Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field…The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls…The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea that brings in a haul of all kinds…Have you understood all this? They said: ‘Yes.’”      Matthew 13: 44-46

Nobody knows who exactly was the person who compiled and presented what we now label as The Gospel of Matthew. What we do know from Scripture scholars is that Matthew’s Gospel relies heavily on The Gospel of Mark. For the sake of convenience, we refer to the author of most of the gospel-readings of this year as Matthew, who was apparently the leader of an emerging group of “Jewish Christians”. They were Jews who were faithful to synagogue worship and Jewish cultural practice but who also accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the message he lived and proclaimed. That meant that they were not high on the popularity list with the traditional Jews of their day.

For the last three weeks, we have heard seven parables in succession about what Matthew called “the kingdom of heaven”. Mark, in his Gospel called it the “Kingdom of God”. Being a Jewish teacher from a traditional background and steeped in the Law and the Prophets, Matthew was hesitant to refer to God by name. So, he substituted “heaven’ for “God”. Having described how Jesus had presented seven parables in quick succession, explaining some to his disciples, Matthew concluded with a humorous comment about the slow-wittedness of those disciples. He had Jesus put to them the question: “Have you understood all this?” Their response was an unhesitating “Yes!” That same question is put to you and me. If I were to proffer a “Yes”, I would have to plead guilty to fudging. But we also know that Jesus’ disciples demonstrated that they were slow on the uptake whenever Jesus tried to explain anything to them.

Matthew concluded this thirteenth chapter of his Gospel with a snippet of self-revelation: “Well then”, he said to them, “every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his storeroom things both new and old.” In attributing this comment to Jesus, Matthew was also indirectly identifying himself as the scribe who had compiled this whole Gospel. Matthew was, in fact, a man whose professional expertise was that of a scribe – a man with a knowledge of the Law and the Prophets but one who was also committed to proclaiming that Jesus had ushered in a new way of living that called for a complete change of mind and heart, a way of living in accord with the values of God, a way of living neatly summarised by the caption “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven”. Matthew had given a prelude to that as early as chapter four in his Gospel where he described Jesus, after emerging from his wilderness experience, as launching into the public forum and preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”  (Matthew 4: 17). He was piggy-backing on the work of the Baptist, who had already called people to repentance, conversion of heart, metanoia (turning one’s life upside down): “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”  (Matthew 3: 2).

Jesus’ entire mission was about opening the minds and hearts of people to the realisation that God is present in the here and now, in everyone we encounter, in all our interpersonal engagements, in the created world, in everything we experience, even in the challenges that life serves up to us. We don’t have to do anything to make God present. All we need do is to be present to God present in everyone and everything we encounter. By doing that, we learn to live and practice mercy, kindness, compassion, tolerance, encouragement, all the values of God.

Parables are not the stuff of textbooks; they don’t contribute to our store of knowledge. They are teaching tools used by Jesus, and by other teachers, to get us to ponder and explore the experiences of our lives. Aesop, for example, centuries later created fables to help us to do something similar. Were we, for instance, to stumble on something unexpectedly that we quickly realised was a treasure that would really transform our lives, why wouldn’t we sell all we have to get it? The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God has the status of treasure. Our faith in Jesus is a treasure we have to share, a treasure we have to nourish our lives and the lives of others. It is not the religious knowledge we accumulated over years of catholic-school education. Through his Gospel, Matthew sensitised his community to the message that Jesus proclaimed: that God was present to them and working in their lives through their everyday experiences. That’s the stuff of faith! From his storehouse he also shaped reminders for them that God had already worked in the lives of their ancestors through national experiences like their being freed from slavery in Egypt and their decades of wandering in the desert. God was present in those experiences, too.

Today’s other readings from Wisdom and Romans echo the message from the gospel-reading. We learn from the first reading that the wisdom that was synonymous with the name Solomon had its source in God and was used by Solomon for the benefit of the people he was privileged to lead. It had a truly social dimension which was appreciated by the man whom God had entrusted with it: “Here I am among the people you (God) have chosen to be your own, a people who are so many that they cannot be counted” (1 Kings 3: 8). Were we to realise that the faith with which we have been blessed is shared by countless Christians the world over, we would be slow to judge others or to be intent on wanting to sort the “weeds” from the “wheat”.
Then, in today’s second reading from Romans, Paul reminds us of God, ever present to us in all our experiences: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God”  (Romans 8: 28). When we allow our lives to be turned upside down by the values of the kingdom of God, we become a power for good in the lives of those among whom we live and work. The consequence of that is that we, in turn, grow and flourish.

Matthew brought out of his storehouse of experience things old and new. I suspect that some of the comments about the final judgement which he attributes to Jesus belong more to Matthew, the traditional scribe. Jesus’ understanding of God’s compassionate way of dealing with people in their human frailty was so prominent in his teaching, preaching and healing that he had little interest in threatening anyone with everlasting hell-fire and punishment. There are some things in a scribe’s storehouse that are better discarded than stored.