Christian and the Lord. The danger in such basic drives as ambition, the desire to have a nice home and so on, is that they can become ends in themselves, even becoming false gods. Family life can be damaged or destroyed by the father or mother being so concerned about providing things for their children that they give little of themselves, Knowing where to draw the line between using material possessions and allowing ourselves to be dominated by them is indeed a matter of wisdom and discernment, and vital for us all, Solomon asked for the wisdom to carry out his vocation, We all need to consider how best to live out our vocation, whatever it may be, because we have been offered the pearl of great price, a share in the kingdom of heaven, not just in the future, but here and now.
Single-mindedness (Lionel Swain)
In different ways each of today’s three readings emphasizes one central point: the need to recognize the primacy of God and his saving plan in our lives. Our sole preoccupation should be the knowledge of God himself and of his intentions for his world. This necessitates prayer and contemplation. It is only in prayer that we are open to receive God’s gift, whether we envisage this prayer as Solomon’s liturgy (Kings 3:3-4), as the intercession of the spirit in our hearts (Rom. 8:26-27) or, more picturesquely, as the ploughing of a field or the search for pearls (Mat. 13:44-46).
Nevertheless, God does not in any way compete with his creation. On the contrary, he is for his creation. Single-minded attachment to God cannot exclude creatures. Indeed it must include them. For the Christian an “exclusive love of God” is nonsensical We cannot love God “in himself” without, at the same time, being committed to his revealed saving plan which concerns man in his entirety of matter and spirit and, indeed, the whole of creation. So there can be no opposition between God’s “glory” and man’s happiness. Intact God’s glory is man’s happiness. The Christian view is that man will be happy only in so far as he sees reality in its right perspective, that is, has having its source in God who is all-powerful and all-loving. From this perspective there flows a whole series of attitudes towards life which alone make man happy. True Christian happiness is the assurance, in faith, that one possesses or, more precisely, possessed by” the one who is both Creator and Father. With this assurance, the Christian kows that he is at home in creation and with his fellow men who are his “brothers.”
Illustrating the Kingdom (Jack McArdle)
Today’s gospel contains three simple illustrations to help us grasp what the kingdom of God means. It is not a question of explaining it, because the reality would be beyond our comprehension. It is a question of using illustrations to enable us to get some concept of what Jesus is talking about.
There was a man one time who had a huge block of marble. His pal asked him what he intended to do with it, and he said that he was going to sculptor an elephant. “But you are not a sculptor,” said his pal. “I know that, but I thought if I chipped off everything that doesn’t look like an elephant, I might succeed.” Jesus said “Seek ye first the kingdom of God;” in searching for something, it is necessary to have some idea of what it looks like!
The first parable is about finding a treasure in a field. Jesus is appealing to their common sense. Supposing one of us found some precious item in a field, we would surely love to have it in our possession. We cannot take it, however, because it is buried, and it would require an amount of digging to get it out and, anyhow, that would involve stealing something that is not ours. One of the ways around it would be to investigate the possibility of buying the field. If I buy the field, all that it contains becomes mine. What Jesus is telling us here is that, once the coin drops and we realise what an extraordinary treasure we are offered, we should be motivated enough to give up everything else to get it. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be added onto you.”
The second parable is almost a repeat of the first, except it is addressed to a different audience. The first one was for farmers, this one is for fishermen. We have legends of the extraordinary lengths people have gone to, to discover the Holy Grail, or to retrieve the gold on the Titanic. This is a full-blooded commitment, and nothing, short of death can deter those who go searching. The difference with the kingdom of God, of course, is that it can easily be found. “It has pleased your Father to give you a Kingdom.”
There are three rules in the kingdom of God that are diametrically opposed to the values of this world. The first is Jesus is Lord. If I live in the kingdom of this world, my god can be money, success, pleasure, or power. There are people who are completely driven by the Stock Markets, opinion polls, or tam ratings. If I live in the kingdom of God, then I am driven by the person and teachings of Jesus. Are you conscious of what drives you in life? What sustains you in your living?
The second rule in the kingdom is that every person is on this earth with as much right as anyone else. The most disabled person is on this earth with as much right as the greatest genius that ever lived. Those who live with a worldly mind-set have no problem with abortion, euthanasia, or ethnic cleansing. Half the world is dying of hunger while the other half is on a diet, trying to get down the weight. We have all witnessed racism, bigotry, and intolerance. What a wonderful thing if I could rid my heart of all traces of such. “Live and let live” is a good motto for living.
The third rule in the kingdom is that it is the Holy Spirit, living in me, who alone can make this possible. If I live in the world, I can get my power from social status, political clout, or bigger and better Star Wars. If I live in the kingdom, it is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. “The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours.” If I supply any of the power, I will be tempted to steal some of the glory. “Learn to live and to walk in the Spirit,” says Paul. I have a friend whose daily mantra is “Come, Holy Spirit.” This prayer is going on in his heart all day long. It helps remind him where his power lies. Worth considering, eh?
First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life f your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.
Second Reading: Romans 8:28-30
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”