Seventeenth Sunday In Ordinary Time
Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52; First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Second Reading: Romans 8:28-30
The gospel reading for this Sunday’s liturgy is the third in a series of readings from Matthew 13, the parable chapter. The parable chapter is the third of five major discourses attributed to Jesus by Matthew. This reading consists of three parables and the conclusion of this collection of parables. All three parables of this Sunday begin with the usual introduction, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . . .” As noted two Sundays ago, “kingdom of heaven” can have various meanings. Examples: the presence of Jesus in his ministry on earth, the Church on earth, life after death, the rule of God in our lives. Other meanings could be a conversion experience, a “born again” experience. It is not usually clear what Jesus or Matthew would have meant by “kingdom of heaven.” The parables of Jesus are open to greatly varied interpretations, so the interpretation could be left to the individual Christian, or a teacher, or a homilist.
The first of these three parables tells of a treasure hidden in a field. A man finds the treasure. He conceals it, then sells all his possessions to buy that field. That such things actually happen is clear from an example some years ago in southern Illinois. There were rumors that owners of a farm in the early twentieth century buried gold on their farm and died without retrieving it, nor did they reveal to anyone where the gold was buried. The farm went through a series of owners who bought and dug without success. Finally some owners were digging to repair a septic disposal unit and found the gold. Usually one who digs for gold finds only “fertilizer.” In this case they dug for “fertilizer” and found gold. These folks must have felt the same joy attributed to the man in the parable.
What does the parable mean, if we understand the kingdom of heaven as a sudden conversion or acceptance of God’s rule over our lives? Perhaps the grace of God worked on an individual through hearing a homily, or praying, or helping the poor, or reading the Bible. Life suddenly takes on new meaning. There is experience of interior joy which overflows into exterior appearance and actions. All energy from that time on is devoted to recognize and act upon the rule of God in one’s life. Such an experience is usually not static. It does not stand still. It overflows into the community, either the Christian Community or the secular community, thus being a blessing and grace to all.
The second parable is known as “the pearl of great price.” The parable envisions a pearl merchant in search of the best. He finds one pearl of great value. He sells all his possessions to raise money to buy that pearl. How is a pearl formed in nature? A grain of sand or other irritant finds its way into or is placed into a shellfish (oyster, etc.). The irritation caused by the sand moves the shellfish to excrete a mucous to surround the grain of sand. The mucous accumulates and hardens into a pearl. So it can be with the rule of God in our life. God’s rule in our life can be an irritant or nuisance preventing us from enjoying illicit pleasures or engaging in unethical business practices. Every time we yield to God’s dominion over us, submission to God grows stronger within us. When we advance to complete submission to God in our life, we have bought the pearl of great price.
In the third and final parable of this series the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea and gathering fish of all kinds. The fishermen pull the net ashore and put the keepers into containers and throw back the non-keepers. If and when Jesus spoke this parable the meaning was probably similar to that of the parable of weeds sown into the wheat. As the separation of weeds from wheat took place only at harvest time, so the separation of keepers from non-keepers took place only after the net is pulled into shore.
Jesus was often confronted with purists who could not understand his outreach to and his association with the rejects of society. This parable could have served as a lesson to his accusers to leave judgment to God. Already in Matthew’s time there were Christians who despised and tried to exclude from the Christian Community those who seem not to have the same moral, ethical, religious standards they credit to themselves. Matthew’s answer: Leave separation to God at the time of the final judgment.
At the conclusion of the parables of chapter thirteen, Matthew depicts Jesus asking his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” The answer, “Yes!” Matthew has in front of him a scroll of the Gospel of Mark. He rearranges Mark’s material, deletes some, corrects some. In this case Matthew sees a similar question, although negatively phrased in Mark’s gospel. There Jesus, disappointed by his slow disciples, asks at the end of a parable, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any of the parables?” Both Matthew and Luke throughout their gospels attempt to correct or erase Mark’s strongly negative depiction of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore in Matthew the question is more positive. The answer is simply a resounding “Yes!” Matthew next signs off as a learned Christian scribe who is unafraid to defend the past, yet dares to defend change, “Therefore every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old.” It is his commission to combine the spiritual treasures of the past with the evolving teachings of an evolving Christianity.