Gospel for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (26 July 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-45 – NRSV)
These two parables are unique to Matthew. They form part of the so-called “day of parables” found in Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel. These parables – and the parable of the dragnet which follows – is not so much concerned with those who reject Jesus but the nature of the kingdom and what happens in the lives of those who embrace it.
Daniel Harrington writes: “Again the kingdom is compared to the whole picture that follows. The two parables (the treasure and the pearl) probably circulated as a pair. They were included in Matthew’s ‘day of parables’ on the catchword basis of the term ‘field’ in the first parable. Political conditions in Palestine and the continuing threat of invasion made the burial of one’s valuables a common way of protecting them. The implication here seems to be that the present owner had no knowledge of what was hidden in the field. The rabbis debated precisely this point—whether the buyer of the field is entitled to any treasure found in it (Lachs, 229). The parable assumes that he was.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 207.)
like a treasure: The focus is well and truly on the kingdom as something to be cherished. The analogy is unmistakably profane – it represents material wealth. As such we can think of it as an affirmation of the incarnational way in which God works. We call it sacramentality – in the material is the spiritual, in the human is the divine, in the temporal is the eternal and so on. Typically, a human being will be thrilled to find material treasure. Follow that line of thinking: How much more thrilling is it to find the kingdom! Material treasure can have a huge impact on a poor person’s life. Again follow the thinking: How much more the impact when you discover the kingdom!
someone found: “Someone” could be anyone, it could be you! And there is a serendipity to it all – the treasure is found. When we “find” something, it implies a process over which we do not have control. It almost suggests that the treasure found us. If we knew there was a treasure there, we would simply go and get it.
in his joy: Benedict T Viviano OP writes: “This note (of joy) must not be overlooked: the kingdom is such a priceless treasure that a wise man would gladly give all to seize it; it is the chance of a lifetime. Half measures will not do for the kingdom of God.” (“Matthew” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E Brown et al, Geoffrey Chapman, 1990, 657.)
Three months before he died on 7 March 1274, St Thomas Aquinas had an extraordinary “experience” while celebrating Mass. As a result of this “experience”, St Thomas refused to do any further work on the Summa Theologica – his major life project. The English Dominican Thomistic scholar, Brian Davies, tells us that Aquinas’ secretary, Reginald of Piperno, begged him to return to the writing. St Thomas replied: "Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me" (Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, Oxford University Press, 1993, 9).
One of the tragedies of the Catholic Church is that St Thomas has been too often treated as someone who has found the answers to all the great questions of life. This has been a significant factor in reducing the Faith to something abstract, a body of knowledge which can be convincingly communicated through arguments. Before he is a thinker and a philosopher, St Thomas is a Christian mystic. To use the image of the parable in today’s Gospel: He found the treasure in the field – see Matthew 13:44. St Thomas’ legacy is precious, not because he gives us the answers with watertight arguments, but because he is someone who reminds us of the End of all our questioning. That End – the God of the Incarnation – is not available as the inevitable conclusion of a rational argument. Everything St Thomas lives for, writes about and speaks of, is an expression of his communion with God in Christ. Two truths come together at the heart of Sr Thomas’ life and work: Incarnation and the incomprehensibility of God.
The Irish poet, W B Yeats (1865-1939), a Protestant/agnostic, oddly enough presents us with an insight that can help us appreciate the gift of St Thomas: “I am happy and I think full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence” (W. B. Yeats cited by John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1992, 118).
St Thomas and W B Yeats remind us that the parables of the treasure in the field and the finding of the pearl of great price are more experiences of being found rather than finding. These parables are not allegories. Nor are they moral stories. They are simple, open-ended stories drawn from daily living. The actors and outcomes could easily be imagined by Jesus’ listeners. They each have a plot and inner movement. We are invited to use our imaginations, so that we can be drawn into the story. We might then also be drawn a little closer to being Saints.