July 26, 2020: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12

The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night.
God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”
Solomon answered:
“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.”

The books of Kings are the fourth part of what tradition calls the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1st & 2nd Samuel, 1st & 2nd Kings). Scholars refer to the Former Prophets as the “deuteronomistic history” and to deem it the product of a single school, if not a single author. It is not a work of political or social history, however, but of theological history. It recounts, from a consistent theological point of view, Israel’s life in its own land from the occupation under Joshua to the Babylonian exile. It is less interested in accurately chronicling events, no matter how important they may seem to the modern historian, than in explaining the tragic fate of Yahweh’s people.

It is not certain when the sacred writer(s) compiled the sources into the theological narrative we have today. The final version is believed to date from between 560 and 538 BC.

Our reading today comes from the beginning of Solomon’s reign as king. The “wisdom of Solomon” is a phrase well known even by those who are unfamiliar with the Bible. This passage explains the divine origin of that wisdom.

The LORD appeared to Solomon

Solomon succeeded his father David as king of Israel about 961 BC.

in a dream at night.

Divine revelation by dream has an extensive biblical and extra-biblical background.

God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”

Note that it is God who initiates the exchange.  No reason is given for God’s generosity — God gives because God is generous.

Solomon answered: 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.

Solomon’s response begins by humbling himself before God: identifying himself as God’s servant, admitting that he is king because of the favor of God, and declaring that he is an insignificant youth with no experience. The reference to his youth probably has more to do with his inexperience as a leader than his chronological age.

“Not knowing at all how to act” is literally, “not knowing at all how to go out or come in,” which is a Hebrew phrase to express all that a man does.

I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.

Solomon next describes the people he rules.  Their most important feature is their election by God; he realizes the gravity of being selected to rule over God’s chosen people.

His allusion to the size of the population may be exaggerated, but it does reflect the success David had in annexing neighboring lands and peoples.

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?”

In the face of this vast responsibility, Solomon prays for an understanding heart. The heart was considered the seat of thought and understanding. The Hebrew adjective is shōmē’a , which can be translated as “listening” or “obedient.” The king is asking for understanding that is docile and open to the direction of another, presumably God.

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.

Because Solomon’s request is an unselfish request, one which serves for the benefit of the people, God gives Solomon the wisdom for which he prayed.

From a New Testament perspective, we could say that Solomon asks for knowledge of the kingdom of God, just what Jesus tries to give the crowd and the disciples in today’s gospel reading.

In the verses immediately following today’s reading, God also grants him two things he hadn’t asked for: riches and honors above all other kings, and long life — on the condition that he follow the faithful example of David.

2nd Reading – Romans 8:28-30

Brothers and sisters:
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.

As we continue our study of Romans, we begin where last week’s reading ended. Recall that this is Saint Paul’s description of the future glory that awaits those who live the Christian life empowered by the Spirit.

There are two themes at play here: all things working for good and the nature of divine predetermination.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, 

This should not be misunderstood as meaning “everything will work out in the end,” which suggests that the misfortune that befalls every life and the suffering each of us must endure will ultimately be corrected by God. Instead, the expression “all things work for good” suggests a profound trust in God, who can bring good even when adverse conditions are not altered.

Those who love God believe God loves them and desires what is in their best interest.  Though they may not know what this might imply, they believe God does, and they trust God will draw good out of misfortune.

who are called according to his purpose.

In saying this, we hear an echo of what Jesus is proclaiming in today’s gospel reading: The kingdom of God is at hand.

“To be called according to God’s purpose is to be called according to the will. But is this the will of the one who calls or the will of those who are called? Naturally, every impulse which leads to righteousness comes from God the Father. Christ Himself once said: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father draws him’ (John 6:44). Nevertheless it is not wrong to say that some are called according to God’s purpose and according to their own intentions as well.” [Saint Cyril of Alexandria (A.D. 430), Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans 8,29]

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 those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.

Using just a few words, Paul lays out the entire plan or purpose of God from the pretemporal age to the period of glorification: God foreknew, predetermined, called, justified, and glorified. Although the verbs are in the past tense, the actual unfolding of this divine purpose is believed to be an ongoing reality.

The pressing question here is twofold: Who is called? And, to what are they called?

Paul is very clear here about the answer to the second question: they are called to conform their lives to the image of Christ.

The entire Christian tradition provides the answer to the first question: All are called. This aspect of the divine will is the most misunderstood. Paul’s use of a word that is translated into English as “predestined” shouldn’t be equated with any later theological system of predestination; nowhere does Paul suggest that some are predestined to salvation and others to perdition. In fact, Paul teaches elsewhere in Scripture that God desires the salvation of all mankind (1 Timothy 2:4).

Paul is also not indicating any limits on our free will. God gave us the freedom to choose to obey him or not — a choice with which God does not interfere. This is why Saint Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (KJV).

If believers succeed in conforming themselves to Christ, they will become children of God, like Christ. It is this conformity that will result in their being justified, and their justification will be the source of their glorification.

“Those whom He predestined, those also did He call; and those whom He called, those also did He justify; and those whom He justified, those also did He glorify. Those whose resolve He foreknew, He predestined from the beginning. Predestining them, He did also call them. Calling them, He justified them by Baptism; and justifying them, He glorified them, calling them sons and bestowing on them the grace of the Holy Spirit. But no one would say that His foreknowledge is the cause of this: for His foreknowledge does not accomplish such things as these. Rather, God, since He is God, does see from afar those things that are going to be. … The God of the Universe, since He is God, sees all things from afar. Assuredly this imposes no necessity on anyone of practicing virtue, nor on anyone of doing evil. For if a man be compelled to either course, it is not right that he be either praised and crowned, or condemned to punishment. If God is just, as just He be, He encourages to those things that are good, and dissuades from the contrary; and He praises those who do good, and punishes those who voluntarily embrace evil.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 440), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul Romans 8:30]

Gospel – Matthew 13:44-52

Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea,
which collects fish of every kind.
When it is full they haul it ashore
and sit down to put what is good into buckets.
What is bad they throw away.
Thus it will be at the end of the age.
The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous
and throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

“Do you understand all these things?”
They answered, “Yes.”
And he replied,
“Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven
is like the head of a household
who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”

In today’s gospel reading, we hear the conclusion of Jesus’ discourse on the kingdom of God, in which he teaches through parables, with the parables of the Hidden Treasure, the Pearl, and the Net.

As we have been working our way through Matthew’s gospel, you may have noticed that Matthew, the editor, has arranged his gospel into narrative sections and then long speeches, or discourses, given by Jesus on a particular topic. There are five of these discourses: the Sermon on the Mount, the Missionary Discourse, the Parabolic Discourse, the Discourse on the Church, and the Discourse on End Times. Some scriptural scholars suggest that Matthew arranged the inherited oral and written traditions for this gospel into five main topics in order to reflect the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (also known as the five books of the law).

Jesus said to his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again,

Today’s reading provides three comparisons that Jesus uses to help his disciples understand what he means by “the kingdom of heaven.”

In the ancient world, where there was a constant danger of foreign invasion or plundering, many householders buried their gold, jewels, and other treasures in the ground. They hoped to be able to recover their treasure after the danger had passed. Some didn’t return.

and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

The kingdom of God is such a priceless treasure that a wise man would gladly give all for the chance to seize it; it is the chance of a lifetime.

According to Palestinian laws of that time, the mere finding of buried treasure didn’t entitle the finder to it unless he also owned the property. In this parable, the finder doesn’t tell the owner of the field about the treasure: he purchases it from him first, in order to be covered legally.

Jesus passes no judgment on his ethics, and as usual with parables, makes only one main point, that point being the value of the treasure itself, not the possibility that the purchase of the field might have been a fraudulent transaction.

Discovering the kingdom of God is the chance of a lifetime, one that should be pursued at any price.

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.

Whereas the buried treasure was found accidentally, the pearl was found after a lifetime of diligent search. In the ancient world, pearls were special, not only for their value, but for their beauty; they could command fantastic prices. The main sources of pearls were the shores of the Red Sea and Britain, but merchants would scour the whole world for them, as we do today for oil.

The pearl merchant in this parable was probably intended to represent a professional trader of pearls, not merely a retailer. His eye would recognize the value that another might overlook. He puts all his possessions in the one investment that he knows will repay him most handsomely.

These first two parables have similar themes: the kingdom of God has inestimable value, and it is present though unperceived. Only the very shrewd discover it, and when they find it, they sacrifice everything to possess it. Jesus’ disciples must do the same.

Note how in both cases, Jesus advocates total reversal of the past (“selling all”) in order to gain a future.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

The Parable of the Net is quite different than the previous two: its eschatological character is very close to the parable of the wheat and the weeds from last week’s reading.

The Church is not entirely a community of the elect; it has unfaithful members. God will tolerate such members in the Church as he tolerates them in the world at large, but the judgment will determine the final destiny of the righteous and the wicked.

The parable is teaching the disciples to be patient with the process. Good will prevail in the end.

“Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes.”

In Matthew, understanding is a characteristic of a good disciple. While this exchange addresses the parables the precede it, it can also be considered the conclusion of Jesus’ entire parabolic instruction — Jesus is asking if they understand what he has been teaching them.

Their affirmative answer could be because the parables just proclaimed are rather easy to comprehend, or as in the case of previous parables, Jesus has been explaining their meanings.

And he replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven

The scribes of whom Jesus speaks probably did more than copy the scrolls.  They were the interpreters of the Law.

Jesus considers his disciples to be interpreters of the Law, instructed in the kingdom.

is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”

Just as a householder brings out treasures old and new, the disciples are able to understand that Jesus’ teaching is grounded in the original tradition, yet radically different.

As such, the disciples will employ both the Law and the Prophets (“the old”) and the Gospel (“the new”). Neither is sufficient without the other; the Gospel is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

Connections and Themes

Treasure and delight.  The treasure is the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God.  It is the realization of knowing that we belong to God, that we are cherished and cared for, that we have been called to commit ourselves to the noblest values of the human heart.  It is the prize that gives meaning to the present, and its fullest delight draws us into the future.  It feeds our hungers; it satisfies our thirsts; it piques our curiosity. The kingdom of heaven excites us as a child is excited on Christmas morning or a bride on her wedding day.  It has the calming touch of a nursing mother, the warmth of a lover’s embrace, the approving smile of a good friend.  The reign of God is the fulfillment of our deepest desires and our fondest hopes.  Nothing in the world can compare with it, and that is why we are willing to sacrifice everything to attain it.

The treasure we “find” is really a gift that has been given.  We need not work to attain the kingdom, not can we earn it in any way.  It is given to us by God.  There is something about the kingdom that also resembles God’s offer to Solomon in today’s first reading: in a demonstration of his endless generosity, God invites him to ask for whatever he would like.  In a sense, the kingdom of God is ours for the asking. Unfortunately, we do not always recognize its value, and we do not ask for it.

The gift received is a gift given. The gospel concentrates on the treasured character of the kingdom.  The first reading adds another dimension to our consideration.  Having been given the opportunity to choose any blessing he might desire, Solomon chose to be of service to others.  In this, he is a model for disciples to follow.  We have discovered the treasure in the field; we have found the pearl of great price; we have been blessed with the kingdom of God.  What we have been given, we must now give to others.  We can be assured that it will be with us as it was with Solomon: in giving, we will lose nothing.  In fact, we gain an abundance of blessings.  All things work for good, and God is glorified in all.

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