Sunday, July 24, 2011

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 / Romans 8:28-30 / Matthew 13:44-52

Sometimes we need to know that all is not as it appears in order to make the right response to the world around us. Unless we can see the real significance of things, we are likely to find ourselves confused and frustrated, perhaps even horrified, by the choices we or others make. We have all no doubt seen the trick in which a magician saws his pretty assistant in half, only to find her, at the end of the trick, healthy and whole. At first glance, the calm of the magician, the delight of the audience, and even more the gleeful willingness of the assistant defy comprehension. After all, we have been shown that the blades to be used are quite solid and sharp, the box to all appearances secure. If we did not know any better, if the magician and his assistant did not know that this was merely an illusion, if the audience, even when ignorant of the mechanics of the trick, were not equally certain that what they seemed to see was not really the case, then it would be hard to explain, much less justify, a young woman willingly permitting herself to be dismembered for the entertainment of an audience. It is only from inside the experience of those involved, only because everyone — the magician, the assistant, and the audience — knows this to be an illusion, that all is not as it appears to be, that they can look on not with horror, but with pleasure and delight.

For those of us who have lived a long time in the faith, perhaps from infancy, or perhaps for many years after being baptized or received into the Church later in life, it can be easy to forget how strange the life of the Gospel seems to those not yet conformed to the image of the Son of God. For some of us, the strangeness is dramatic — professing vows of obedience and living out the evangelical counsels without a family of our own for the love of God and the proclamation of the Good News. For others, the strangeness is perhaps less public and dramatic, but no less off-putting to the world. Whether something as simple as abstaining from meat on Fridays, giving up a lazy Sunday morning in bed to get dressed and go to church, taking time in the middle of the day to read the Bible or pray the rosary, or something more painful and difficult, like carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term even when another child will stretch an already stretched budget, or passing up a promotion which would have involved common and widespread but no less objectionable moral compromises, or choosing to bear insults on the playground or the lunchroom rather than return them with some of our own, living the life of the Gospel does not, on the face of it, make a great deal of sense. It is not that being kind, even occasionally heroically so, is hard to understand — atheists and agnostics can and have done as much. Rather, it is our willingness to give up what may seem to many to be the best pleasures the world has to offer, to make sacrifices our neighbors cannot understand or even see as reasonable — this is what makes the Gospel unavoidably strange.

Of course, this should come as no surprise. Jesus Christ, in his parables of the Kingdom, has already told us as much. By any reasonable calculation, selling all you have to buy a field, staking all one's business and fortune on a single pearl, are not simply risky choices, they are irrational and self-destructive. What would we say, after all, of a man who risked his own livelihood, and the security of his family and all his employees, on a single purchase, a single object which, to any passerby, had nothing special about it? However, we know, as do he men in the parables, that the field conceals a treasure, that the pearl is not ordinary, but priceless. From their perspective, what they did was not risky at all. Their other possessions were, in comparison, worthless, nothing compared to the treasure in the field or the pearl of great price. They had nothing to risk and everything to gain, no fear of loss and unshakeable assurance of immeasurable profit. Like the magician and his assistant, they know there is no danger involved, and nothing to lose, however foolish and self-destructive it might appear to anyone who was not in the know.

This is why the gift of wisdom is so important in the Christian life. We are called, after all, to a life of immeasurable value, called to the kingdom of heaven, called to be conformed to the image of the Son of God. That predestination and calling, however, are sometimes hard to see. They include suffering and hardship, pain and loss, being misunderstood and being struck down not merely by enemies, but by those we counted as friends as well. That it, they involve being conformed not only to the Resurrection and Glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ, but to his Passion and Death as well. This call and predestination also means sharing a life in the Church, in the great haul of fish, with both saints and sinners, with those who live in accord with the Gospel and with those who will cause scandal and sorrow both within the Church and in the sight of those all too happy to discredit the faith. In the face of all of this, we need not merely courage to endure hardship, but the wisdom to see with St Paul that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. We need not blind obedience, but like Solomon we need the desire for an understanding heart ... to distinguish right from wrong.

But how are we to gain this wisdom? How do we see the treasure in the field or recognize the pearl of great price? There is no technique, no class, no training or exercise we can do. The wisdom we seek is not of that sort. Rather, the wisdom we seek comes from above, from our lively and sustained relationship with the Father through his Son Jesus Christ and the friendship of the Holy Spirit. It is in our daily moments of intimacy with God dwelling within our hearts — in small acts of charity with our neighbor, in daily reading of the Scriptures, in taking time for quiet and prayer, learning to silence our own expectations and be in stillness with the Lord — this is how we cultivate true wisdom. In the end, wisdom is not like knowing a magician's trick. It is the insight we gain from loving, from daily listening to him whom he love and who loves us in return, finding that, in time, we have learned to see the world not only with our own eyes, but also with the eyes of our divine Lover. It is through love, through communion with the Trinity in faith and charity, that we will see the world as it really is. It is in wisdom arising from love that the strangeness of the Gospel will pass away, and what remains will be only the delight at finding a treasure, a pearl of great price, eternal life with the very source of our happiness, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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