Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Response: Psalm 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130; Second Reading: Romans 8:28-30; Gospel: Matt 13:44-52

The First Book of Kings begins with the story of the struggle between two royal brothers to succeed their father David as king. The two brothers are Adonijah and Solomon. David was on his deathbed. Adonijah was the oldest of the two brothers, and began to take into his own hands the process of being king of all Israel. Military and religious leaders were divided about who was to succeed David. Adonijah staged an inaugural banquet, to which Nathan, Solomon and Solomon’s mother Bathsheba were not invited. Nathan approaches Bathsheba and plays on her jealousy — suggesting to her that David swore to her that her son Solomon would succeed to the throne. She goes to her senile, dying husband King David and “reminds” him that he swore that Solomon would succeed him. David falls for the deception and orders the anointing of Solomon as king. Something of a bloodbath follows Solomon’s inauguration. This includes the execution of his brother Adonijah in a dispute with Solomon over a woman of David’s harem. Some were executed because they were enemies of David, who recommended their death as revenge of injury to himself.

Thus, we have a not-so-pretty picture of events leading up to Solomon’s devout and humble prayer in our first reading. The winners write the history of events, and their heroes are depicted as models of virtue. The setting of the prayer is within a dream at night. God appears and addresses the young king: “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” What would a normal young man request from such a generous offer? First, Solomon attributes to God that he became a king so young and so unskilled. So, he gives God the credit for the scheming, the deception and bloodshed that secured the throne for him. Solomon notes that he now rules a people so vast they cannot be counted (a huge exaggeration!). His request: an understanding heart to judge and distinguish right from wrong. A model young ruler! The Lord was pleased that Solomon did not ask for long life, wealth or the death of enemies, which Solomon had already done. God granted him the wisdom requested, to such a depth that no one had ever enjoyed and no one ever would; plus wealth and a long life. Solomon woke up from the dream, returned to Jerusalem, offered holocausts (sacrifices in which the whole animal is consumed by fire) and peace offerings (sacrifices in which some parts are offered to God by fire, but the rest of the animals reserved for food at the closing banquet).

Psalm 119, which has the distinction of being the longest hymn in the Book of Psalms, responds to Solomon’s prayer. The major theme of the whole psalm is praise of the law(s) of the Lord. The psalmist loves those laws more than extreme riches. The Lord’s decrees are wonderful. The psalmist observes them because they give understanding even to the simple. He has a request: to be comforted by the Lord’s kindness because he deserves it, “for your law is my delight.”

In the context of the reading from Romans, Paul notes that Christians have already been saved in the hope for glory; but they await something more – the redemption or perfection of their bodies, which are still suffering. In the meantime, patience is required. This leads into the beginning of our second reading: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” He speaks of Christians being predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, so that the Son can be the first of many brothers and sisters. Paul reminds readers and hearers that this predestination leads to God justifying us (making us acceptable to him), which in turn leads to our glorification.

In today’s gospel, we encounter the final three parables of Matthew’s parable chapter. All three parables begin with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” For the sake of brevity and space, we will understand that to mean that the rule of God in our lives is like….” First, it is like a treasure buried in a field. Someone unearths it, reburies it, joyfully sells all he owns and buys that field. Though parables can have various meanings, let us assign this meaning — God comes first in our lives no matter what the cost, and we will joyfully direct all our means to accomplish that goal. In the second parable, the kingdom of heaven is like a very expensive pearl. The formation of a pearl takes time. A grain of sand or other irritant finds its way into an oyster, something like a small piece of gravel in our shoe. We can dump the gravel but the oyster has no way of doing that. To relieve the irritation, it secrets a mucous that surrounds the irritant. The mucous gradually hardens into a pearl. The finder of the pearl sells all she has (or maxes out her credit cards!), to fund the purchase of that pearl. The lesson is similar to that of the first parable — a Christian puts God first in her life, no matter what the cost.

Thirdly, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea. It collects fish of all kinds. The fishermen haul the full net ashore to sort the fish. The keepers are put into buckets. The non-keepers are thrown away. Matthew does with this parable what he did with the first parable — the sower and seed. He turns it into an allegory about the end of the world and the last judgment. Matthew was so intent on frightening his hearers and readers that he forgot to tell us what happens to good people. Instead, the angels separate the bad and throw them into the fiery furnace. Nor could he spare us his dreaded closing, which he uses six times in his gospel: “…where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew probably got the idea from Psalm 112:10. In the Gospel of Mark, one of Matthew’s sources, the disciples do not understand the parables; Jesus scolds them for their lack of understanding. In Matthew, Jesus asks them if they understand, and they all answer as if in chorus, “Yes!” To close the parable chapter, Matthew identifies himself as a scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, who brings out of his storeroom both the new and the old. A good principle for Church law, governance, instruction, homilies.