17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached July 30, 2017; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Jesus says, Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you. (Mt 7:7)
Well and good, but we will never ask if we do not desire and we will not receive if we do not ask rightly. We need to ask rightly for the right thing.
What, then, should we be asking for?
We should ask to discover the treasure hidden in the field that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel, a treasure that cannot be measure by any monetary sum. We should ask for the priceless pearl of which he speaks in today’s Gospel, a pearl that is worth all that we are capable of giving.
But what is this treasure? What is this pearl?
In a word, the treasure and the pearl each images for the true wisdom that comes from God. Wisdom is the most desirable gift of God that makes us pleasing to him and gives the capacity to enter into and belong to his Kingdom.
The Apostle James writes in his letter: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (Jm 1:5-6)
That leads us to today’s 1st reading in which we heard of a man, Solomon, making a petition that was pleasing to God, both as to the way he asked and what he asked. Solomon asked rightly for the right thing.
Solomon asked rightly because he asked with faith and humility. He asks with humility because he recognizes the great task God has entrusted to him and his own inadequacy relative to the task. He sees that he is incapable of fulfilling because of his youth, his inexperience, and his ignorance. He realizes that without wisdom he will be unable to fulfill the mission that God has entrusted him. Solomon also asks with faith because he is confident that God can give to him the wisdom he lacks, thereby making him capable of fulfilling his mission. In sum, Solomon asks with humility, recognizing his own weakness and limitation, and he asks with faith, recognizing God’s wisdom and power.
Solomon was entrusted with a great task, a weighty mission, governing the whole of God’s people; still each one of us receives some task some mission from the Lord. Like Solomon, we must recognize our limitation and our need for some share of wisdom, in order to achieve the purpose for which God created us – that purpose is great indeed for, as we have heard in the 2nd reading, those God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
Solomon also recognizes the key that will open for him the gate to wisdom will be an understanding heart that is able to judge rightly and distinguish right from wrong. Solomon shows that he knows how to ask rightly, with humility and faith, and what to ask for, the understanding heart that will unlock the gate to wisdom.
Now we need to clarify something here about the meaning of the word ‘heart’ in the Bible. We need to clarify the meaning of the word ‘heart’ because too often we connect the word ‘heart’ with ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ in contrast and even opposition to ‘thought’ and ‘mind’.
When we do this we give priority to an ‘understanding’ based on ‘feeling’. Influenced by this emotional way of thinking a person might say, “Why I just ‘feel’ in my ‘heart’ that it is the right thing and no one else can tell me otherwise.” Or, “I just ‘feel in my ‘heart’ this relationship is right and good and holy – even though it is opposed to God’s law – and no one else can tell me otherwise.”
When we reduce the ‘heart’ to ‘feeling’, indeed to my subjective feelings, we set our own feelings and our own experience as the standard by which we judge all things. At that point we are no longer capable of receiving guidance, we can no longer truly listen to anything but what we want to hear, we are devoid of wisdom.
In truth, the Bible speaks of the ‘heart’ as the person’s secret core, the place where all of his thought, purpose, feeling, and judgment come together. The ‘heart’ involves intellect and will more than emotion. ‘Conscience’ not as some mere ‘gut feeling’ but as the reason’s judgment on the moral quality of our acts belongs to the heart. The ‘heart’ is a synthesis of the most profound intellectual, moral, and emotional reality of the human person.
Returning to Solomon, he asks, according to a more precise translation, for a listening heart. In response to his request, God grants him a wise and understanding heart. Listening proves to be the key to wisdom. Listening, however, presupposes an ability to keep silence.
That is why wisdom is so lacking in our world today. We are unable to endure silence, but seek constant distraction. Pursuing a life of noisy distraction we find ourselves turning our backs on the narrow gate that leads to wisdom, while we head in the opposite direction, following the broad and easy road to destruction.
If, however, we are to enter at the narrow gate of true wisdom, we must learn to keep silence, the silence of faith and the silence of prayer, in order that we might learn to listen.
What sort of listening?
We may be familiar with a famous Gospel scene in which Jesus is welcomed by two sisters, Martha and Mary; Martha attends to the details of hospitality, but in a rather noisy, self-important, and preoccupied fashion, complaining about her sister’s failure to help; Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus feet, listening to his teaching, listening in faith to the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, listening in faith to the teaching of the Word made flesh. Jesus, in response to Mary’s complaint says that only one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part that will not be taken away. (cf. Lk 10:38-42)
The most needful thing, the most important thing, the key that unlocks the door of true wisdom is found in the cultivation of a silent and attentive listening to the word of God and above all to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. We must go to Jesus, like St. Peter, saying, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God. (Jn 6:69)
Note, that Peter first believed and believing he came to know; first he believed, then he gained the knowledge that comes from the experience of the person. We have a way of inverting the order of things; we will not believe unless we have an experience, an emotional experience.
In his day, Solomon having received from God the gift of a listening heart, attained to a wisdom that was second to none, a wisdom that gave him the ability to fulfill the mission entrusted him by the Lord, so long as he remained faithful to the gift received. So great was Solomon’s wisdom that the Queen of Sheba came from the ends of the earth to listen to him and her breath was taken away by what she heard from his lips, which exceeded all that she had imagined beforehand. (cf. 1 Kg 10:1-10)
For his part, Jesus would comment on this saying, The Queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold something greater than Solomon is hear. (Mt 12:42)
What then shall be the judgment on us who have been given to hear the word of Jesus Christ, the very Wisdom of God in person, and prefer to distract ourselves with a thousand other idle matters?
Nevertheless, the Lord is very kind and merciful. We do not have to journey to the ends of the earth like the Queen of Sheba, rather the Lord himself sends the Queen of Heaven, his very Mother to us as a messenger of his mercy.
One hundred years ago he sent his Mother to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal with a message to make the Gospel come alive in our own time, if only we would listen.
This very week, on Thursday and Friday, he sends his Mother to us, represented by the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Fatima. He makes it very easy for us. No long journey is required. Will we listen? Maybe we will indeed discover that treasure, that pearl that is so precious and desirable that we will gladly give all that we have to attain it.