Scripture notes – 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 26th July 2020

In a time of crisis like the present, one thing necessary is often in short supply: wisdom. Wisdom as a gift of God, even as an aspect of God’s dealing with humans was a key message of the Older Testament. The first reading today is the basis for seeing Solomon as the ideal wise ruler, and therefore the honorary author of later ‘Wisdom’ literature.

The readings are available online here.

1 Kings 3:5, 7-12
This account from the history of the early Hebrew kingdom is set at the time when Solomon succeeded to the throne of his father David. Dreams were one way the Hebrews believed they heard God speaking to them. I take the words of praise of the King as ‘wiser than all people before and after’, as exaggeration to show how great was his reputation. Following chapters have some examples, and even more exaggerated praise.

The end of Solomon’s life, as it is described in chapter 11 of 1 Kings, shows that despite his prayer and God’s response, the king slipped away from the moral life he had chosen earlier and God was no longer with him. It bears out that there is nothing automatic about prophecy, for personal responsibility goes with a promise. God gave Solomon the gift of wisdom, but it was up to the King to respond to that guidance.

A constant theme of the Old Testament, however, 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, which is a long meditation on the importance 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 words. This echoes Solomon’s intent of the first reading.

Romans 8:28-30
These are more 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 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. I have also learned that such trust and wisdom is often a challenge to respond to.

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, like today’s Gospel, assure us that God is always reaching out to everyone and it is up to humans to respond.

Matthew 13:44-52 or 13:44-46
This ends the chapter of parables in Matthew with stories found only in his Gospel. Jesus in the gospels is often like a ‘wisdom teacher’ with guidance for his followers to help us make wise choices in their own lives. (Of the various commentaries I have, a helpful on these verses is John P. Meier.)

The first two parables stress that the Dominion (Kingdom) of Heaven is so ‘valuable’ that a wise person will give up everything else to become part of it. Buried treasure is still exciting for 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 more something the original audience would have dreamed about rather 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 catch the hint that something more than material wealth is what matters.

These two simple stories both highlight the supreme value of the God’s saving will for all – and therefore 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 want. Some echoes are here of the first discourse (‘Sermon on the Mount’) in chapter 5.

The third parable returns to last week’s theme, which was a lesson based on agricultural practice. For a similar comparison, Jesus 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 – so God’s Dominion 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: The Christian community will have both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ disciples until the final judgment. And we are not to be scandalised by that, but make our own wise decisions.

Matthew ends his parables with a question to his disciples, and he accepts their assurance that they do understand. A final comparison 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 speaks of those in the new community who bring their knowledge of the tradition – the ‘old’ – but fitting it in the ‘new’ – Jesus’s teaching and example. Meier notes that the ‘new’ comes first: Matthew is indicating that Jesus message is the most important, although it builds on the long history preceding him.

Some commentators suggest this ‘scribe’ is a picture of 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 Older 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, is worth everything for his disciples.

Hearing these parables of Jesus, we can hear his question as addressed to us now: Do I understand what he is teaching? Hearing of Solomon’s dream, do I also want
the gift of wisdom?

Joan Griffith