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Homily notes: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ |  24 July 2017

Lectionary readings

First reading: 1 Kings 3:5,7-12

Psalm: Psalm 118(119)

Second reading: Romans 8:28-30

Gospel: Mathew 13:44-52

Link to readings.


The full Gospel for today features the final three parables in Matthew 13, together with a concluding summary (vv. 51-52). Once again, there is much to be said, as the Lectionary allows, for taking simply the two short parables, that of the Treasure in the Field (v. 44) and the Pearl of Great Value (vv. 45-46).  

Seeing them as a pair allows a common pattern to emerge. Two persons from very different situations (a day labourer? a merchant with professional expertise?) both come upon something which they dearly desire to possess. For both, however, immediate possession is not possible. There is a time gap between finding and possessing. Both have to sell all they have in order to finally obtain (“buy”) what they so desire.  But the mere sight of what they dearly long for so relativises the value of everything else as to render them free to make the sacrifice with joy.

The parables address a central feature concerning the kingdom of God (for Matthew “kingdom of heaven”). The kingdom is essentially future; it is not yet something one can “possess”. People who really catch a glimpse of it from Jesus’ preaching know they have come upon a treasure that will fulfil lifelong desires and aspirations. He cannot yet “deliver” it to them or place them within it but the glimpse of it that he communicates fills them with such joy that they have the freedom to “sell all” in order, one day, to gain it. 

The parables are essentially descriptive. They are not about what one “ought” to do; they simply describe what happens in the life of people who have caught a glimpse of the kingdom. While not yet within their grasp, it is already bringing joy, freedom and hope to human lives. 

The outstanding historical example of such transformation would be St. Francis of Assisi. His commitment to radical poverty did not come to him as a hard moral demand. It flowed in complete freedom from the “treasure” of divine love that he had come upon in such high degree.

The two brief parables encapsulate the essence of Christian spirituality. Christian life requires a measure of detachment. It requires freedom from being completely absorbed and immersed in the attractions, pleasures and concerns of thes world—not because these are bad in themselves but because we have been “captured” by a sense of God’s love and God’s future for us that relativises all these things and puts them in their place. We do not yet possess the treasure but the prospect of it, unseen but grasped in faith, is already working transformation. 

The First Reading, 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12, comes in here in the sense that what Solomon prayed for—and received—was a discerning heart, a heart that, amid all the wealth and opportunity with which he was surrounded, could tell what was of true and lasting value. 

The parable of the Dragnet in itself  (vv. 47-48; that is, less the negative interpretation about the “end of time” [vv. 49-50]), aptly holds together two further truths about the kingdom: God’s grace is a great “net” thrown over all—good and bad alike; you don’t have to be good to grasped by the kingdom. Once grasped, however, conversion, is required: those who do not over time respond positively to God’s generosity will find themselves cast out. 

To this simple but most effective image the Matthean community, perhaps in its concern for growing laxity, has added a warning that focuses simply upon the negative in tones heavily imbued with Jewish apocalyptic eschatology. It would be a pity to let the warning entirely “swamp” the original parable. Without some caution against taking such imagery literally, inevitably all attention will focus upon the negative warning to the detriment of the image of God and God’s action Jesus seeks to promote.

The concluding statement about the scribe “discipled for the kingdom of heaven” (v. 52) is often regarded, with some justification, as a “cameo” description of the Evangelist himself within the narrative. Note how “new” comes before “old” in the things brought out of the storeroom: what has come about in Christ transforms older ways of seeing 

The short Second Reading, Rom 8:28-30, conveys Paul’s case for hope deriving from his belief that we (believers) are all caught up within an inexorably unfolding divine plan that is already well under way. The goal of this plan is that human beings become images of the risen Christ, who is himself the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). This will occur when believers fully share his risen life through their own resurrection (Rom 8:9-11). At that time, Christ will not only be the unique Son of God, but the “eldest” of many brothers (and sisters) within the one family of God.




Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media


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