Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pearl of Great Price

                                    17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                  


           
A common theme in fairy stories is for someone to be given an opportunity to wish for anything. Sometimes, even three wishes are offered. Maybe all these stories derive from the story in today’s first reading about King Solomon. The name Solomon has become synonymous with wisdom, and when we usually think of Solomon we usually think of him as a wise old man.

In today’s reading though, he is a young man who has just come to the throne after the death of his father, King David. Unlike today’s politicians the young Solomon is not sure if he is up to the job that faces him. Nevertheless, when in a dream he hears that God will grant him one wish, he shows that he is wise beyond his years.

            Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
            To judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.

The Lord praises Solomon for he has not asked for something silly or stupid. He has asked for Wisdom. He did not ask for personal riches or for power over his enemies. He asked for “understanding so that you may know what is right.” It is a truism that the smartest people, those with the most education or book learning, are not necessarily the wisest. Here we see that wisdom involves decision-making. It is the ability to decide between what is right and wrong—not just for ourselves but also for all those for whom we are responsible.

Today’s gospel reading is all about decision-making. Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a treasure in a field; to a valuable pearl; and to a net full of fish. When he says to his followers, “Do you understand all these things?” he is speaking to us. It is clear that he is not just speaking about buried treasure, or jewels, or fish. He is speaking about the decisions we will all have to make in our lives.

We just have to turn on the TV or look at the newspaper headlines to see that many rich and famous people make really bad decisions. How many young, popular rock stars have had their lives cut short by drug addiction. Look at all the politicians of both parties who have been forced to leave office in disgrace because of poor moral decisions. What about the star athletes who after years of making millions in their prime, go broke a few years after their retirement?

It’s not just the rich and famous who make bad decisions. Everyday, ordinary people like ourselves are faced with decisions. Most are minor but some can be really significant and life changing. Very often the decision does not seem to be between right and wrong but between two equally attractive options. When making these decisions, it is not a bad idea to think of the pearl of great price.
In today’s gospel, Jesus used the example of a merchant who already has amassed a store of fine gems. But one day he comes across the finest one of all. To get it, he sells or trades all the rest. To achieve success in sports athletes will have to devote themselves to unremitting practice in the pursuit of excellence. Even if they excel at more than one sport, they will eventually have to decide to give up the others for the one that offers the most chance of success. In business it is much the same. Success means focusing on your goal and putting everything else aside.

In our lives it is not so obvious. What is our pearl of great price? Is there anything we want that is so precious that we will give up all we have for it? I suppose that ten people will give ten different answers if asked what is their pearl of great prices. If we think about it seriously, I think most of us would say that it has something to do with happiness. What wouldn’t we give or do to be really truly happy?

But what is happiness? I think most of us would agree that while material possessions are important, they alone cannot provide happiness. We live in the richest nation on earth, a nation where even the poorest have cell phones and multiple TVs. Yet there is so much sadness, loneliness, and sorrow. Ultimately, happiness is a spiritual thing. Even though in our daily lives we might not think about it, I believe it has something to do with our souls. Someone once said that our bodies do not have souls, but that every individual is a soul that has a body. In a sense we have all been incarnated.

St/ Augustine said that our souls would never rest or be at peace until we found God. Perhaps this is what St. Paul was getting at in today’s second reading.

And those he predestined he also called;
And those he called he also justified,
And those he justified he also glorified.

The pearl of great price is happiness, and it can be found through wisdom, and wisdom tells us that it can be found through love, through love of God and our neighbor.


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Reading 1. I Kings 3: 5, 7-12
Reading II. Romans 8:28-30
Gospel. Matthew 13: 44-52 (Pearl of Great Price).

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Kingdom of God

                                    16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

The Mustard Bush


We should consider passages like today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom as a kind of reflection on what the ancient author had observed about the human condition. Wisdom teaches that despite all of the failings of humankind, God is not a God of condemnation. In this passage the author insists that God does not condemn us but that we condemn ourselves.  

God is the source of justice, and his power makes him not a vengeful dictator but “lenient to all.” We cannot imagine that God can be pleased when we condemn ourselves to a life of misery and suffering. We read,

            But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency
            And with much lenience you govern us…     

These words introduce us to the Kingdom of God, the subject of the three parables or stories in today’s gospel. The thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew is full of parables about the Kingdom of God. Last week the beginning of the chapter gave us the famous parable of the Sower and the Seed. Today’s three short parables immediately follow and expand on the theme of spiritual growth while giving us an idea of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God.

The first one is about a farmer who sows good seed only to find that some enemy has planted bad seed in the same field. Subsequently, weeds grow up along with the wheat. When the farmer’s servants ask him what to do, he says to let them grow together until the harvest when they will be separated.

Two thousand years later it is not hard to mistake the meaning of this parable, or to see its relevance in our own time when everything imaginable is growing up together. Daily the news brings us stories of bombings, massacres, violence and depravity along with stories of great heroism, decency and charity. However, for most of us in our own lives, it is often hard to tell the wheat from the weeds.

In the explanation at the end of the passage we do hear that only at the end will there be a separation.

The Son of Man will send his angels,
And they will collect out of his kingdom
All who cause others to sin and all evildoers.

We notice that ejection from the kingdom is not the will of God, nor does it depend on anyone’s race, nationality, gender, social or economic status, or even religious beliefs. It depends on how we have conducted our lives. The other two parables also bear this message. The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds but it grows to become the largest of plants. The least of us can accomplish great things in our own little way. The parable of the yeast that leavens the dough to make it rise and ultimately become edible is also an example of the way we all can bear much fruit.

St. Therese, a Carmelite nun who died in her early twenties, advocated the “little way”. Her words and life resonated through the whole Church and today she is regarded as one of a handful of Doctors of the Church. My own Italian immigrant grandparents were born just a few years after St. Therese and, while they will never be canonized, in their own little way I believe that they also bore much fruit. Like millions of other poor and hardly educated immigrants they left their homeland to build a better life for themselves and their families.

St. Paul says in today’s second reading that all of us are filled with the Spirit of God, and it is that Spirit that can make us accomplish great things.

The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness,
For we do not know how to pray as we ought…

So, even if we are not skilled in prayer or filled with theological knowledge, the Spirit of God will guide us in everything we do. Sometimes we feel that if we only had a little more time in our busy lives to meditate and pray, we might become closer to God’s Kingdom. However, I like to think that in these parables Jesus is teaching us that the little things we do in our ordinary lives are the things that really bring us into the Kingdom of God. All have been called to be good and faithful stewards and we have our work cut out for us.


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Reading 1. Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Reading II. Romans 8:26-27
Gospel. Matthew 13: 24-43 (Kingdom of Heaven)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sower and the Seed

                                    15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                 


           
Today’s first reading is clearly an introduction to the famous parable recounted in today’s gospel account of the sower and the seed. Isaiah compares the word of God to the rain and snow that make everything blossom and grow. Without this moisture which comes down from above there would be no life on earth. Obviously Isaiah is talking about much more than rain and snow. For him the word of God is more real and more important than the rain and snow.

            My word shall not return to me void,
            But shall do my will,
            Achieving the end for which I sent it.

In today’s parable Jesus shares Isaiah’s view. He even quotes from Isaiah. The parable of the sower and the seed is one of the most famous but it is also the only one which Jesus bothers to explain to his puzzled disciples. In Matthew’s account the seed, that is, the word of God, falls in different places with different results. Some falls on the hardened, trodden down path and is quickly eaten by the birds. Some falls on rocky ground where there is little soil to nourish it. Some falls among thorns or weeds which choke it. Finally, the rest falls on good soil and produces a bountiful harvest.

What is the meaning of this parable? After telling His disciples why He uses parables, Jesus then explains to them the meaning of this one. Let’s try to put His explanation in our own words. In the first place, He equates the seed sown in the path with those who hear the word of God without understanding it. Who could that be?

How many people today have only the most rudimentary knowledge of their own faith? For how many of us does our religious education stop with the eighth grade? Is there any other field of endeavor in which we would be content to stay at the eighth grade level? What would we think of a job application where the candidate’s schooling stopped at the eighth grade? Why do we spend thousands of dollars trying to get a college degree? What professional athlete would be content with eighth grade skills? Even when they make the pros they have to keep acquiring new skills in order to remain competitive. Why should life be any different?

The second case of the rocky ground is more difficult. We all know of people whose faith has been shaken and even lost by some setback, some sorrow, and even some tragedy. Our Lord speaks of tribulation. But today, how many people have lost their faith because of a bad marriage or a divorce? How many have lost it because of some word spoken by an insensitive priest or religious? How many have lost their faith because of the scandalous behavior of a few priests? Finally, it is so sad to see the death or illness of a loved one cause someone to question their beliefs.
We don’t have to work too hard to understand the third category.

            The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
            But then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
            And it bears no fruit.

Worldly anxiety is something we can all relate to. It requires no dramatic event or crisis. It creeps up on us slowly and before we know it we are in its grasp. Young people know how important it is to have friends, but often the desire to be popular and well-liked can take over and ruin their lives. We all know that it is important for us to work hard in order to provide for the basic needs of our families, but how often do we see men and women so consumed by their work that their families are seriously hurt in the process of getting ahead? Even the elderly can fall into a daily routine that chokes them like the thorns in today’s gospel.

Life is full of snares and traps. Maybe that is what St. Paul had in mind in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans.

            for creation was made subject to futility,
            not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it.

There is no denying that there is pain and suffering in the world. Paul continually urges his followers to remain steadfast in their beliefs and not to turn their backs on God, or ignore the teaching of his Son, Jesus. As in any endeavor there is a reward for perseverance.

            I consider that the sufferings of the present time are as nothing
            Compared with the glory to be revealed.

The seed, the grace of God, has been given to us all. It is not just the saints and martyrs who have borne fruit. They are just the tip of a huge iceberg. God’s grace is not a pious fiction. Despite all the pain and suffering in the world today, we just have to look around us to see in a multitude of acts of kindness, generosity, and unselfish charity the bountiful harvest that the seed of God is still producing.


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Reading 1. Isaiah 55: 10-11
Reading II. Romans 8:18-23
Gospel. Matthew 13: 1-23 (A sower went out to sow).