A theme running under the four readings today is ‘Wisdom’. These days in the world around us, I rarely hear wisdom praised perhaps because our fast-changing times highlight new information and being on top of ‘the latest’. Once wisdom was expected of those with a long life experience but now age is not prized but a problem – ‘ageism’. In the Old Testament, however, there was a long tradition of Wisdom as a gift – even an aspect – of God which enriches and gives meaning to life.
1 Kings 3:5, 7-12
Solomon became proverbial for his wisdom, and therefore several biblical books in the ‘Wisdom’ tradition of Israel were said to be written by him, even when the authors were anonymous and writing years or centuries later. This account from the history of the early Hebrew kingdom tells the origin of Solomon’s reputation. Dreams were often the way the early Hebrews believed they heard God speaking to them.
The end of Solomon’s life, as it is described in chapter 11 of 1 Kings, shows that despite his prayer and the gift of the Lord, the king’s last acts were failures, as he departed from the moral life he had chosen earlier. It bears out that there is nothing automatic about prophecy, and therefore a responsibility goes with a promise. God gave Solomon the gift of wisdom, but it was up to the King to take this into his life.
The constant theme of the Old Testament is that while humans could and often did fail to live up to their calling, God continued to be faithful, loving and ready to forgive.
Psalm 118/119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-130
This response is from the longest of the psalms, a long meditation on the values of the Law. The words selected show the psalmist seeking wisdom from the Lord, as more desirable than riches, and determined to live by God’s guidance, and this fits Solomon’s early intent.
We hear more short verses from the chapter in which St Paul writes of how deeply Christ and the Holy Spirit become embedded in the lives of Christians. This one is a promise to console us in times of troubles, suffering, or discouragement. It has long been a favourite of mine and has helped me through many times of confusion and difficulties. Lately, however, I have realised such trust and wisdom is often a challenge to live out.
The idea of being specially chosen to belong to God is part of this hope, but Nicholas King in his notes on the New Testament reminds us that this does not mean God has ‘chosen’ (or ‘predestined’) others to remain outside his love. ‘This is a passage for our encouragement not for anyone else’s discouragement.’ Many other scripture passages assure us that God is always reaching out to everyone and it is up to humans to respond – those who do not, make their own condemnation.
Matthew 13:44-52 or 13:44-46
We have come to the end of the chapter of parables in Matthew with some found only in his Gospel. Of the commentaries I have at hand, the most helpful on these verses is John P. Meier.
The first two parables introduce a different theme to the previous readings: the Kingdom of God is so ‘valuable’ that a wise person will give up everything else to become part of it. Buried treasure is still something that excites people today when there are metal detectors to look for it. Pearls were especially valued then, even more than gold, but finding a valuable one was probably more something the audience heard about than experienced themselves. Meier points out that both ‘treasure’ and ‘pearls’ are symbols of Wisdom in the Old Testament, so the alert among those listening would have taken the hint that more than material wealth is what matters.
These two simple stories both highlight the supreme value of the Kingdom of Heaven – that is God’s saving will for all – and the cost we should be willing to pay to become part of it. It is not just an ‘add on’ to the other things we want in life like financial security, a peaceful existence, good health: instead we are to seek it first and hold on to it no matter what happens about all the worldly things we feel we must have. Some echoes are here of the first discourse (‘Sermon on the Mount’) in chapter 5.
The third parable returns to an earlier theme – then it was an agricultural lesson on weeds and wheat. Now it calls on the common experience of fishers in the Lake of Galilee. A drag net is cast widely out in the sea and brings in all it reaches. The Kingdom calls everyone. The second point is that the response people make is all-important. This parable does not get a further explanation for the meaning is clear enough: like the wheat and weeds which will exist together, the Christian community will have both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ until the final judgment.
Matthew then closes his parables chapter with a question to his disciples, and he accepts their assurance that they understand. A final comparison for the kingdom closes this section. A ‘scribe’ was one learned in the old Law and practicing its wisdom. Although in the gospels we find them often condemned for not accepting Jesus, Matthew seems to know of scribes who did join the new community, bringing their knowledge of the past – the ‘old’ – but taking in the ‘new’ message Jesus brought. Meier notes that the ‘new’ comes first: Matthew indicating that Jesus message is the most important, although it builds on the long history preceding him.
Some have suggested this ‘scribe’ is Matthew, though I wonder if he would have made that claim of himself. Yet this comparison does describe his method of writing, for of all the four gospels, Matthew makes the most explicit references to the Old Testament. He is equally clear that something decisively new has come with the teaching and the sacrificial life of Jesus that, like the pearl and the treasure, means everything to the lives of the disciples.
After these parables of Jesus that we have heard over several weeks, we can take his question to ourselves: Do I understand?