By Father Donald Dilger
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Psalm 119:57, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52
The context of the first reading is the beginning of the reign of Solomon as King of Israel. He reigned from 961-922 B.C. Though not in line for his father David’s throne, through the intrigues of his mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan he became king rather than Adonijah his brother. In a dispute over a woman, Solomon had his brother executed as a rival to the throne. The winning side writes the history, thus presenting Solomon as a far greater man than he was in reality. Solomon went to a shrine to offer a sacrifice of a thousand animals to the Lord. The Lord was pleased and rewarded the king with a vision. The Lord made an offer, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon admits that he owes his throne to the Lord. There was no mention of the various executions the king ordered to secure his throne. Solomon calls himself “a mere youth, not knowing how to act in governing a people so vast (really?) that they cannot be counted. Therefore, he requested the necessary wisdom to govern his people.
This pleased the Lord. He had expected Solomon to request what a young man would request. The Lord responded, “Because you asked for wisdom, not for a long life, not for riches, not for the death of your enemies, but for understanding so that you may know what is right, I will give you what you requested.” Solomon would be so wise that no one would be his equal. Thus ends today’s first reading. The Lord goes on to promise riches and glory no one ever had, plus a long life. The king’s wisdom was soon put to the test. Two ladies of the night brought to him a live baby and a dead baby, each claiming she was mother to the live baby. His decision: Cut the live baby in two. Give half to each mother. In this way he ferreted out the genuine mother, who said, “Give her the child. Just don’t think of killing it?” As the beginning of Solomon’s reign was marked by a dispute over a woman, so by the end of his reign we are told that he married foreign wives, eventually having seven hundred wives, (origin of the Seven Hundred Club?), and three hundred concubines. He built temples to their gods and offered sacrifices to those heathen gods. The Lord who said to Moses, “Thou shalt not have strange (foreign) gods before me,” and who calls himself “a jealous God,” was not pleased. The rest of the story: 1 Kings 11. At the beginning Solomon should have asked the Lord for a wise queen to help him govern his passions. A connection with today’s gospel: tenuous but perhaps the wisdom of “the scribe who is instructed in the kingdom of heaven.”
The Responsorial Psalm 119 has the distinction of being the longest hymn in the Book of Psalms. It responds to the virtues of Solomon in the first reading, not to his vices which are left out of the picture. The Psalmist expresses his love for the Lord’s commandments. Here is one expression, “The Law of your mouth is to me more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” One may see also a response to elements of today’s gospel — a treasure found buried in a field and a search for the pearl of great price. In the context of today’s selection from the Letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that even though we are not yet saved, we live with patience in the hope that we will be saved. “Saved” in this case seems to be what Paul calls the adoption of Christians into God’s family and “the redemption of our bodies,” (the resurrection?). Our hope is more firm in that God’s Spirit prays with us, in us, and for us. To this Paul adds reassurance as our second reading begins, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, for all those whom he has called.” Paul is speaking to Christians. He is not excluding the rest of the human race. God predestines all to share his glory, 1 Timothy 2:4. Rejection is by one’s own choice.
The gospel reading gives us three kingdom parables and reveals the author as a Christian scribe. In the first parable a man discovers a treasure buried in a field. He sells all his assets and buys that field. Jesus’ parables are about actual life experiences of his hearers. There was no reliable banking system at the time, so people buried their treasure. This prevented looting from thieves. Due to sudden deaths through epidemics, famine, war, etc., buried treasure was forgotten. Even to this day little hordes of coins are turned up in the Middle East and elsewhere. What does the parable mean? Since the buried treasure is said to be “like the kingdom of heaven,” Christians will expend all efforts to live by God’s rule in their lives. The second parable: the pearl of great price. A man goes in search of fine pearls. When he finds the perfect pearl, he sells all he owns and buys that pearl. How is a pearl formed? An example: a grain of sand finds its way into an oyster. For the oyster this is an irritant (an itch?). To relieve the itch, the oyster secretes mucous to surround the grain of sand. As the mucous hardens, nature forms it into a pearl. There are many possible interpretations of parables, but for the sake of simplicity (and space), let’s stay with the above interpretation of the treasure buried in a field.
The third parable: a net is cast into the sea. The fishermen haul the net ashore and sort their catch. They put the keepers into containers. They throw away the non-keepers. For this parable Matthew gives an interpretation. Again he turns Jesus’ simple parable into an allegory about the last judgment. The angels will separate the good from the wicked. The latter will be thrown into a furnace of fire. Matthew cannot resist adding one of his favorite hardline expressions, “where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (See the comments of the previous Sunday, 16A, on the parable of the mustard seed.) In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples rarely understand anything. But in Matthew’s gospel Jesus asks them at the end of the parables, “Do you understand all these things?’ As if in chorus, they all chant together, “YES!” Matthew ends the chapter with a vague signature, “Every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, . . . brings forth from his storeroom both new and old.” A study of his gospel demonstrates that Matthew was successful in mingling new with old — a good principle for Church law, custom, governance, instruction, homilies.