Sermon St Agnes, Ullet Road
30th July, 2017
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
First Reading: First Kings 3:5, 7-12
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 119 (various verses)
Second Reading: Romans 8:28-30
Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52
A few days ago I stayed with some friends. On the bed in the spare room where I was sleeping was a hand-made, home-made patchwork quilt. Given the chilliness of the nights recently I was very glad of it. But I was also fascinated by the pattern created by the hexagons of fabric that had been sewn together.
In the centre of the quilt was a large diamond and the whole quilt was symmetrical with a line down the centre on either side of which, like a mirror pairs of the same fabric were sewn to form the whole pattern. I assume that this is the traditional way of sewing a quilt and some of you may know rather more about this than I do!
Today is the 17th week in Ordinary Time, the Sundays of the year which are not part of one of the great seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter, and the Sundays when we wear green vestments and have green hangings in church. In the arrangement of readings from the Bible that we use in church there are three years (A, B and C) and each of those uses one of the three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. The fourth Gospel, John, is used in the special seasons, particularly Easter.
This year we are in Year A when the Gospel of Matthew is used.
The significance of this particular Sunday, the seventeenth, is that we are exactly half way through the 34 Sundays of Ordinary Time, and with the end of the Gospel we have just heard we reach the exact half way point in the 28 chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Like that beautiful quilt that I slept under this week, we are at that line of symmetry that runs through Matthew’s Gospel.
A little like the diamond pattern on that quilt Matthew has organised the material of his Gospel in a careful pattern.
The final verse of today’s Gospel (take a look at it on the Mass sheets) is often considered to be autobiographical. Many scholars assume that Matthew was a scribe and here he describes himself as a scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom; and here he is telling us what his task is: to bring out of the storeroom things both old and new. he is the most Jewish of the Gospel writers and he brings many ‘old’ treasures to his Gospel quoting the Old Testament more than any other Gospel writer.
Matthew, as a Jewish scribe, would have been immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; often called the ‘books of Moses’. Knowing those books so well he sees Jesus as the fulfilling of Torah and he presents his material in five sections, echoing the five books. Today’s reading from chapter 13 is from that central, third section, and is often called the Book of Parables, or even the Day of Parables, because Matthew has gathered a whole collection of seven (or eight) of Jesus’ parables together.
Often when we think of Jesus telling stories that are parables we think of the more extended stories, such as the story of the seed last week or even more well-known stories like the Good Samaritan. But Jesus seems to quite like the piling up and pairing of little parables, little stories like the ones we have heard today. Like pieces in a quilt sewn together, often in pairs reflected down the line of symmetry.
I think it is important not to get stuck on the details of the images that Jesus uses. At the beginning of this week, I was preparing to preach today and got a bit stuck thinking about the first image we have just heard. Someone finds a treasure in a field and buys the field so he can gain the treasure. I was immediately up in arms for the original owner of the field: isn’t it stealing to not tell him about the treasure! How can Jesus be encouraging this injustice!
Actually, I think the point is that Jesus is simply telling us how we need to see the kingdom, our faith, our Christian life: it has to be the most precious thing in our lives; the thing we would sell everything we own to get.
In today’s first reading from the first book of Kings God gives Solomon the opportunity to ask for anything he would like. As God says, he could have asked for a long life, or great riches or the defeat of his enemies. But Solomon the Wise asks simply for the gift of leadership, the wisdom to do the task to which God has called him. Solomon knows what is truly valuable, truly precious. When Solomon acknowledges this he is like the person described by St Paul in the letter to the Romans in today’s second reading with whom God co-operates, turning everything to good.
Most of us have many things which are precious to us. Possessions, a house, perhaps a car. It may be that our career, job, family members, our friends or our memories of the past are the most precious things to us; or even this church, its beautiful decorations, vestments, music and liturgy.
The question today’s gospel and the other readings asks us is really quite simple and quite terrifying: would we sell all these things? Give them away? Let them go? In order to gain the kingdom of heaven?
Now ‘kingdom of heaven sounds quite abstract, like something far away, that happens after we die when we will have lost everything we own anyway!
But Jesus is talking about himself. Jesus is the kingdom and Jesus offers himself to us now, every day in every moment.
If we are being the people that Jesus wants us to be, has made us in our baptism, our declaration of faith in him, then we are people for whom Jesus is the most precious thing in our lives. We are people who are never going to be obsessed with money, career, position because we are people obsessed with Jesus. Who can’t stop talking about him, who everyone who knows us will know that our friendship with Jesus is the most important relationship in our lives. We will be people who are constantly talking about Jesus and telling other people about him.
Well, of course, it is easy to become lukewarm. There are so many demands on us, so many other things that we can do, we are so busy.
The only way to make sure our friendship with Jesus stays strong is to spend time every day in his company, to pray every day.
My favourite psalm in the book of psalms is the one we have had a section from today. (Psalm 118 – or Psalm 119 in the Hebrew numbering used by most Bibles), it is the longest psalm with 176 verses.
For centuries Christians used this psalm every day at the little hours of the daily Office. I pray this psalm every week dividing the sections across the seven days.
It is sometimes called a Torah psalm, the psalm of those first five books of the Bible, because every verse except one contains a synonym, word referring to the Torah, you can see it in the section that we sang a few moments ago which is a compilation of verses:
The words referring to the Torah occur in each verse:
As Christians we should immediately think of Jesus when we pray this psalm, he is the Way the Truth, the Life, he is the living WORD. He is the PROMISE, the one who does the WILL of the Father perfectly, his COMMAND to love is the PRECEPT, the LAW we obey.
Matthew deliberately designs his Gospel in five ‘books’, like the five books of Torah, to show us that Jesus is now our Torah, the living Word of God.
One lovely way to pray Psalm 118 which I love to use is to replace the reference to Torah in each verse with the holy, precious name of Jesus. When we are in love, we overflow with babbling praise for the person we love, hardly even making sense but just gushing out with our appreciation of the beloved.
This psalm is like that, I can’t recommend highly enough using it in this way, perhaps even just one section a day in your prayers.
I am going to read the verses we have prayed today in this way, follow them on your Mass sheet to see how it works:
My part, I have resolved, O Lord,
is to obey JESUS.
JESUS, from your mouth means more to me
than silver and gold.
Let your love be ready to console me,
by JESUS, to yours servant.
let your love come and I shall live
for JESUS is my delight.
That is why I love JESUS
more than finest gold,
why I rule my life by JESUS
and hate false ways.
JESUS is wonderful indeed;
therefore I obey him.
The unfolding of JESUS gives light
and teaches the simple.
If we obey Jesus, if he means more to us than silver and gold, if his love consoles us, if he is our delight, if we love him more than finest gold, if we allow Jesus to rule our lives, we will know that he is wonderful indeed, he will give us light and we will know deep happiness for ever.
The kingdom of heaven is knowing Jesus and we are fortunate indeed to be those whom he has called, and once called justified and once justified, those with whom he shares his glory.