Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Wednesday of the Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Votive Mass of the Mercy of God
July 27, 2016
Jer 15:10.16-21, Ps 59, Mt 13:44-46
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- During Lent five years ago, 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 of mine, 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 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 five 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 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.
- 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 his 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 not, to ask the Lord today for the grace to have them in abundance.
- 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?
- 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 or 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” or our own, 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, through 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 is not a moral straightjacket but a treasure, such that we really mean what we sing in the Psalms, “Lord, I love your commands!?” Do we see that caring for a sick loved one, or helping a 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 flesh? 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 truly 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 and where it can be found.
- 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. And we need to see that when we recognize what we’re getting rather than giving up, we do so “with joy.”
- 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 turned to Jesus and said, “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 replied that what he was lacking was detachment from the earthly treasures that were enslaving his heart. So he told him, “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!” He was given right then 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. 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 one of all. Many are like him. They say their prayers each day. They come to Mass on Holy Days of Obligation. They come 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. Likewise with some priests and religious who have made a choice to give everything to Christ, but who, like Ananias and Sapphira in the early Church, often hold back, because they count too much the cost of giving up everything in the world rather than the cost of gaining the world’s Creator and Redeemer.
- Today we all need to learn from the apostles, from George, Sr., from those who obtained the precious pearl and the hidden treasure 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. The pearl merchant and the farmer in the Gospel 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. Pope Francis made a similar point in an Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square two years ago. He said that in the case of the two parables Jesus tells us, “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!”
- 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). This type of attitude for the kingdom also describes how we ought to mourn the death of those loved ones who have died in this 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.
- While all of us can remember special graces in which we chose to put God first — when he in conscience or in prayer realized that God was calling us to much more than we had given him before, when we discovered our vocation to be a saint or to follow him along a particular path of sanctity — God doesn’t have us abide in past choices. He constantly gives us the chance in life to choose him as our treasure, to value him more than we value the good things of life, to esteem him even more than we value our own life. And so we have to persevere in choosing the treasure of the kingdom and not give in to the temptation to trade it for something fleeting and far less valuable.
- This is the conflict we see in today’s first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah. As we saw last week, he had chosen to give his life to the Lord who had consecrated him from the womb as a prophet to the nations. He had chosen to put God first in his life and place his entire existence at the Lord’s service. But in today’s reading, he began to vacillate because of the opposition and sufferings that he was encountering in that work. Jeremiah complained that even though “when I found your words, I devoured them” and “they became the joy and happiness of my heart,” even though “I bore your name, O Lord, God of hosts,” even though “I did not sit partying in the circle of merry-makers” but “sat alone” because he shared God’s holy indignation at the sins of those in Judah and Jerusalem, he was experiencing not joy but anguish. He lamented that he was alive: “Woe to me, mother, that you gave me birth!” He said he was being treated worse than the usurious money-lenders who were generally considered the biggest scumbags of all: “I neither borrow nor lend, yet all curse me!” He said that he had become a “man of strife and contention to all the land” and that, rather than getting better, it seemed to be getting worse. “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?,” he asked. God was supposed to be a font of living water, not a broken cistern, as we examined last week, but that living water had become for Jeremiah a “treacherous brook whose waters do not abide.” The living water not only didn’t give him peace but brought danger. Rather than finding a treasure by giving himself to God, he seemed to be finding only tribulation, a tribulation that was leading him to wonder if he had been seduced, deceived, and betrayed by God.
- God answered him, calling him to conversion, and promising not to take his problems away but to strengthen him to confront those problems. “If you repent so that I restore you,” God said, “you shall stand in my presence.” Jeremiah had been sent to call people to the conversion required to live in God’s kingdom, but he himself now needed to convert. Rather than lifting the people up to God, God communicated, the people and their opposition were dragging him down. “If you bring or the precious without the vile, you shall be my mouthpiece,” God said, indicating that he had been mixing the message with worldly speech. “Then it shall be they who turn to you and you shall not turn to them.” With regard to the opposition, God promised, “I will make you toward this people a solid wall of brass. Though they fight against you, they shall not prevail.” He wouldn’t be frail glass to their attacks but a thick, impenetrable wall of the firmest brass. And the reason why he would be strong would be because the Lord would be with him. “For I am with you, to deliver and rescue you. I will free you from the hand of the wicked and rescue you from the grasp of the violent.” God was not promising to remove the opposition — the very verbs “deliver,” “rescue” and “liberate” point to the fact that he would have hardship — but that the Lord would be saving him by his presence in the very suffering of opposition. As we’ll continue to see over the next week, Jeremiah will continue to battle these temptations against perseverance, in which he will be faced with the choice of choosing God with the attendant sufferings that that will mean, or abandoning God for a supposedly easier life. He would be continuously faced with the choice of the Rich Young Man. But he would eventually reaffirm the choice of God and each temptation would be an occasion for him to grow in resolve.
- The lesson for us ought to be clear. We, too, need to persevere in joyfully, eagerly and wisely making the choice for the buried treasure and the pearl of great price. We also need to recognize that that kingdom is a life with God and that that joy flows from being with God. Jesus would say elsewhere, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent are taking it by force” (Mt 11:12), an indication that seizing the buried treasure and buying the precious pearl aren’t placid transactions. Not only is there a cost in sacrificing both good and bad things for the sake of the most important of all, but God likewise will provide many opportunities for us to persevere in choosing the kingdom. When Jesus called the first apostles to follow him as the treasure and pearl, he was calling them to follow him along the way of the Cross, a way that would lead even to his own crucifixion. Even though at times they asked questions, even though at times out of fear and weakness they valued some earthly comforts and betrayed Jesus, 11 of the 12 ultimately persevered in seeking first the Kingdom, even to the point of death, and now share an eternal inheritance. Likewise the martyrs and so many saints show us that the life of the kingdom is not inconsistent with suffering. But the point is that even in suffering and in death the Lord is present to “deliver,” “rescue” and “liberate” us by his saving presence — and it’s because of those sufferings that we can appreciate ever more the value of the choice for the kingdom. Even if we should have to suffer martyrdom, it’s still worth it! Even if we should be calumniated, opposed, hated by all because of Christ, our reward will be great in the kingdom!
- And so today we come to Mass to be given once more the choice for the kingdom. Like the poor peasant, we might be surprised by the directness of the offer as we’re going about our day. Or like the merchant, we might have been seeking this pearl for our whole life. But regardless, the offer of the kingdom is here. That pearl, that treasure, is Jesus himself. At every Mass the priest says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that this sacrifice yours and mine, may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.” We bring to Mass our sacrifices, both what we’ve given up as well as what we are now giving of, and we unite it with Christ’s sacrifice as one holy, living and acceptable oblation to the Father, our logike latreia, the only worship that makes sense. 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:
JER 15:10, 16-21
a man of strife and contention to all the land!
I neither borrow nor lend,
yet all curse me.
When I found your words, I devoured them;
they became my joy and the happiness of my heart,
Because I bore your name,
O LORD, God of hosts.
I did not sit celebrating
in the circle of merrymakers;
Under the weight of your hand I sat alone
because you filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain continuous,
my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?
You have indeed become for me a treacherous brook,
whose waters do not abide!
Thus the LORD answered me:
If you repent, so that I restore you,
in my presence you shall stand;
If you bring forth the precious without the vile,
you shall be my mouthpiece.
Then it shall be they who turn to you,
and you shall not turn to them;
And I will make you toward this people
a solid wall of brass.
Though they fight against you,
they shall not prevail,
For I am with you,
to deliver and rescue you, says the LORD.
I will free you from the hand of the wicked,
and rescue you from the grasp of the violent.
PS 59:2-3, 4, 10-11, 17, 18
Rescue me from my enemies, O my God;
from my adversaries defend me.
Rescue me from evildoers;
from bloodthirsty men save me.
R. God is my refuge on the day of distress.
For behold, they lie in wait for my life;
mighty men come together against me,
Not for any offense or sin of mine, O LORD.
R. God is my refuge on the day of distress.
O my strength! for you I watch;
for you, O God, are my stronghold,
As for my God, may his mercy go before me;
may he show me the fall of my foes.
R. God is my refuge on the day of distress.
But I will sing of your strength
and revel at dawn in your mercy;
You have been my stronghold,
my refuge in the day of distress.
R. God is my refuge on the day of distress.
O my strength! your praise will I sing;
for you, O God, are my stronghold,
my merciful God!
R. God is my refuge on the day of distress.
“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.”