July 30, 2017
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time on July 27, 2014 at St. John XXIII Parish in Knoxville, TN. The homily is based on the day’s readings: 1 Kings 3: 5, 7-12; Psalm 119; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52.
Today, we conclude Jesus’ third discourse in the Gospel of Matthew. This discourse is sometimes called the “Parabolic Discourse,” because it features seven parables (or eight parables, depending on how you count). More often, it’s called the “Discourse on the Kingdom of Heaven,” because Jesus repeatedly says, “the kingdom of heaven can be likened to…”
Well, what does Matthew mean by the phrase “the kingdom of heaven”? It’s the dominant image in the gospel of Matthew, occurring a staggering 32 times. John the Baptist declared that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That is Jesus’ first declaration in his ministry, and he commissions his disciples to proclaim it as well. Shortly before his passion, Jesus predicts that “the [good news] of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world.” Scripture scholars say that when Matthew says “the kingdom of heaven,” we can hear that as a Jewish way of saying “the reign of God.”
The kingdom of heaven is like a sower, a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure, a merchant, and a net. Can we continue to expand our concept of God’s love and mercy?
We believe that when Matthew wrote his gospel, he had access to three major sources: the gospel of Mark, another collection of Jesus’ sayings, and the traditions his own community had told for two generations. Matthew combined these traditions in fascinating, overlapping structures. In the first twelve chapters, Matthew takes great liberties with the sequencing of the material. But in chapter twelve, Matthew reverts to the order of the story as Mark tells it. Why is this?
Some scholars – including a guy named M. Eugene Boring (imagine being called “Professor Boring”!), from whom I get these ideas – argue that Matthew slices and dices his source material in the first twelve chapters so that we interpret the rest of the story (as also told by Mark and Luke) from a different perspective.
With that in mind, let’s consider today’s parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure for which one will joyfully sacrifice everything. Likewise, the kingdom is such that God will sacrifice everything to obtain us. Each of us is the pearl of great price.
Take a moment to think about that.
To God, YOU are the pearl of great price.
The parable of the net echoes a theme that shows up repeatedly in Matthew. Trees and people are known to be good or rotten by the fruit they produce. The weeds cannot be separated from the wheat until the end of the age.
What did this mean to Matthew’s community, who were devoted to Judaism, yet rejected by other Jews? It must have been startling to be told that the kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches both good fish and rotten fish. The members of Matthew’s community were to follow the instructions of the Sermon on the Mount, not to separate the good fish from the bad fish. The kingdom of heaven will likely accommodate Sadduccees, Essenes, Herodians, and Pharisees. God will judge them by their fruits at the end of the age.
The kingdom of Satan has been quite prominent in the news this month. In huge swaths of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, gangs control everything. Children refusing to join the gangs face violence, even death. The murder rate is higher than it was in Iraq at the height of the 2007 insurgency! Families are desperate: they are willing to sacrifice everything to obtain the treasure in the field — their children living in safety.
Our immigration system cannot currently accommodate 50,000 unaccompanied children arriving in a year; it’s designed to handle 6,000. But, boy oh boy, the debate going on in this country right now doesn’t line up with the Matthew’s vision of the kingdom of heaven. For many, the words “immigration reform” has become a euphemism for “keep them out of the country at all costs.” To God, each of these children is a pearl of great price.
In the Old Testament, God repeatedly commands Israel to treat aliens, widows, and orphans with care and respect. When Jesus was born, his parents were forced to flee the kingdom of Satan (presented by Herod). The Church has been adamant over the years: people have a right to cross borders in order to protect and provide for their families. My paternal grandparents came here in desperation from Hungary in the 20th century. My maternal ancestors came here in desperation from Ireland and Prussia in the 19th and 18th centuries, respectively. I wonder if any of them could have entered this country today, where lawyers charge thousands of dollars to assist people in filing their asylum paperwork.
We must protect ourselves from those who wish us harm, of course, but it’s a completely different idea to presume that desperate children from Central America will grow up to produce rotten fruit. The immigration problem is complicated, so let’s not oversimplify it. We have been instructed about the kingdom of heaven. Let us be like the head of the household who celebrates both the new and the old. Let us pray for the wisdom of Solomon to address the complexities in a practical, humanitarian, and compassionate way.