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17th Sunday of the Year

17th Sunday of the Year
1 Kings 3:5, 7–12; Romans 8:28–30; Matthew 13:44–52

The coach’s question
What counts in life is not what we acquire but what we become.
Some time ago a magazine ran a story about teenagers who belong to the Santa Clara Swimming Club. Every morning they get up at 5:30 and hurry through the chilly air to an outdoor pool. There they swim for two solid hours. After a shower and a quick bite to eat, they hurry off to school.

After school they return to the pool to swim for two more hours. At 5:00 they hurry home, hit the schoolbooks, eat a
late supper, and fall into bed exhausted. The next morning
the alarm rings at 5:30, and they start the whole thing all
over again.

When asked why she follows such a disciplined schedule, one girl said, My only goal is to make the Olympic team. If going to parties hurts that, then why go? There is no such thing as too much work. The more miles I swim, the better. Sacrifice is the thing.

Had Jesus lived now rather than in A.D. 30, today’s gospel might have been very different. Rather than talk about a pearl merchant who sacrificed all to buy a dream pearl,
or a farmer who sold all to buy a field with a treasure in it,
Jesus might have talked about a Santa Clara swimmer who sacrificed all to make the Olympic team.

Why do I say this? What connection is there between a pearl merchant, a treasure seeker, and a Santa Clara swimmer?
What do these three people have in common?

The one thing they have in common is their total commitment to a dream. All three are willing to sacrifice everything for a goal they have set for themselves. In the case of the pearl merchant, it is to own the perfect pearl. In the case of the treasure seeker, it is to obtain a rare treasure.
In the case of the Santa Clara swimmer, it is to make the Olympic team.

This leads us to the point Jesus wishes to make for us in today's gospel. The point is this:
Citizenship in God’s kingdom involves total commitment on our part.
We cannot pursue it as we do a part-time job.
We cannot work at it as we do a hobby.
We must give ourselves to it 100 percent.
We must make it the top priority of our life.

Being a Christian is like being a pearl merchant.
Being a Christian is like being a treasure seeker.
Being a Christian is like being a Santa Clara swimmer.
It involves total dedication and commitment.
But there is one big difference between a Christian and the other three. Paul refers to it in a letter to the Corinthians.

Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline, in order to be crowned with a wreath that will not last: but we do it for one
that will last forever. I Corinthians 9:25

This is the difference. The pearl merchant’s prize, the farmer’s treasure, and the swimmer’s medal are all perishable.

When the merchant dies, his pearl will no longer have any value for him.
When the farmer dies, his treasure will be as useless to him as is the box he found it in.
When the swimmer dies, her medal will be just another keepsake for her family or relatives. But when the Christian dies, the kingdom of God will shine brighter, and brighter, and brighter.

At the moment of death, there is only one thing that counts.
It is not whether, in life, we acquired a prize pearl, a rare treasure, or a gold medal. The only thing that will matter
is what we have become in the process of trying to seek the pearl, acquire the treasure, or win the medal.

AChicago high school basketball team had just celebrated Mass in preparation for their participation in the state tournament.

During the homily, the priest said that ten years from now the important thing about their basketball season will not be
whether they became state champs or not. The important thing will be what they became in the process of trying to
win the title.

Did they become better human beings?
Did they become more loving?
Did they become more loyal to one another?
Did they become more committed?
Did they grow as a team and as individuals?

After the Mass, the priest was in the sacristy taking off his vestments. Suddenly he heard the coach say to the players:
Sit down for a minute. Father said something that is bothering me. I wonder what I have helped you become in the process of trying to put together a winning season.

Did you become better human beings?
Did you become more loving?
Did you become more loyal to one another?
Did you become more committed?
Did you grow as a team and as individuals?

If you did, then regardless of what we do in the state tournament, we are a success.
If you did not, then we have failed God, we have failed our school, and we have failed one another.

I hope to God that we have not failed. I pray to God that we have not failed.

Today’s gospel makes this terribly important point:
Nothing in the world may take priority over God’s kingdom and our pursuit of it. Today’s gospel tells us that what counts when we die is not what we have acquired in life, but what we have become.

Did we learn to love one another?
Did we learn to forgive one another?
Did we learn to help the needy?
Did we learn to encourage the fainthearted?
Did we learn to walk the second mile?
Did we learn to turn the other cheek?
Did we learn to become more committed and loyal to God and one another?

I hope to God we have. I pray to God we have. Because if we haven’t, we have failed God. We have failed our family and our friends. We have failed ourselves.

Let’s close with a prayer:

Lord, give us the commitment of the Santa Clara swimmer,
who works tirelessly to win a berth on the Olympic swimming team Give us the commitment of the treasure seeker, who sold everything he had to buy the field Give us the commitment of the merchant, who spent his whole life in search of the perfect pearl.

If they were willing to sacrifice so much for a prize that will perish, how much more ought we to be willing to sacrifice even more for a prize that will last forever. M.L.

Series II
17th Sunday of the Year
1 Kings 3:5, 7–12; Romans 8:28–30; Matthew 13:44–52

The hostage
God makes all things work together for the good of those who love him.
In 1984 Jeremy Levin was the Cable News Network bureau chief in Beirut. Ash Wednesday fell on March 7 that year.
That’s a day Jeremy will never forget as long as he lives.
For on that day he was kidnapped by Shiite Muslims.

His captors blindfolded him and drove him to a dingy, cold house in the Bekaa Valley. There he was chained to a wall in such a way that he could only sit or lie down. He remained that way for the next four weeks.

Jeremy tried to keep his spirits up by positive thinking. But he soon discovered that no amount of positive thinking  would take away his terrible loneliness. He longed to talk to someone anyone!

It was in this situation that Jeremy began to think about God. Thoughts of God were unusual for him because he didn’t believe in God. He was an avowed atheist.

But the thoughts of God wouldn’t go away. They became more and more frequent. Then one day this question crossed his mind: “Could I talk to God?”

Jeremy rejected the idea immediately. For as long as he didn’t believe in God he could never talk to him. Otherwise, he’d be living in a world of make-believe. He’d be kidding himself.
He’d be losing his grip on reality.

But the thoughts of God continued. Soon Jeremy became preoccupied with them.

Phrases like “God loves you” and “God bless you” kept bombarding his mind. Commenting on this, he wrote later:

Even snatches of what little I had read in the Bible came back to me. . . .
[I] was like a thirsty man holding his mouth open to raindrops. . . . I was consumed with pondering everything
I had heard about God and the one called his Son, Jesus.
 Guideposts (December 1986)

It was in this frame of mind that Jeremy awoke on Tuesday, April 10. On that day just 12 days before Easter Jeremy did something he never dreamed he would ever do. He made an act of faith in God.

He spoke his first words to God. They were very simple.
He said, “Oh Father, please take care of my wife and family. Please reunite us.”

Then Jeremy did something else he never dreamed he would ever do. He forgave his captors and asked God to forgive them too. “For the first time in my life,” he said,  “I felt whole.”

In the months ahead, Jeremy was moved to several other locations. His guards became more friendly.

Then came Christmas Eve. One of his guards asked him, “What do you want for Christmas?” Jeremy looked at him
in amazement and blurted out, “A Bible!”

Two days later Jeremy received a small red-bound New Testament. He proceeded to devour it. He was especially moved by Jesus’ words:

“When you pray and ask for something, believe that you have received it, and you will be given whatever you ask for.” Mark 11:24

From that moment on, Jeremy prayed for a chance to escape.
On the night of February 13, 1985, 11 months after his capture, that chance came. A guard got careless, and Jeremy bolted from the house and zigzagged barefoot down the frozen mountainside to safety.

Jeremy Levin went on to become CNN bureau chief in Washington, D.C. In his spare time he crisscrosses the country, sharing with audiences his newfound faith.

Jeremy likens himself to Joseph in the Old Testament,
who was kidnapped by his brothers and sold into slavery.
When Joseph’s brothers met him, after he had risen to power in Egypt, Joseph consoled them, saying:

“You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good.”
Genesis 50:20
Jeremy is also like Solomon in today’s first reading. Like Solomon, he prayed to God for help and God heard his prayer.

Jeremy is also like the man in the Gospel, who found a treasure in a field. Jeremy found God in Lebanon and
turned his life inside out to make room for his new faith.

Finally, Jeremy is like the people in the second reading, of whom Paul says:

[I]n all things God works for good with those who love him.
All of us can relate to those words of Paul. We’ve all experienced tragedies in our lives. And we’ve all asked ourselves the question, Why did this happen to us?

Jeremy Levin asked the same question during his captivity.
And even though he couldn’t answer it, he never became angry or bitter.

God eventually answered Jeremy’s question. And he answered it in such a way that Jeremy’s kidnapping experience led to one of his greatest blessings.  For
through it he found his God.

Jeremy’s experience invites us to ask ourselves how we respond to trials and tragedies in our lives.

Do we become angry at them? Do we, perhaps, even blame God for them? Or do we keep an open mind and an open heart toward them, as Jeremy did?

Paul’s message in today’s second reading is one of the most important ones in the entire Bible. It’s the good news that for those who love God, all things, indeed, do work toward good.
This revelation is so amazing that, at first, we find it hard to believe. But time after time, we see it verified in the lives of people who have kept their hearts and their lives open to God.

And so today’s Scripture readings invite us to do the same.
They invite us, not to let tragedy destroy us, but to let God turn it into a blessing for us.
Let’s close with a poem. We’ve heard it before, but it’s a poem we need to hear again and again:

For ev’ry pain we must bear, For ev’ry burden, ev’ry care,
There’s a reason.

For ev’ry grief that bows the head, For ev’ry teardrop that is shed, There’s a reason.

For ev’ry hurt, for ev’ry plight, For ev’ry lonely, pain-racked night, There’s a reason.

But if we trust God, as we should, It will turn out for our good.
He knows the reason. Author unknown

Series III
17th Sunday of the Year
1 Kings 3:5, 7–12; Romans 8:28–30; Matthew 13:44–52

Beginning again
Taking an honest look at our lives.

The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man is looking for fine pearls, and when he finds one . . . he sells everything he has
and buys that pearl. Matthew 13:45–46

The Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, won worldwide acclaim
for his novel War and Peace.

One of Tolstoy’s lesser-known works was called Confessions.
It was this work that Tolstoy, himself, felt contained a far more important message than War and Peace.

The first part of Confessions deals with Tolstoy’s early life. At 16 he gave up praying and going to Church. At 18, he gave up his faith entirely.

During the next ten years, he said, he committed every sin imaginable. After a while, his life of sin sickened him so much that he found himself on the brink of suicide several times.

Then one spring day, he was walking  through a forest enjoying nature. Suddenly, he found himself opening his
heart to God in a remarkable way.

That experience in the forest sparked his conversion back to Christianity. He returned to it with the same intensity with which he left it. He renounced his wealth, his royal status as
a Russian count, and adopted the life of a simple peasant.

He went on to develop a philosophy of nonviolent resistance
to evil, that later had a strong influence on both Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Tolstoy spent the last years of his life writing parables and stories that illustrated Christian ideals in a clear, down-to-earth way.
One of his parables dealt with our faith journey to God.
Written in the first person, it went something like this:

One day I woke up and found myself in a tiny rowboat afloat on a vast sea. Someone had put into my hands a pair of oars and instructed me to row to a point on the opposite shore.

It was so far away and shrouded in fog that I had to trust the person’s word about the exact direction to follow.

As I rowed in the direction pointed out, I began to encounter a powerful current. It made rowing difficult and kept pulling me off course.

Then, through the fog, I saw myriad other boats that had started out in the same direction I had.

Looking closer, I saw that many of the rowers had stopped and were letting the power current pull their boats along.

They were having fun, laughing, and assuring one another that this was the only intelligent way to deal with such a powerful current.

So I put my own oars on the floor of the boat and simply joined in the fun.

Suddenly, the current changed to fierce white-water rapids.
The boats began swirling around rocks, crashing into one another, and sinking.

I realized that if I continued the course I was on, I was doomed to be destroyed. Fear gripped me. I didn’t know what to do.

At this point, I happened to look back in the direction of the path of water that had been pointed out to me earlier.

There I saw rowers staying on course, in spite of the current.
Moreover, they were making progress in their journey toward the far shore.

I picked up my own oars and began to row again to the direction that had been pointed out to me when I started out.

This brings us to the meaning of Tolstoy’s parable.
Waking up and finding himself in a tiny boat afloat on a vast ocean stands for human birth into the world.

The oars that Tolstoy found in his hands stand for the free will God gives everyone. We can do whatever we wish.

The direction pointed out to Tolstoy stands for the teachings of Jesus.
The point on the opposite shore, shrouded in fog, stands for heaven. There God waits to reward us with eternal happiness.
And this directs us to the parable of the Pearl in today’s Gospel.

The grace Tolstoy received while walking through the forest was the ability to see that the teachings of Jesus were the priceless pearl.

And so he turned his back on his wealth and royal status and set out anew to follow Jesus and his teaching.

Tolstoy’s conversion illustrates the point of the parable of the Pearl.

Being a Christian is like being a merchant in search of a priceless pearl. Once we find it, we must be willing to do
whatever is necessary to purchase it.

Being a Christian, therefore, means using our free will to do what Tolstoy did.

It means being willing to take an honest look at our lives,
especially when something in them is out of harmony with Jesus’ teaching.

Today’s Gospel makes a terribly important point.

When we were baptized, we were pointed in the direction
that would lead us to God and heaven. We were also given
the free will to choose to follow the teaching of Jesus or not.
We were also baptized into a Church that surrounded us
with all the help we need to row through the fog and against the current of this world to God, who waits for us on the opposite shore.

In other words, we have been given all we need to get to heaven and to God.

As we return to the altar, let us ask God for the grace to see
the direction our life is taking right now.

For example, are we perhaps  following the crowd more than
we are following Jesus and his teaching?

And if we are, let us ask Jesus to help us do what he helped Tolstoy do. Help us to see Jesus and his teaching as the “priceless pearl” that will bring us the joy and happiness
that we all seek.

Above all, let us ask Jesus for the courage and strength
to pick up our oars anew and continue to row toward the far shore where God and heaven await us.


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