Of Treasures and Fish

The readings for Sunday, July 30, 2017, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52.

The third Gospel selection taken from Matthew 13, the Parable Chapter, adds three more parables to the collection the author gathered from oral and written traditions. Unlike the parable of the sower and the seed with which this chapter began, these three parables are very short. The first parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again. Out of joy he goes and sells all he owns and buys that field.” Sounds like a prudent man, at least from a worldly point of view. In ancient times there were no reliable banking systems. People often buried whatever money they had in hard currency to be dug up for emergencies. Archaeologists, farmers, gardeners, plumbers, or children playing occasionally found buried treasure in the form of hordes of gold and silver coins.

How can this simple parable of the treasure in the field be like the kingdom of heaven? That depends on how we understand the term “kingdom of heaven.” Is it a vocation to the religious life, for which an individual gives up all ownership of worldly goods to become a religious? Is it finding Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior? Is it the sudden realization that God is supreme, and what one does from that time on is done under the principle that God rules our lives? Parables can be applied in many ways.

The second parable: “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.”

Let’s suppose the kingdom of heaven as the equivalent of a long and happy marriage. To make that marriage successful, the spouses leave behind their individual lives as they begin to live for the other in their marriage. Irritants arise when selfishness asserts itself in disagreements about purchases, about children, etc. The love the couple have for each other sooths over the disagreements as the marriage gets better and better. They find the pearl of great price.
The third parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea. It collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore. They sit down to put what is good into containers.

What is bad they throw away.” Here it is easy enough to understand the “kingdom of heaven” as the Church, the Christian Community. As we learned in the parable of weeds sown into the wheat, the Church is composed of both good and not so good people. The advice of the farmer to his workers was to let the weeds grow with the wheat, “lest in uprooting the weeds, they uproot also the wheat.” Weed and wheat can be separated at harvest time. This won’t always work. There are situations in which the weeds have to be pulled before the harvest, so they won’t grow large enough to choke out the crop of wheat.

Matthew does with this parable as he did with the weeds sown into the wheat. He spins it in the direction of not only judgment, but also fiery punishment for the non-keepers. He writes, “Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire.” Then he adds his stock phrase to close out the application of the parable, “Where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” The original application of the parable was probably not quite that drastic, and would have ended with good and bad fish caught in the same net. In that way the parable was simply a statement teaching that the kingdom of heaven, in this case the Christian Community, the Church, was not a puritanical society for the perfect. Only after the net is pulled in, are the keepers and non-keepers separated.

The parable collection, the third of five sermons composed by Matthew from tradition and for the catechetical needs of his Christian Community, ends with a question. Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you understand all these things?” They answer, “Yes!” In this brief dialogue we can see Matthew, a scribe or teacher in his Christian Community ending a presentation of catechesis. Whoever and whatever the author of this Gospel might have been, what he writes next comes close to describing himself and the principles he followed in collecting material for the amazing compromise document we call the Gospel according to Matthew. “…every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” A good program for a homilist, a teacher, a pastor, a bishop, a pope!