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JULY 24, 2011: SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

I Kings 3:5, 7-12
Romans 8:28-30
Matthew 13:44-52

The late scholar of Wisdom Literature, Roland Murphy, frequently focused on today's I Kings passage to provide us with Scripture's best definition of a "wise" person. When promised a reward from Yahweh, Solomon asks for just one thing: "an understanding heart." According to Fr. Murphy, all followers of God should be on a constant quest to acquire such a heart.

In a recent Bible Today article, Sr. Irene Nowell makes some interesting observations about biblical wisdom. "Genuine wisdom," she writes, "is based on common human experience and the ability to learn from experiences, whether pleasant or painful. ... The goal of wisdom is always life - life in the present, life now. The wise person is someone fully alive. Such a person is indeed a revelation of God."

There's more to Jesus' ministry than just getting us into heaven. We know from Mark's narrative of his encounter with the rich young man that Jesus presumes people were "getting into heaven" before they heard his basic stump speech about the "kingdom of God" (or, in Matthew, the "kingdom of heaven").

Though it often doesn't make our weekend homilies, scholars have been telling us for a long time that Jesus' kingdom of God/heaven doesn't refer to the place we plan to enter after we physically die, but to "God working effectively in our lives right here and now." Jesus came to teach us how to live wisely, in the biblical sense. He was concerned with those who wasted their lives before they reached heaven.

That's why today's gospel pericope is so important. Part of an early collection of kingdom parables, it addresses basic questions: "How do we find it? What's it like? What do I have to do to enter it?" Though the second half of the passage echoes what Matthew's Jesus said last week about being too quick to separate the good from the bad, the first part gives us a profile of the kind of people who eventually surface God working in their lives; individuals constantly searching for deeper, more meaningful experiences.

Notice the aspect of discovery in both parables. First, " — a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all she or he has and buys that field." Then, "... a pearl of great price which someone finds (then) goes and sells all one has and buys it."

A searching frame of mind not only seems to be essential, it also appears to be one of the reasons the gospel Jesus rarely interacts with Sadducees. They were the ultra-conservatives of his day and age, members of a religious group who refused to take the faith-steps the more liberal Pharisees had taken years (and even centuries) before. They didn't believe in an afterlife as we know it, denied the existence of angels, and regarded only the first five biblical books as divinely inspired. Believing they already had total truth, they'd stopped searching centuries before. They simply defended the status quo. Rarely would they have spent any time reflecting on their faith experiences. Their understanding hearts had been squelched a long time ago. Why would they be interested in an itinerant preacher who went around talking about the kingdom of God?

In writing to the Roman church about "predestined" individuals, Paul seem to be referring to the traits the historical Jesus presumed in those who accepted his message. He certainly picked his audiences.

Perhaps we, as a church, have been distracted from Jesus' original purpose. We've developed religious disciplines based on penance and self-denial, believing such practices will get us into heaven. Jesus, on the other hand, wanted his followers to develop their searching and discovery skills. He believed "wise" people were better prepared to uncover God's kingdom right here and now, not just get into heaven.