Saturday, July 26, 2008
Sunday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (A)
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Readings: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Psalms 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52 or 13:44-46
Picture: CC JoshMcConnell
Dear sisters and brothers, do you remember those stories in which someone finds a magical object – maybe an old lamp or a discarded bottle – and when the thing is rubbed, a genie appears and grants the person three wishes? I’m thinking, for example, of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and The Thief of Baghdad. When I was growing up, I sometimes liked to imagine what it would be like if I were to meet a genie like that. If I were given three wishes, what would I ask for? On such occasions, I’d usually find myself thinking that the heroes in those stories were really a bit dumb. I’d think that, if I were given three wishes, I’d make sure that I used the last one to ask for three more wishes. Common sense right?
You can tell that even at a young age I was quite a greedy fellow. But, greedy or not, the point is that the characters in those stories should really have used their wishes more wisely. They should have asked for things that were useful in the long term. Instead, they only looked to their most immediate needs, like asking for a magic carpet to fly them from point A to point B, for example. That’s a one-time flight. Why not ask for the ability to fly wherever and whenever you want? In other words, like what we sometimes hear in modern-day advertisements, I thought that Aladdin and company should really have asked for a gift that keeps on giving. A gift that keeps on giving – why didn’t they think of that?
But that was only when I was a child. Now that I’m older, I find that I’m not so quick to criticize. I’ve come to realize that making a wish is really not that simple. In order to wish wisely – in order to ask for the gift that keeps on giving – I must first at least have some idea what it is I really want, what it is I really need. And that is not an easy question to answer. I say this partly because of my limited experience in attending and accompanying others on retreats. One of the main things that you do on a retreat is to ask God for what you want. And I’ve been to enough retreats to realize that many of us, myself included, don’t really know what we want. Imagine, for a moment, that God were to ask you, right now, to make a wish. How would you respond? What would you ask for? Would it be easy?
Which is why, it’s important to pay careful attention to our readings today. They help us to reflect more deeply upon what it is we really want, and also upon what we need to truly receive this gift from God. The gospel passage is a good place to begin, because here we find Jesus identifying for us the one thing that can fulfill us. Notice how happy the two people in the gospel are. They are filled with joy because they have received what they really want. They have found the Kingdom of heaven.
This Kingdom is not a place high up in the sky somewhere. Neither is it to be found only in a far distant future. Rather, in other passages in the gospels, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom has come near to you (Luke 10:11), and even that the Kingdom is among you (Luke 17:21). We find the Kingdom when God’s powerful and loving presence makes itself felt in our midst. As we prayed in the opening prayer just now: Touched by your hand our world is holy. The Kingdom of heaven is to be found in our world, here and now.
Why then don’t we see it more often? Why don’t we ask God for it? Why don’t we experience the joy that comes from finding it? Again, our readings help us to understand. Several possible factors are in play here. We will consider three of them. The first possible reason why we don’t wish for and receive the Kingdom is that we don’t really dare to ask. We don’t dare because there’s a part of us that suspects that the Kingdom comes with strings attached. We hear, for example, about how the two people in the gospel actually have to sell everything in order to obtain the Kingdom. And, consciously or not, we’re too attached to what we have. What if God asks me to quit my high-paying job, or to sell the car that I so carefully polish every week? What if God chooses one of my children for a priestly or religious vocation? Don’t play play. Better not to ask.
What we fail to realize, however, is that, having found the Kingdom, those two people in the gospel do not see the selling of their possessions as a sacrifice. They do it quite willingly, out of joy. Of course, this is not to say that we will not feel the pinch from time to time. Even Jesus felt it in the Garden of Gethsemane. What it does mean is that, however big the sacrifice may seem, the eventual reward will be far greater. As we heard in the second reading: all things work for good for those who love God… Jesus suffered and died only to be raised to eternal life on the third day.
But even if we do finally find the courage to ask God for the Kingdom, other obstacles may still stand in the way of our receiving it. Notice how the two people in the gospel come to find the Kingdom. The pearl of great price is found by the second person as a result of his search. He seeks and then finds what he is looking for. The first person finds the Kingdom buried in a field. Which implies that he must have been digging, when he stumbled upon it. The Kingdom is found by those who are willing to search and to dig.
This presents a big problem to us, who live in a modern and fast-paced society. Simply put, we don’t like to dig. We’re more used to moving quickly, busily, superficially from one thing to the next. We have neither the time nor the inclination to stop and to ponder the beauty of God’s creation, for example. We don’t even take time to dig into our own hearts to discover ourselves, and the God who is present there. Even when something serious happens in our lives – when we experience failure, or lose a loved one, for example – how many of us have the luxury of taking time out to come to terms with the loss? And it’s not just because we are too busy. It’s also because living at such a deeper level is too much trouble. It’s too tiring, and even painful, to dig for true treasure in this way. It’s too messy, for example, when we encounter conflicts, to discuss our differences like mature adults. We prefer to write anonymous letters or to fight over en-bloc sales – going to the extent of even vandalizing the cars of our opponents. Can we get any more superficial than that?
And, finally, even if we do eventually learn to dig, something else can still get in the way. Although we may have a vague idea that it is the Kingdom of heaven that we are looking for, we don’t really know what it looks or feels like. We easily miss it even when it is staring us in the face. It’s like the movie trailer I saw recently, where a robot picks up a jewelry box. It opens it and finds a diamond ring. But it doesn’t know the value of the ring. So it throws it away and keeps the box instead. Isn’t this the problem with us too? In the course of ordinary daily living, we don’t know how to discern the jewelry from the junk. We think that money and status are more important than family and friends, for example. Or that shopping is more attractive than prayer.
These are among the problems that we face: We don’t dare to ask. We don’t like to dig. And we don’t know how to discern. Isn’t this why the first reading is so helpful for us? Isn’t this why we find it so inspiring? For here, from Solomon, we learn how to wish wisely. Here, we finally find someone who dares to ask God to make him a good ruler, even though this will be troublesome for him. Here is someone willing to dig below the surface of his own more immediate cravings, in order to find the deep desire for God’s guidance in his life. And he does this because he knows that far more valuable even than a long life and riches, is the gift of an understanding heart… to distinguish right from wrong. And so he asks God to help him to discern. He wishes for a gift that keeps on giving. And God gives him what he asks for. Ask, and it will be given you...
Sisters and brothers, if God were to invite you to make a wish, what would you ask for today?
Posted by Fr Chris at 8:10 pm