There is plenty of misery to go around in July 2020: Covid 19, systemic racial injustice showing its ugliness for all to see, callous indifference to the vulnerable from the womb to the grave, homelessness and joblessness, degradation of the environment, killing off God’s creatures large and small — and on and on. One of the hardest things is that most of us have lots of time on our hands, but have no clear idea what we ought to do. Certainly, I feel that way — who wants to be a guilty bystander when the world is on fire? How to act, consistently, bravely, realistically, in the face of even one of these crises? How to make a difference? Or to put it another way: How do we find the kingdom of heaven today — God’s heavenly will becoming real here on earth?
Jesus was a practical man, even regarding the kingdom he preached. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) he did of course offer his vision of the kingdom – God’s plan for the earth and human community realized in our living as God lives. But he was more often interested in helping his listeners to find the kingdom in practice, to act differently, to stick our necks out and change our lives for the sake of the kingdom: brave wisdom, wisdom in practice.
On the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time we are still in Matthew 13. Here Jesus vividly pictures how it happens that sometimes we actually find the kingdom. There are three parables, each very brief: the treasure, the pearl, the good and bad fish.
Sometimes we simply stumble on the kingdom, even when we are not looking for it:
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. (Matthew 13.44)
We are simply minding our own business, doing our daily work, and suddenly there it is: what we have (not) been looking for our whole lives. We trip over our future ministry, we see that we actually can do something to help the sick, defend the excluded, wipe away the tears of despair, teach and illumine safe paths amid the circling gloom (as Cardinal Newman put it). Perhaps this is what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus, when suddenly Jesus was there, knocking him off his feet, changing his life: Paul changing the world.
Sometimes we have to go looking for the kingdom, with a discerning eye:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (13.45-46)
Like other merchants, this person of worldly experience goes about in the jewelers' markets, looking for the best of pearls to buy and sell. But suddenly one day she find it: the one pearl that is worth more than every other pearl, right there, in plain view. Her joy is deep and sure. This reminds me of the stories of seekers who slowly but very bravely found their way to their true vocation. Read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, or Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness: autobiographies in which all kinds of things happen along the way, most of them not so very memorable, until slowly, surely, they found where God was to be in their lives. Then they dropped all else, he to become a monk, she to become a Catholic and lifelong sister to the poorest among us: two prophets of the kingdom of heaven among us.
Either way, though, finding the treasure or the pearl is only the first part of the quest. The finders of the treasure and of the pearl, overwhelmed with joy, then have to indulge in a holy recklessness, selling everything just to hold onto what they really really want. We may find the treasure, the kingdom of heaven — but then we have to make it our own by the choices we make. We may opt to settle for something less, lazier, safer. It would be as if Mahatma Gandhi, when he was thrown off a train in South Africa because he was “colored,” thought about devoting himself to solidarity with the oppressed — but then thought twice, and merely got rich as a lawyer. But he did not back away. Or as if Mother Teresa, on her train ride, realized that God was calling her to leave the convent school, to go out and help the poorest of the poor, but then slept on it and just went back to grading papers. But she dared to go out into the streets. Or as if Representative John Lewis (who died the other day) saw the Edmund Pettus bridge in Birmingham on that Sunday in 1965 and knew very well that the promised land was on the other side of it — but decided instead to watch Sunday afternoon football. But he led the way, crossing the bridge, at great personal risk. When you find the kingdom, you have to sell off your other cares and attachments, and risk everything for what your heart tells you is right. (For another inspiring story, see this short clip at the BBC website, about a Catholic nun, Sister Denise Bergon, who risked everything to save 83 French Jewish children from the Nazis during WW II.)
But sometimes there is yet another way, as Jesus’ third parable tells us. Here, rather more boringly, we just have to pay closer attention to the life we are already living, to the work we are already doing at home, school, the office. We just have to take a long and hard look at what is familiar — too familiar perhaps — and sort out our experiences, hold onto what is really life-giving, and dumping overboard what is spoiled, out of date, stale:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. (13.47-48)
This wisdom, the winnowing of daily life, works in all those times we don’t have mystical experiences, when we aren’t dazzled by treasurers and pearls but just have a deep feeling of discontent with the present moment — and do something about it. It is as if to realize: the job I’m in is no longer the job for me; what thrilled me years ago no longer keeps me alert and alive; I've been doing too much, I need to refocus my life. Here is the place for quiet dramas, that in the long run make a difference. Think about it: how many courageous government workers finally have the courage not just to notice corruption, but actually to speak out as whistle blowers? How many politicians finally decide to resist corruption and speak the truth, even if they weaken their reelection chances? How many go-with-the-flow clerics finally speak up to demand that the Church repent and change, becoming more of the kingdom of heaven? Very few, I fear; we see what we can and ought to do if we are companions of Jesus and heralds of the kingdom of heaven, but then we back away, play it safe, leaving the treasure and the pearls for others to find.
The necessary wisdom in all three parables comes together at the end of today’s Gospel:
“Have you understood all this?” He asked. They answered, “Yes.”
So he told them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (13.51-2)
The old and the new, the new and the old. We can’t cling to old ways, since the world is changing faster and faster, right before our eyes. But we would be fools to imagine we can start entirely afresh, as if I can really reinvent myself mid-life or in old age, or even at 25 or 30. It is only as the people we are — blessed and burdened with experience, but still alive and able to change - that we get to be witnesses to the kingdom, finally figuring out what we need to do now.
We might do well, in the end to make our own the prayer of Solomon, heard in today’s first reading:
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon replied, “You always showed great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you. You kept for him a great and steadfast love, and now you have given him a son — me — to sit on his throne.
O Lord my God, now you have made this servant king in place of my father David, although I am like a little child! What do I know? I don't even know how to go out or come in! But I am your servant in the midst of this people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be counted. So please give your servant an understanding mind and wise heart, so I can lead your people, able to discern between good and evil, ready to protect them all. Help me to make your kingdom come to life upon this earth. (I Kings 3.5-9, adapted)