What’s Important and What Isn’t? July 26, 2023

While waiting for someone to answer the front door, I noticed a note addressed to the fire department. “In case of a fire, please save the following pets: two cats, one dog and three pet tarantulas.”

Judging from my personal experience of watching a few firefighters enter burning buildings, none of them seemed to stop and read notes posted to the door while wielding axes and dragging fire hoses behind them. If they did stop to read the note, who do you think would volunteer their lives searching for pet tarantulas? Okay, I agree, the cats and the dogs would be easier to spot, and they could scoot to safety, but in times of crisis figuring out what’s important and what isn’t, is never easy. While life gives us ample opportunities to practice, I think of the newspaper article describing the man rescued by firefighters who they had found on a burning mattress. When asked how the fire got started, the man said: “It was on fire when I laid down on it.” Yes, we do have choices.

In today’s gospel reading (Matthew 13:44-52) for the Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Jesus describes what the Kingdom of Heaven might be like by using three remarkably simple parables.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in

a field, which someone found and hid. Then in his joy

he goes sells all he has and buys that field.”

“The kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search

of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he

went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

“The kingdom of Heaven is like a net thrown into the

sea and caught every kind of fish; and when it was

full, they drew it upon shore, sat down, and put the

good in the baskets but threw out the bad.”

Like a good comedian, Jesus tosses out his stories and invites us to use our imaginations in recognizing the funny connections between some ordinary experiences and the mystery of something unknown. At the heart of every good parable (metaphor) is the juxtaposition of something less known (The Kingdom of Heaven) with something well known (pearl, treasure, and good fish). It is in the comparison of both objects that a “third object” appears and gives us a working image of understanding. The Kingdom of God is like a hidden treasure we are told, but just how valuable would this treasure be? Would you risk everything in order to possess it? The utilization of a merchant in search of fine pearls offers an invitation to search out what is valuable and considered to be the pearl of great price.

Using parables, Jesus pushes us to the edge of discerning what’s important and what isn’t. In hot pursuit of the Kingdom of Heaven, two of the parables alert us to the importance of judging wisely in a willingness to sell all that we possess to purchase the treasure in the field and/or the pearl of great price. Figuring out the difference between “real treasure” and “glittering trash” requires wise judgment and a willingness to risk everything for the Kingdom of Heaven. Whether the example of the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a treasure or a pearl of great price, Jesus creatively portrays the Kingdom of Heaven as something, sensory, understandable, and achievable. When Jesus asked his disciples at the end of this discourse on parables, “Have you understood this?” they answered, “Yes.”

In the first reading (1 Kings 5-12), God appeared to Solomon in a dream and said: “What should I give you?” Solomon, ignoring magical wishes for riches, power, or revenge on his enemies, simply said: “Give your servant an understanding mind and the ability to discern between good and evil.” God granted Solomon his “wish” and the ability to figure out what is important and what isn’t. In the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:28-30) for today’s liturgy, Paul assures the community that “All things will work together for good for those who choose to love God.”

Some years ago, I anointed an older woman, ninety-four to be exact, who was dying. Surrounding the bed at Martha’s home, were her three daughters, her two sons and multiple grandchildren. And on the bed resting comfortably next to Martha were her two Welsh Corgies, named Elizabeth and Charles. With the small British flag on her nightstand, I quickly concluded that Martha was not Irish! While we were praying, family members began mentioning the names relatives and friends who had proceeded Martha in death. However, one of the daughters rattled off a string of unusual names of those waiting for her mother in heaven. When I asked who these individuals were, she replied: “These were all of my mother’s dogs over the years.” In fact, her mother’s definition of heaven was a place where all the dogs you ever loved would come and greet you. With apologies to the poet Francis Thompson and in keeping with Jesus’ use of parables, we could conclude that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the hound (s) of heaven.

All of us must make choices and figure out what is important and what isn’t. Choosing the Kingdom of Heaven is an act of faith, an imaginative act. At a recent funeral for a twenty-seven-year-old man named David, who struggled with alcohol addiction, I quoted the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Relying only on human wisdom is never enough in choosing the Kingdom of God. Even though David’s human wisdom failed him in making the ultimate choice of sobriety, relying on God’s compassionate wisdom to welcome home prodigal sons and daughters became a true source of consolation for grieving family members and friends. We need to believe in a power greater than ourselves whose kindness transcends human judgement and draws us, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the Kingdom of God!

In a lovely poem by the late poet Maya Angelou entitled “Preacher, don’t send me,” Angelou pleaded “not to be sent to a place where the streets are made from gold and the milk is free.” Lord, “I ain’t got no need for gold after I am dead, and I stopped drinking milk when I was four years old.” Concluding her image of heaven, Angelou said:

“I’d call a place pure paradise when

families are loyal and strangers nice,

where the music is jazz and the season

is fall. Promise me this or nothing at all.”

During times of uncertainty, the need for wisdom is critical in helping us to figure out what’s important and what’s not important. Searching for a sense of certainty amid the uncertainty of our times demands a reliance on the promise of our God to be with us. In our current contentious political climate, where “fake news and oppositional research” seem to have become the norm, we must maintain due diligence when it comes to ferreting out the truth. Indeed, wouldn’t it be nice if families were loyal and strangers nice and the music jazz? We could toss in a few dogs and cats and even a pet tarantula to round out our heavenly hopes.

And what is your image of the Kingdom of Heaven? And what would you be willing to surrender in order to pursue it?

Peace, Fr. Joe Gillespie, O.P.