Lectionary commentary: seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary time, year A

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READINGS

A reading from the first book of the Kings, 3:5. 7-12

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 119:57. 72. 76-77. 127-130. R/. v.97

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:28- 30

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 13:44-52


A little revision

The most important phrase in our four Gospels is “the kingdom of God”, or, as Matthew insists, “the kingdom of heaven”.I know this because that’s what Jesus said.The first Gospel to be written was the Gospel according to St. Mark.On the very first page he announces a summary of the whole Jesus project as provided by the Messiah, Son of God (Mark 1:1):

Now after John [the Baptist] was handed over [arrested], Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God.

Mark 1:14

Helpfully, Mark provides the summary with which Jesus himself summed up what he had to say to the world.He came into Galilee,

… proclaiming the gospel of God,
and saying,
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent,
and
believe in the gospel.”

Mark 1:15

Understand the phrase the kingdom of God and you will understand what is near to hand and begin to penetrate what God is about in sending his Son into the world.

Matthew’s Gospel is an expansion of the Gospel of Mark.Using it as a base text, Matthew wrote some 25 years after Mark and he greatly expanded on Mark’s text mainly because he was dealing with a different environment, with issues that did not concern Mark, and with the advantage of a deeper understanding of the impact of Jesus and his message on both Jewish and Gentile Christian, not to mention the world at large.

This is how Matthew summed up the message of John the Baptist:

Repent,
for
the kingdom of heaven
is at hand.

Matthew 3:2

After his baptism by John, Matthew records an identical perfect summary uttered by Jesus to proclaim God’s project in appointing him to call on the world to repent:

From that time
Jesus began to preach, saying,

“Repent,
for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.

Matthew 4:17

Luke’s Gospel, written after Mark and Matthew, has a different perspective to that of his predecessors in gospel-making but the essential message has not changed.Instructing seventy-two people that he was sending out ahead to prepare the way for his coming, Jesus commanded these apprentice missionaries to heal the sick,

and say to them,
“The kingdom of God has come near you”.

He repeats this in the last sentence to these novice preachers when he advises them how to cope with those who do not have ears to hear:

Nevertheless know this,
the kingdom of Godhas come near.

See Luke 10:1-12

John’s Gospel, so very different from the other three, nonetheless, at the outset, in his discussion with Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees, Jesus warns him,

Amen, amen,
I say to you,
unless one is born again,
he cannot see the kingdom of God.

John 3:3

John uses the words “life”, or “eternal life” to convey what Jesus intended by preaching the coming of “the kingdom of God”.


The kingdom of heaven/the kingdom of God

Matthew’s insistence on “the kingdom of heaven”, rather than “the kingdom of God” (as in the other Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the writings of St. Paul, and elsewhere in the New Testament) reflects his Jewish reticence.Jewish people do not casually refer to God.Jewish tradition, long before the Bible began to be written, had a name for God that was never pronounced.YHWH might have been pronounced Yahweh but it ceased to be uttered in the dim and distant past.Even when reading in the synagogue to this day the word is not pronounced. Instead the word Adonai (which means “my Lord”) is substituted.Early Christians did not all observe this reverential practice because they relied on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint.

Our history with the Jewish people is, for the most part, disgraceful.However, the Second Vatican Council(1963-1965) issued a document (Nostra Aetate, In this age of ours) that insisted on a conversion of hearts and minds and ushered in, with necessary repentance, an era of appropriate regard for our brothers and sisters in Jewish faith.It was not before time.We Christians must realise that Jesus was a Jew by birth and by faith.He was not a Christian. Reverence for God’s name ought to be practiced among Christians and Pope Benedict XVI insisted that we cease to pronounce the word YHWH in prayers or hymns.The Jerusalem Bible was the first English translation to use “Yahweh” instead of “Lord”, a reprehensible practice, continued in the New Jerusalem Bible, but thankfully not continued in the Revised New Jerusalem Bible.Our Lectionary did not follow the JB in its use of Yahweh.


Kingdom of heaven, meaning of …

The phrase “the kingdom of heaven” does not mean a place called heaven.It does not mean “up there” or a place to which some people go after what is called “the last judgement”.Simply, it means the domain under God’s rule and authority.The Hebrew Bible records that the kings who were appointed to “shepherd my people Israel” were almost total failures in that regard. They were no better than any of their kind in the pagan world in caring for people. They were not good shepherds and the prophet Ezekiel insisted that God would depose these failures and institute direct rule.That is what “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” means: direct rule by God who made, as we say, heaven and earth. To put it in modern jargon:

God rules!
O. K.?

The phrase means that in Jesus, in his person and in his words, we see God’s design for the world.We see what the world would be like were it totally conformed to God’s wishes.When the whole of creation reflects God’s design, then God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Jesus is the model that must be followed if God’s will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When creation is loved into perfection, when God’s steadfast love rules over every heart so that God’s justice and God’s peace reign over all, then all will be safe in God’s hands.The purpose, the end of creation, will have been achieved. The kingdom will have come.


Eschatology

The work of transforming creation into what it ought to be is not the work of a day.To take an example, the failure of Christian churches to live the life of Jesus, the model set out in the God’s plan, is a betrayal of vocation. It ceases to be a sign of the kingdom’s approach.

The Greek the word εσχατον, (eschaton) means the last or uttermost thing. From this Greek word we derive the word “eschatology”, the study of the last or uttermost destiny of creation. We know neither the hour nor the day.The kingdom of God is exclusively in the hands of God.But when Jesus speaks, even when he is referring to the most ordinary things—a sower sowing seed, weeds in a field, hidden treasure, fine pearls, fishing nets, a merchant looking for fine pearls, lost sons, lost sheep—there is always a glimpse of the final destiny of things.

What we must understand is that every word and deed of Jesus, almost every word in the New Testament, and, indeed, in the whole of the Bible, has an eschatological dimension.By this I mean that a sentence such as “Love your neighbour as yourself” refers to what we must do now, here on earth, with our neighbour down the street and across the world.But loving your neighbour has an eschatological dimension, that is, loving one’s neighbour begins to create here on earth the love that will envelop every human being when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.For God’s love is the steadfast love that endures forever and humanity will finally be embraced by that everlasting love.Humanity is required to put on Christ, as St. Paul says again and again.But the putting on of Christ Jesus is not the work of a day.Insofar as we work at our loving as Jesus loves we are nearing eternal destiny. It is not that we earn the joys of eternity by our loving our neighbours as ourselves.It is that in living the Jesus way we alert the world to its destiny.But looking around our world, looking around our Church, there is a lot of love that remains to be done.

As we listen to the words of the Hebrew Bible and the words of our Christian New Testament, we must not only embrace their message for our today.We must ask what they reveal of the future, the final destiny of all that God creates.I believe that when we read in the myth of the Genesis creation story that concludes that God saw that all that he had made was “very good”, God was not looking at the beginning.God was looking to the end of the story, to the future, to what will be.God looks to the final fulfilment of his creative design. In love and mercy God always looks to our potential and the potential of all creation.



A reading from the first book of the Kings, 3:5. 7-12

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you”. And Solomon said, “O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. Your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.

The word of the Lord.

First, there is David’s adultery with Bathsheba.There is the death of a new-born child.There is the birth of Solomon.At some point, we have Amnon, another son of David, who raped his half-sister Tamar, a royal princess.Her brother Absalom sees to it that Amnon is murdered and is thus driven into open warfare with his father, David the King.He is hacked to death.By this trail of blood and the scheming of Bathsheba, David names Solomon as his successor, though he is not first in line. On his deathbed David instructs Solomon to kill some enemies of his that, for reasons of political expediency, he could not deal with himself.Immediately, on ascending to the throne, Solomon orders three brutal murders.

Yet this is the Bible’s estimation of his kingship:

Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea. They ate and drank and were happy. Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. They brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.

I Kings 4:20-21

This is government-speak, royal propaganda.The text goes on to outline the daily expenses of the royal court with no mention of the taxation imposed on the poor to pay for the splendour of the royal household. Then it goes on to praise the wisdom of Solomon, an estimation of the monarch that continues to this day.The Book of Proverbs opens with this:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.

Proverbs 1:1

It would appear that as history unfolded the royal family had cornered the market on wisdom.The Song of Songs is read at Passover, in the synagogue liturgy, and in family liturgy.Solomon was regarded as its author or at least its inspiration, even though the Hebrew is that of later centuries.There is even a book entitled The Wisdom of Solomon though it was written no more than two centuries before the birth of Jesus.Would you believe the Song of Songs, celebrating the passionate love of a truly romantic couple is credited to Solomon, a man who had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines (I Kings 11:3).

There is an unworthy canonisation going on in Jewish and Christian traditions that has more to do with politics than faith. The reading today comes from that tradition. You have to admit, not only the charm of the story, but its outrageous window-dressing.And please don’t mention the yarn about the babies.

In the myth of the Garden of Eden story the Lord God commanded the couple, saying,

You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

Genesis 2:16-17

My old catechism taught me that the sin of Adam darkened our understanding, weakened our will, and left in us a strong inclination to evil.Yet in our reading today God grants Solomon what he asks for:

… an understandingmind to govern your people, that may discern between good and evil …

When we have listened to the words of the Bible the reader pronounces that we have just heard The word of the Lord.We do well to remember that the word of the Lord comes to us in human words.All that glistens is not gold.



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 119:57. 72. 76-77. 127-130. R/. v.97

R/.Lord, how I love your Law!

The Lord is my portion;
I promise to keep your words.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces. R/.

Let your steadfast love comfort me
according to your promise to your servant.
Let your mercy come to me,
that I may live;
for your law is my delight. R/.

Therefore I love your commandments
above gold, above fine gold.
Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right;
I hate every false way. R/.

Your testimonies are wonderful;
therefore my soul keeps them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple. R/.

Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Book of Psalms.It has 176 verses or lines.It is also what we can call an Alphabet Psalm.Beginning the first verse with the letter aleph, there follows 22 sections, each of eight lines. Every eight line section begins with the next letter of the alphabet (176 ÷ 8 = 22, thus covering the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet). The psalm is like a creed; it teaches the way of the Lord, the Torah of Jewish faith.It praises those “who walk in the Law of the Lord” (verse 1). There are eight different Hebrew words in the psalm used for Israel’s holy covenant law (torah, law, word, commandment, decree, rule, precepts, teaching).

The extracts from the psalm that make up our Responsorial Psalm today resonates with the central themes of the poem.At the heart of the Torah, God’s Holy Law, is the steadfast love of God and the appropriate response to God’s teaching is to obey its loving commands.As the opening line of the psalm declares,

Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the teaching of the Lord.


A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:28- 30

We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

The word of the Lord.

The whole of Paul’s chapter 8 follows from the “therefore” in the chapter’s first verse.All that has gone before clarifies God’s purposes in sending the one Paul calls “Jesus Christ our Lord”.The whole of Paul’s greeting in the letter’s very first sentences outlines the content of “the gospel of God”.It is a gospel that has the Son of God at the very centre, this Son,

… who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared Son of God in power according to the Spirit of Holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 1:3--4

What Jesus accomplished in fulfilment of his vocation from the Father was to rescue humanity from the clutches of SIN and DEATH.Therefore, we are “set free from the law of SIN and DEATH” (8:2).We are indebted to God for our deliverance.More than that.We are indebted for the fact that we have been restored into the safe hands of God.We are “conformed to the image of God’s Son”.

The first page of our Bible announces that men and women were made “in our image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26).That image of God fell victim to SIN and DEATH. Paul announces that humanity has been re-made in the image of God’s Son.What God sees in looking upon us is our dignity as people cared for by God.God does not dwell on our sins.What God sees is our potential, especially when God takes us in hand and begins to rear us to be fit for the kingdom.

Therefore, (if I may add my own “therefore”), since the Risen Lord Jesus is the first-born among many brothers and sisters, we are brothers and sisters of each other. We are given to each other and, in that “givenness”, we enter into the very glory of God.

In the Gloria we sing “Glory to God in the highest”.That glory is showered on God’s saved people as“peace on earth”.The word “glory” is beyond definition.But it signals the wellbeing of humanity and it is a wellbeing of peace, a peace experienced and sustained as brothers and sisters or not at all.To live together in peace is to be conformed to God’s will.A people who are conformed to God’s justice and God’s peace, never walk alone.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 13:44-52

[Jesus said to the disciples:] “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. 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, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”

“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

The Gospel of the Lord.

Three parables are clustered together.Again, the kingdom of heaven is compared to relatively ordinary human affairs. The man who finds the treasure that has been hidden in a field does not ask who has hidden his find.He buys it for safekeeping. We are not told who buried the treasure in the first place and we must not blame the finder for not seeking out the owner of the field.The emphasis is on the treasure.

The dealer in pearls discovers a glorious pearl of great price and he decides to sell very thing he has in order to possess this great treasure.An unusual business transaction but we must realise that this dealer in fine pearls knows a thing or three.This pearl is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity. It is a pearl is beyond price.

The third parable offers more details, a sorting of fish, as is usual, and a note on the closing of the age. Some fish are discarded and the good are put into God’s containers.

What is common to these and all the parables in Matthew’s Gospel is an eschatological dimension.That is, there is a hint of the destiny of humanity in these three short parables, and, indeed, in all parables.Listening to Jesus and responding to his words have consequences.The good ground produces a magnificent crop.The weeds will be separated from the grain at harvest time.The mustard seed is small but not the tree it grows into.The leaven of God’s words will do wonders in the business of baking.Each of these parables look to the future: from sowing to harvest time, from little seed to magnificent tree, from hidden treasure to its discovery and possession, from finding of a pearl to its possession, from netting fish to final sorting. Jesus furnished clues to the meaning when talking to his disciples in the house:

The one who sows the seed in the Son of Man.The field is the world, and the good seed is the children of the kingdom The weeds are the sons of the evil one and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are the angels.

Matthew 13:37-40

The parables preached by Jesus in this section of Matthew’s Gospel were directed to two distinct audiences.First, there are the great crowds standing on the edge of the lake as Jesus is seated in the prow of the boat.Then at 13:36 we are told that Jesus left the crowds and went into the house.His disciples came to him there and asked for an explanation of the parable of the weeds.This is a feature of Matthew’s Gospel.What he says to the crowds is clarified privately for the disciples. This movement from crowds to disciples is Matthew’s way of distinguishing between the outside world and the Christian communities he is addressing in Antioch.The crowds are the great world out there that are as yet to be won for God.The disciples are the church communities who have received Jesus as their teacher and guide to God’s ways.These disciples are privileged communities with whom Jesus walks as they journey toward the final destiny in the kingdom of God. Disciples are potential apostles.Everyone who hears the word must proclaim it.

The last sentence of Matthew is really a summary of his whole Gospel:

Behold! I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:20

The last sentences of this parable chapter are for our ears only:

Have you understood all these things?

This is the challenge is to become a community of Jesus that knows all these things, that knows God and God’s intentions. The vocation is to know Jesus who reveals the Father to us, a community that is readied to teach all nations. A community baptised into the presence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,is readied to teach the nations “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

If the churches are to be Church, then there will be a firm grasp of the meaning of the kingdom of heaven. Insight into God’s ways, past, present, and to come identifies the vocation of all who hear and understand.Strangely, the keeping of the word can only be achieved by giving it away.

Perhaps, the meaning of all parables (and there are plenty more in Matthew’s Gospel) is simply this:

There is hope for the flowers.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.