Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 27, 2014
1Kings 3:5.7-12, Ps 119, Rom 8:28-30, Mt 13:44-46
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following thoughts guided the preached homily:
A few years ago during Lent, I traveled to the suburbs of Houston in order to preach a parish mission. While I was there I had a chance to get together with a friend, George, whom I had met several years before in Rome, guiding him and his wife Annette through the pagan necropolis buried underneath St. Peter’s Basilica where St. Peter’s tomb and bones were unearthed in the 1940s in excavations paid by George’s father. Later, when I was chaplain at Bishop Connolly High School, George was extremely generous personally and through his family foundation in funding several initiatives I had for the spiritual growth of the students. We had corresponded via email frequently over the years but I actually hadn’t had the chance to thank him in person. So with a mutual priest friend we arranged to meet him for lunch. Over the course of the conversation, he started talking about his father, George Sr., and I asked him to tell me how his father had gotten his start. It was a gripping story — one whose details I can still recall a few years later — that illustrates not only in a pristine form what the American dream is all about, but also showcases the chief lessons Jesus is teaching us in today’s Gospel parables.
George, Sr. was orphaned at age 7 in St. Louis. He needed to work extra hard in school in order to be able to study at a good university, which he did. After college, he served during World War I in the Army Air Corp and, after the war — the start of which we sadly mark tomorrow on its 100th anniversary — went to Mexico and Cuba to work in and learn the oil business. In 1929, the year of the great depression, he came to Houston, which is where his wife Susan was from, with very little money but a big hope to fix that situation. He had learned during his time in Tampico (Mexico) and Havana the types of surface formations that increase the odds of finding oil underneath. So he began to drive up and down the back roads of East Texas in search of these formations. After about a year, as he was following a creek bed outside a town called Conroe, he spotted a formation like the one he was had been looking for. At great risk to his family, he sold basically all they had to obtain the land. The risk paid off. Eventually two wells were struck and he became over time one of the wealthiest oilmen in Texas — and with his family great philanthropists to various good Catholic causes.
George, Sr., made millions during the Great Depression, at a time when, obviously, so many others were struggling to survive or losing all that they had. Some might say that he was just lucky, in the right place at the right time. There’s no denying that he had did have some good fortune — for example, his being in born in the age of automobiles that he could take to survey land, his wife’s being from Houston rather than some oil-barren location, and so on — but to a large degree he made his luck by excelling in three things: First, he had a hunger for a finding a treasure that could help him not only to support his family but to help him do great good with his life; second, a recognition of what would lead to that treasure, as he scoured back road and creek beds; and third, a willingness to sacrifice all he had to obtain that treasure.
A Buried Treasure and Precious Pearl
Jesus is saying that Christians need the same three virtues in today’s twin parables of the treasure buried in a field and the pearl of great price.
The parables are simple enough to understand. The first is of a poor peasant finding a buried treasure in the midst of his work in the field. There were no real banks to speak of in ancient Palestine. People would often bury things of value in secret locations in fields. There was no sense of “finders keepers, losers weepers” then; whatever was discovered in a field belonged not to the discoverer but the owner. That’s why the man needed to buy the field. It’s quite obvious that the one selling had no idea that an ancient treasure was buried on his property. He didn’t place the same value in the field as much as this peasant did and so he sold it. For the peasant, selling all he said in order to get the money to buy the field was nothing compared to what he knew he would be gaining.
The second parable is of a wealthy merchant searching for precious pearls, going from place to place in pursuit of something truly valuable and beautiful. Finally he found the pearl of his dreams, whose worth was unsurpassable, but whose owner valued it less than the money and property he would get in exchange. And so the wealthy merchant sold all that he had before, doubtless houses, gems and other valuables, to obtain that pearl of great price.
The spiritual lessons we’re called to draw from these parables parallel the virtues we see in the story of George, Sr.: first, Jesus wants us to have a burning desire, an unquenchable yearning, for the treasure of the kingdom of heaven; second, he wants us to know where we need to look to find and obtain that treasure; and third, he wants us to have the willingness to sacrifice everything to obtain that treasure — for if we’re not prepared to sacrifice everything for the treasure, we’ll often not be willing to sacrifice far less than everything to obtain it either.
Let’s look more deeply at each of these qualities so that we might honestly see whether we have them and, if we don’t, to ask the Lord today for the grace to have them in abundance.
Seeking First the Kingdom
The first quality is an insatiable desire for the treasure of the kingdom of God, which is basically an unquenchable thirst for God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). He told us in that same Sermon that many of us seek to “store up for [ourselves] treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,” but he wanted us to “store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven,” a treasure not measured in clothing that moths can wreck, metals that rust can corrode, or money that thieves or taxes can take. Jesus is telling us that our heart must be set on God, and not just in general, but set on him more that George Sr.’s heart was set on finding oil, more than Tom Brady wants to win another Super Bowl, more than an ambitious politician seeks to win high office, and more than a man in love will do everything he can to win over and marry the woman he can’t stop thinking about. Do we have that hunger? Do we value God most of all in life or do we value other things more than God?
In today’s first reading, God was pleased with the 18-year-old Solomon who had just been made king after his father David’s death. God told him in a dream, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon asked not for health or a long life. He didn’t ask for riches. He didn’t ask for victory over his father’s enemies. He asked, “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right and wrong.” He asked for a well-informed conscience. He asked for the gifts of wisdom and prudence, so that he could do the right thing and decide according to what God’s holy wisdom, both personally and politically. He knew he would be surrounded by opulence not to mention courtiers trying to kiss up to him, the rich and powerful seeking advantages, and beautiful women seeking to be queen. He wanted a heart that sees and wants what God sees and wants because there would be so many challenges for which he was unprepared and so many temptations to which he would be exposed. God replied with pleasure to his request, saying, “I will give you a heart so wise and understanding” that no one, before or after you, would be your equal.
What would we reply if God said to us today, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you!” Our response to such a question will expose what we value most. Would we ask for a smoking red Porsche? A winning Megabucks ticket? A huge mansion in Newport and all the things that go with it? A regime change in Boston, Washington, Moscow or Baghdad? To become a celebrity as a singer or actor or reality show star, or to marry one? To be younger or older? To be healthier, taller, smarter, more athletic or more physically attractive?
Would any of these things please God as Solomon’s reply did? Would they be a sign of spiritual maturity or spiritual worldliness?
Or would we, on the other hand, ask God for the grace to be holier, to be more and more like Him, to think like him, to be merciful like him, to be a Good Samaritan like him, to be rich in what matters most, namely, to be rich in loving communion with him?
One of the most moving scenes in the history of saints is the dialogue Jesus had with St. Thomas Aquinas toward the end of his life. St. Thomas had authored many of the most sublime volumes of theology in the history of the Church. He had written so many hymns on Jesus in the Eucharist that we still sing to this day. And one day in prayer Jesus spoke to him from the Crucifix, saying, “Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma: quam mercedem accipies?” You have written well of me, Thomas. What do you want as a reward?” St. Thomas replied, “Non aliam nisi Te, Domine!” “I want nothing but You, Lord!” He wanted nothing bot God because his real treasure was God. His great desire was union with God. His great passion was pleasing God.
Jesus wants to fill us with a hunger like St. Thomas’! He wants us to yearn for God with the zeal with which the merchant searched for pearls. That striving for God and his kingdom is the first quality God wants us to have.
Recognizing Where We Can Enter the Kingdom
The second is a recognition of where the treasure of the kingdom can be found. George, Sr., drove up and down the roads of East Texas and walked up and down creek beds looking for oil-bearing formations. Where do we need to go to the places that will form us in the kingdom? What is the path to true union with God in the kingdom? Are we actively searching for that path or are we staying where we are in a “great depression” of our own making, waiting for something to fall in our lap?
The merchant in the parable knew the places he needed to go, and so he visited the shops and markets where pearls would be sold. The farmer wasn’t so much searching for a buried treasure, but what he discovered it in the middle of his workday tilling new parts of the property that had not yet been farmed for the landowner, he knew what to do.
What about us? If we really wanted to grow rich in God’s kingdom, where would we go? What would we do? What are the places we can strike the oil of the kingdom or find its true gold?
Our task is much simpler than George, Sr.’s. We know where we find God. We find him in personal prayer, we find him in the Sacraments — especially those we can, and he wants us to, receive him again and again, the sacraments whereby he forgives us and feeds us. We can find him speaking to us in Sacred Scripture. We find him radiantly shining in the lives and writings of the saints. We find him living within us in the truly Christian moral life — in the virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, courage, chastity, honesty, and compassion. We can find him in the loving service of our neighbor, since every time we care for someone who is hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, ill, imprisoned or otherwise in need, Jesus tells us that we, in them, are caring for him.
But in order for us to find God there, we first need to grasp that each of the things I just named is a treasure, because whenever we don’t think that what we’re dealing with is a treasure, it’s going to be almost impossible for us to find God there. Do we realize, for example, that the Sacrament of Confession, is a treasure that enriches us with the precious gift of God’s mercy and makes us rich in sharing it with others? Do we grasp that the commandments and the moral law God gives us are not a moral straightjacket but a gift, such that we really are able to mean what what we prayed repeatedly in the Responsorial Psalm today, “Lord, I love your commands!?” Do we see that caring for a sick loved one, or helping a needy stranger, is a real treasure? Do we recognize that living according to God’s commands is the real treasure, rather than living seeking the counterfeit gold of a life of drugs, booze and promiscuity? Do we see that Eucharistic Adoration is a treasure and that we’re silly not to take advantage of it, sillier than a person with a winning Mass Millions lottery ticket would be not to cash it in? Are we aware that Mass is a treasure, in fact the greatest earthly treasure of all, and the wisest investment of our time we could ever make?
The second virtue we need is precisely to know what the treasure is, value it appropriate and know where it can be found.
Sacrificing to Obtain the Treasure
The third virtue needed is the capacity to sacrifice to obtain that treasure. The rich pearl hunter and the poor hardworking peasant sold all they had to obtain the pearl and field, respectively. George, Sr., sold all he had to buy the property with the surface formations that seemed to indicate oil below. Likewise, we need to do more than hunger for the kingdom and recognize where we can find it; we also need to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to seize it.
Last night Pope Francis celebrated a Vigil Mass in the Italian town of Caserta and he asked, “How is the kingdom of God possessed?” and replied, “On this point, Jesus is very clear: enthusiasm, the joy of discovery, is not enough. The precious pearl of the kingdom should precede every other earthly good; we must put God first in our lives, preferring Him to everything.” Then he got specific: “Giving primacy to God means having the courage to say no to evil, violence, oppression, [to say yes to] living a life of service to others and in favor of the law and the common good. When a person finds God, the true treasure, they leave a selfish lifestyle [behind] and look to share with others the love that comes from God.”
The apostles are the great illustrations of those who, when finding a treasure, left all they had to follow Jesus. When the Lord Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John from their boats right after they had captured the largest catch in their careers, the evangelists told us, they left “immediately” and followed him. Likewise, when Jesus came to find St. Matthew at his tax collecting post and said, “Follow me!,” Matthew left all the money on the table, all the ledgers, and immediately got up to follow Jesus. St. Peter would later summarize the common characteristic of the apostles when he said to Jesus, “We have given up everything and followed you.”
That’s in sharp contrast to the one who is famous for not leaving everything to follow Jesus and instead walked away from Jesus said. We all remember very well the encounter Jesus had with the Rich Young Man. He came to Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s the great question — the most important one in life! — of how to find and enter the Kingdom not just for a visit but forever. Jesus replied that he first needed to keep the commandments. The young man replied that he had been keeping them perfectly since the time he was a boy; nevertheless, he said, he still knew he was missing something. Jesus told him that what he was lacking was detachment from the earthly treasures that were enslaving his heart. So he said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me!” The young man was given at that instant the chance to become perfect in Christ’s kingdom, to become wealthy in what matters most, to become the intimate friend of the King himself, but he was too addicted to his material possessions to leave them behind. If he had said yes, we likely would be mentioning his name in the Eucharistic prayer tonight. But he chose his stuff over Jesus and “went away sad.”
We need to take good note of this because there are many like the Rich Young Man today. He was a good man, a moral man, someone who kept the commandments. If he continued along that path, Jesus assured him he would inherit eternal life. But he was missing out on the fullness of the kingdom here on earth because he wasn’t willing to do what the merchant or the peasant did in today’s parables. He wasn’t willing to do what the apostles did. He wasn’t willing to make God the true treasure of his life and sacrifice other pearls for the greatest pearl of all. Many Catholics today are like him. They say their prayers each day. They come to Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation. They go to Confession at least once a year. They get married in the Church. They contribute to the Catholic Charities Appeal and put something into the basket each week. But they’re not really as happy in the faith as God wants them to be. They’re missing something, because something is holding them back; their earthly treasure has begun to own them.
Today Jesus is giving us the remedy and we all need to learn from the apostles, from George, Sr., from those who obtained the precious pearl and the hidden treasure how to be willing — and wise enough! — to sacrifice the lesser for the greater, to forsake the good things of earth for the greatest treasure of all. We need to ask ourselves concretely: not “would I” but am I, right now, sacrificing other things for the Kingdom? Am I sacrificing my time to pray? Am I sacrificing my money for God’s causes? Am I sacrificing the place I’d prefer to sit in Church to move forward to bring about a greater sense of the spirit that reigns in God’s kingdom among the community here in my parish especially as we seek to pray the Mass as a family?
And how willingly am I making those sacrifices? Notice that the men in the parable weren’t reluctant to sell everything they had to obtain the treasure. They were eager to do so, because they focused not on what they were selling or losing but on what they were buying and obtaining. Likewise, for us to make the sacrifices necessary to obtain the treasure of the kingdom, we need to grasp how disproportionate what we are gaining is from what we’re giving up.
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish [the actual word is manure], that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil 3:8-9). Compared to what we gain, what we’re giving up is the equivalent of excrement, he says.
Pope Francis made a similar point this morning in his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square. He said that in the case of the two parables, “The primary fact remains that the treasure and the pearl are worth more than all other goods. Therefore, the farmer and the merchant, when they find them, give up everything else to buy them. They do not need to reason, to think, to reflect: they realize immediately the incomparable value of what they have found, and are willing to lose anything to have it. So it is in the Kingdom of God: whoever finds it has no doubts, he feels that it is what he was looking and waiting for, and that it responds to his most authentic aspirations. And it is really so: those who know Jesus, who meet him personally, remain fascinated, attracted by so much goodness, so much truth, so much beauty, and all in great humility and simplicity. Look for Jesus, encounter Jesus. This is the great treasure!”
The Path to Spiritual Greatness in the Kingdom
This type of attitude toward the kingdom, toward sacrificing good things for the greatest thing of all, explains all the greatness that happens in individual lives and happens in the Church.
It explains martyrdom, because the martyrs account even their life here on earth less valuable than fidelity to God and living in his kingdom forever.
It explains the lives of the saints, because they’re the ones who let go of so many great worldly expectations in order to become truly rich in God and his kingdom.
It explains how to suffer and to die well. For those who really seek first God and his kingdom, then death is not dreaded but desired; even when we have to leave behind so many loved ones and good things, we recognize that all of these goods are nothing in comparison with “what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). I remember a few years back visiting a parishioner who had just received the diagnosis of terminal bone cancer with about three months to live. I didn’t know exactly what I’d say to her, but I simply asked, “How are you doing?” She replied, “I’m so happy!” I wasn’t sure if the diagnosis had been shared with her. “Why are you happy?,” I queried with a smile. She said, “Because the doctors told me today that I have only three months before I’ll be seeing Jesus and all the saints face to face!” She had a huge family, full of kids, grandkids, great grandkids and friends, but her greatest love of all was God and she couldn’t wait to be with him in heaven.
It explains how we ought to mourn the death of those loved ones who have died in a holy way: as much as miss them, we love them enough that we want them to have a greater treasure than the love and company we could give them.
This capacity to sacrifice for the kingdom explains vocations to the priesthood and to religious and consecrated life, because these are people who put God above families of their own, who put his love above human loves, his will above their will, his kingdom above amassing a kingdom of their own. And these vocations normally come from families that are seeking, recognizing and sacrificing for the pearl of great price who is God by sacrificing TV for prayer, sports leagues for Mass, their own vacations to care for others. When a boy or a girl is raised in such a home, then the sacrifice of the goods of marriage, family, earthly possessions and self-determination to follow Christ all the way in poverty, chastity and obedience as a priest or religious isn’t that great a leap.
This attitude toward the kingdom also explains what characterizes vibrant parishes, because it’s in those parishes that people sacrifice huge amounts of their time, their money, and their expertise to build them initially and build them up continuously. Parishes in which people don’t recognize that the treasure of the faith is the most important thing of all don’t pray as much, don’t sacrifice as much, don’t get involved as much, because God simply isn’t as important for them. The index of the true vitality of a parish is determined by the number of those who are really sacrificing for the good of the whole.
The attitude of willingly and eagerly sacrificing to obtain the kingdom finally explains what I am trying to do as your pastor, to try to help everyone here to see that to sacrifice everything for the kingdom ought to be as simple and straightforward a choice as trading in an old clunker for a free, brand new Mercedes. Several months ago one of my spiritual directees, a great consecrated lay woman, said to me that when she asked me to be her spiritual director, she thought she was signing up to have me put her through some spiritual exercises, not to get her ready for the Olympics. I smiled and said to her, “No. My goal is to prepare you not just to get to the Olympics but to win gold!,” by responding to God’s grace to become a true saint. Likewise, here at this parish, my goal for you is higher than just getting you to come to Mass, live by the commandments, pray and engage in some charitable works. My goal is to get you to live a truly sacramental life, to love the commandments, to excel in the art of prayer, and to become an example of charity for everyone who knows you. I’m trying to draw a huge X-marks-the-spot on the map of the spiritual life so that you will know where the treasure is, seek it, and sacrifice for it. I may seem more demanding than some other priests you know, but the reason is because I want you to become truly spiritually wealthy.
We can start anew today
Today in the second reading St. Paul reminds us,“All things work out for the good for those who love God.” Even the Cross, even persecutions, even a terrible diagnosis and physical suffering, even remarkably our past sins can all become fertilizer for new spiritual growth provided that we bring them to God, let him transform them, and learn from these experiences. If we’ve recognized that up until now, we haven’t sought God and his kingdom as we should have, or haven’t recognized sufficiently all those places God has given us to find that treasure, or haven’t sacrificed enough to obtain it, or all of the above, all of these past mistakes can “work out for the good” — our good and others’ good — if today we respond to Jesus’ message and Jesus’ help to live by the parables he teaches today. Today the Father asks us, like he asks Solomon, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you,” and today we beg for the grace to do what the apostles and so many saints have done and what the Rich Young Man didn’t: to seek the kingdom, to place it first, and sacrifice everything for it, uniting all we have and are to what God wants to do in us. We can in fact become incredibly loaded in what matters most if we live by what Jesus teaches us today.
And the best place to make that choice for the Kingdom is here at Mass. St. John Vianney, the patron saints of priests, catechized his people about the power of the Eucharist to make us great saints, to help us seize the kingdom, if we but choose to center our whole life on Jesus, the King himself, in the Eucharist. He said, “Next to this sacrament, we are like someone who dies of thirst next to a river, just needing to bend the head down to drink; or like a poor man next to a treasure chest, when all that is needed is to stretch out the hand” and grab the gold coins. The Eucharist is that treasure that quenches our thirst, that makes us truly rich, because Christ himself is that pearl of great price. Let’s ask God the Father for the grace to make Christ his Son in the Eucharist our precious pearl, our true treasure, so that we may experience in this life and forever in heaven the joy Jesus describes of the poor peasant and rich merchant. That joy, that treasure, is ours for the taking. This is what Jesus is offering us today: the deal of an eternal lifetime. Let’s beg for the wisdom and the courage necessary to sacrifice whatever we need to do to make that deal.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
1 KGS 3:5, 7-12
God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”
“O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king
to succeed my father David;
but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act.
I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen,
a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.
Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.
For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request.
So God said to him:
“Because you have asked for this—
not for a long life for yourself,
nor for riches,
nor for the life of your enemies,
but for understanding so that you may know what is right—
I do as you requested.
I give you a heart so wise and understanding
that there has never been anyone like you up to now,
and after you there will come no one to equal you.”
PS 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130
I have said, O LORD, that my part
is to keep your words.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
R/ Lord, I love your commands.
Let your kindness comfort me
according to your promise to your servants.
Let your compassion come to me that I may live,
for your law is my delight.
R/ Lord, I love your commands.
For I love your command
more than gold, however fine.
For in all your precepts I go forward;
every false way I hate.
R/ Lord, I love your commands.
Wonderful are your decrees;
therefore I observe them.
The revelation of your words sheds light,
giving understanding to the simple.
R/ Lord, I love your commands.
We know that all things work for good for those who love God,
who are called according to his purpose.
For those he foreknew he also predestined
to be conformed to the image of his Son,
so that he might be the firstborn
among many brothers and sisters.
And those he predestined he also called;
and those he called he also justified;
and those he justified he also glorified.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,
which a person finds and hides again,
and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant
searching for fine pearls.
When he finds a pearl of great price,
he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”