Homily: Still Point of the Turning World
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)
Matthew 13: 44-52
Antony, a 16-year-old Egyptian living in the Second Century, walked into mass one Sunday just as the gospel began. The passage was Matthew 19: “Go sell all that you have, then come and follow me.” Antony was struck to the heart. He left mass immediately, sold everything and went into the desert. St. Antony of the desert is the father of monasticism and one of the great saints in the history of the Church. So, if you show up to mass late or leave early, Be prepared, because God is most likely calling you to a vocation as a hermit or hermitess in the wilderness.
I mention that story because today’s gospel gives us two parables about the selling everything for one great treasure Both are, simply speaking, about the one who has the capacity to recognize that which is worthy- beautiful- precious when they see it. The man vigorously searches out the treasure, and it is true that the search itself- for all of us- is part of God’s mysterious condescension, his humbling of himself before his creation. God is willing to let us think that it is we who do the searching, that we are the ones who find Him.
Edith Stein said, “Any authentic search for truth will lead inevitably to Jesus Christ.” Yet the mystery deepens for when we arrive, for we realize that we have found nothing, rather we have allowed ourselves to be found by God.
Late Have I Loved Thee -Augustine, Confessions
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Sheer joy! The man in the parable sells all he has. The treasure in the field as well as the pearl of great price are worth everything. Thus, the man is willing to give up everything in order to attain them. To some extent, we see radical behavior like this even on the natural level. I think Olympic athletes are a great example of this (one that St. Paul himself uses). The Olympian suspends all other life options for a period in order to train for a single goal: to be the best in the world at his or her sport. Every other delight must be renounced for that period lest they distract from that singular excellence after which that athlete strives.
This is the wisdom of the man who finds the treasure in the field, the man who finds the great pearl. This singular good surpasses all others, and it is worth forsaking everything to attain it. As St. Paul “Whatever gain I had, I count it all as loss…”
Here we might be left with one enormous question- The treasure and the pearl are likened to the “Kingdom of God.” So, what exactly is the Kingdom of God? What does Jesus mean by this mysterious phrase, and why is it so important? The phrase “Kingdom of God” occurs 122 times in the New Testament, and 90 of those are the words of Jesus himself. The very first words of Jesus’ ministry are, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” What are we seeking here, what is this treasure, this pearl? Is it our local community of believers? Is it the Church? Is it heaven? Is it the gospels, the holy scriptures? Perhaps it is a kingdom being brought about as the hymn so eloquently suggest, “Let us build the city of God.”
None of these things adequately fit the criterion for the “Kingdom of God.” No, the kingdom of God is first and foremost Jesus Christ himself! He is the font from which everything else follows. If he is not our center, nothing else makes sense: The Church becomes an eccentric club, our moral teaching feels rigid, cold and lifeless, the holy sacrifice of the mass is a historical artifact, and any attempt from the Church at promoting peace in the world inevitably fails the way all worldly attempts fail.
We look to the poet TS Eliot for an answer who tells us the cross of Christ is:
“At the Still point of the turning world… where past and future are gathered.”
The “Kingdom of God” is not something we create, something we work for, it is God who revealed himself to the world. Everyone in this room could give an adequate Catechism answer to the question that follows- who is Jesus Christ that he can call himself “The Kingdom of God” in person? Well, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the messiah. He is the Son of God. He is God.
Yet the same question would follow from those in the world- Why haven’t you sold everything to buy the field, to possess that priceless pearl? I think it would be helpful here to look to the famous Jewish Rabbi Jacob Neusner. He wrote a book in which he puts himself in the place of a first century Jew listening to and scrutinizing Jesus’ words. In a fascinating dialogue with another Rabbi on the commandments, Rabbi Neusner first reads aloud the single commandment that brings together all commandments: “The righteous man lives by his faith. (Hab 2:4)” So the other Rabbi asks him:
“Is this what the sage, Jesus, had to say?”
Neusner replied, “Not exactly but close”
“What did he leave out?”
“Then what did He add?”
This is the decisive point: Rabbi Neusner cannot believe that claim, he does not believe Jesus is God, and thus he cannot follow Him. But he is exactly right- Our faith is in Jesus, he is the center, the still point in the turning world, the one through whom and for whom all things exist, and if we do not truly believe that he is God, then we cannot call ourselves Christians. Yet, if we do believe, our whole world shifts.
If we come to believe, the only response is to seek out that treasure, to re-orient our whole existence toward the “Kingdom of God.”
So, I leave you with the same question Rabbi Neusner asks the disciple: “Is it really so that your rabbi, the son of man, is Lord? I ask again- is your master God?