Scripture and the Liturgy

Get Wise! 17th Sunday of OT

When I was a kid, the phrase “Get wise!” was a provocative taunt—essentially, a way to start a fight.  It meant: “I invite you to act like a smart aleck, so I will have an excuse to assault you physically.”  I’ll never forget it, because I was only involved in about four fist-fights in my entire boyhood, and one memorable one was initiated this way. 

But what does it really mean to “Get wise” or “Gain wisdom”?  The Readings for this Sunday’s Mass teach us about this issue.

During this part of Ordinary Time in Year A, the Church is pursuing a lectio continua (continuous reading, i.e. reading in order) of both Romans and Matthew.  The First Readings are taken from key passages of the Old Testament, chosen (more or less) to complement the Gospel reading.

1.  This weekend’s First Reading is Solomon’s famous encounter with God in a dream early in his reign (1 Kgs 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.”

Faced with the invitation to make any request of God, Solomon asks for the wisdom to rule well.  God is pleased with this request and grants it to him.  In a verse not used in Mass, God adds: “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days” (1 Kings 3:13).  We are reminded here of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt 6:33).  Solomon’s first thought is for the welfare of God’s Kingdom: to rule it beneficially, he needs divine wisdom.  Since Solomon puts the interests of the Kingdom first, God honors him.

P. The Psalm is taken from the greatest celebration of God’s Law in the Psalter, Psalm 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130:

R. (97a) Lord, I love your commands.
I have said, O LORD, that my part
is to keep your words.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
Let your kindness comfort me
according to your promise to your servants.
Let your compassion come to me that I may live,
for your law is my delight.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
For I love your command
more than gold, however fine.
For in all your precepts I go forward;
every false way I hate.
R. Lord, I love your commands.
Wonderful are your decrees;
therefore I observe them.
The revelation of your words sheds light,
giving understanding to the simple.
R. Lord, I love your commands.

In this Psalm, the “Law” often refers not simply to the laws of the Pentateuch but to God’s revelation generally.  The Psalm celebrates the LORD as the source for all true wisdom:

The revelation of your words sheds light,
giving understanding to the simple.

LORD, I love your commands.

In today’s Readings, Solomon is remembered for his “good side,” that is, the zeal and devotion of his youth.  The sacred author describes his early years this way: “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father” (1 Kings 3:3).  The Psalm encourages us to remember this side of Solomon, the Solomon who loved God and God’s revelation.

2. The Second Reading promises that God’s providence attends those who love him, as Solomon did:

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. (Rom 8:28-30)

When I was a kid, I thought this verse said “all things work out good for those who love God.”  I figured that if I obeyed God’s laws, I would always be successful.  Of course, that’s not what the verse means, which I discovered the hard way in my mid-twenties through a series of personal crises.

This is one verse that we want to translate correctly.  Here is the Greek, in English characters:

Oidamen de hoti tois agapōsin ton theon panta synergei eis agathon, tois kata prothesin klētois ousin.

Translating woodenly, it reads:

We know that, for those who love God, all things work together unto good, for those being called according to his purpose.

Not all things are good or work out well, but for those who love God, he causes all things to contribute to our ultimate good—even sickness, failure, persecutions, and death itself (cf. Rom 8:35).

By virtue of the covenant with David his father, Solomon enjoyed the privilege of being a Son of God (see 2 Samuel 7:14).  Indeed, he was reckoned as God’s Firstborn among the kings of the earth (Psalm 89:27).  Compare St. Paul’s language:

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.

The royal privileges that Jesus the Christ enjoys as Son of David and Son of God are extended to all who join themselves to him.  In a mysterious way, a way known only to God, those of us who “choose God” freely actually find that, all along, we were chosen by him.  This is the mystery of predestination.  It is not something we will comprehend fully in this life, but in this part of Romans, St. Paul means to reassure us: God is working in us and through us.  His plans will be accomplished.

G.  The Gospel Reading finishes the last of the Parables of the Kingdom from Matthew 13:

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.

These three parables are obviously speaking of the Kingdom manifested on earth as the Church, not the Kingdom consummated in the world to come.  These parables are favorites of converts, because the experiences described in them seem so parallel to some of our own experiences of finding our way (or rather, God finding us and bringing us) into the Catholic Church.

The first of these parables tells us that the Kingdom is not always obvious.  It’s like “treasure buried.”  There’s no billboard saying, “TRUE CHURCH, EXIT LEFT 1 MILE.”  In fact, those speeding by on the highway of life will never find it.  You have to be digging.  Digging in the vineyard, perhaps.  Suddenly you hit something with your spade.  Can it be?  Is it?  Yes!  You are willing to leave everything you have to buy the field with this treasure.  (Incidentally, the moral sense of “sells all that he has and buys the field” can apply to those who embrace the evangelical counsel of poverty in the religious life.)

The second of these parables is similar to the first.  Again, the Kingdom is not obvious.  There are many competitors, perhaps even fakes, “faux pearls” or pearls of low quality.  It takes some discernment—indeed wisdom, like Solomon asked for—to tell the true and valuable pearl from all the look-alikes and costume jewelry.  It’s found by those who are looking carefully and (perhaps) have gotten some experience in this business. 

The third parable is one of the most important for Catholics to understand and embrace.  It tells us that the Kingdom, for all its value, is also going to be a “mixed bag” during this age.  Like the net thrown into the sea that catches fish of many kinds, so the Church is like a net thrown by Peter, his co-workers the Apostles, and their successors, which brings many—both saints and sinners—into God’s Kingdom.  Not all brought in during this age will persevere through the final judgment, however.

“The Kingdom” in the Gospel of Matthew is, in one sense, nothing but Jesus himself: the King.  However, since the Church is the Body of Christ and united to him, what is said about the Kingdom applies also to the Church, both Triumphant (in heaven) and Militant (on earth).  The seven parables of the Kingdom in Matt 13 are clearly not speaking of the Church Triumphant, glorified in God’s presence; nor are they speaking (for the most part) of the Kingdom manifested in the person of Christ the Kingdom.  No, these parables of a Kingdom hidden, starting small, growing slowly, hard to find, mixed with weeds and bad fish, is a description of the Church Militant—perhaps even our local parish!

Many self-appointed “reformers” in Church history have split the historic Church in order to establish a “pure” or “sifted” church.  Even today, many leave the Catholic Church for various sects, denominations, even cults, because of the scandal of sinners within the visible Body of Christ.  “How can this be the Kingdom of God when it has people like that in it!?”  Yet it is, and Jesus told us it was going to be like this.

It takes wisdom to recognize that the Church Militant is, for all its rents and wounds, the Kingdom of Heaven come to earth.  This wisdom can only come from God, granted by him to those who love him.  If we are docile to the teachings of Jesus, the one who is greater than Solomon, he will teach us the wisdom of the Kingdom.

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