SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)
"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it."
-- Mt 13:44-46
Now I come along with $10 and I'm feeling a bit peckish. I see your pizzas and I want one. In fact I want the pizza more than I want the $10 bill in my wallet. So, happily, I give you the $10 for the pizza. You, on the other hand, want my $10 more than you want your pizza. So you happily accept my money. To you, that $10 was worth more than the pizza. To me, your pizza was worth more than my $10. Both of us walk away from the transaction feeling like we have benefited.
Scenarios like this play out a million times on our planet every day. So everyone should be pretty happy about things all the time, right? Well, it doesn't play out that way in the long haul. We may both feel pretty good about our situations at the time, but we all know that this sort of happiness does not last forever. That pizza may satisfy me for a short while, but after a few hours I am hungry again. That $10 you made soon vanishes in when it is needed to pay a bill, or is spent on some frivolous and temporary pleasure (like a pizza).
All of the things that make us happy in this world are like that. They are temporary. They are often fleeting, but even the things that tend to endure we know will not last forever.
When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, He is offering us a happiness that will last forever. This is the meaning of the pearl of great price, and the treasure buried in the field. This is why the person who finds these things is willing to sell everything that he owns in order to obtain them. I may think that a pizza is worth giving up $10 to acquire, but I'd balk at spending $100 for a pizza. Even less would I go out and sell my car or my home so I could buy that pizza (I've never been that hungry). Because I know the happiness I would get from eating the pizza is not worth the sacrifice of my car or my house.
The kingdom of heaven is not like this, however. When we speak of the kingdom of heaven we mean eternal happiness with God. We mean an eternal, loving union with our Creator. We mean living life forever fulfilled as the people that God made us to be. In the world of economic transactions, where we are constantly asked to evaluate the relative value of goods and services, we will never find something of greater value than this treasure. Therefore anything else we have is worth giving up to attain it.
Christ, of course, is not asking us to give up our cars and houses. He is not asking for money. He is not asking us to sell our land. One cannot buy one's way into heaven. What Christ is asking us to give up is our attachment to sin.
It is true, in order to attain heaven, we cannot love our wealth more than we love God. This is not because material possessions themselves are sinful, but the inordinate love of created things above that of the Creator is sinful. Love of self can be the same way; love of our own reputation, our own desires, our own passions. Each time we sin, we say with our actions that we love something else more than we love God. And that is foolish, because the happiness that come from sin is only ever temporary. It is folly to give up something eternal for something fleeting. But that is precisely what we do each time we sin.
We are called to love God above all things. Today's Psalm (Ps 119) speaks of how valuable God's word truly is. "The law of Your mouth is to me more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces," the psalmist says. "For I love Your command more than gold, however fine... every false way I hate."
Selling everything we own in order to obtain the pearl of great price means letting go of everything displeasing to God and following His commands. It is as simple as that... simple to say, but not always simple to do. For we also love our sins. We are attached to them. Sometimes that attachment is strengthened by years of bad habits. It can be difficult, sometimes requiring heroic effort even, to give those things up. But we are called to that heroism. This is the spiritual combat in which we are engaged. Jesus tells us in today's parables that the struggle is worth all our effort.
In closing, I want to tell everyone who is struggling with sin (myself included in that number) to keep it up. Continue to struggle. Sometimes when we struggle over and over with the same sin we feel like we are losing the fight. We feel that we can never overcome our temptations. We can convince ourselves that if we really loved God it would be easier; it should be easier. God would take away our temptations so we could love Him more perfectly. We therefore must not love God if we struggle with sin. But that is the devil's thought. The saints all faced temptation. Even Christ faced temptation.
Loving God perfectly does not mean never being tempted. It means loving God despite the temptations. It means struggling with sin, and continuing to struggle, getting up when you fall (through sacramental Confession), relying on God's help, and never giving up the fight. So if you struggle with sin, then good for you. Keep struggling.
St. Teresa of Avila says, "Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end." The one who does not struggle with sin is the one who has given up, the one who has settled for something of lesser value. Don't settle. In Christ you have discovered a wondrous treasure. Obtaining that treasure is worth the struggle.