Homily for 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 25, 2005

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on 1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119;Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-46)

“Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” That is what the Lord said to Solomon.

What is the ‘pearl of great price’ for you? For me?

Suppose the Lord appeared and invited you or me to name the one thing we want above all else — with the promise that the Lord would grant our request. But with this added condition: don’t expect anything else beyond that. How would we answer?

That is the question today’s liturgy places before us.

And once again we are given a snippet of the Gospel that is only recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. It consists of two very brief parables. In recent weeks Matthew has been giving us parable that concern the community. Today he personalizes the demands of the Kingdom. It’s about finding our center, the core gift we seek in our relationship with the Lord.

God had put that same choice before Solomon. And we read that his choice was pleasing to God.

We need to note that the things he might have considered asking for but chose not to were good things, not evil. God points out that he might have asked for a long life — and that can be a good thing. Just think of the aged figure of Nelson Mandela, still inspiring people to fight for their dignity as human beings. Or Solomon might have asked for riches — and we may need to remind ourselves that once again wealth is not an evil. Just think of the good that Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to do with their wealth, working to wipe out the scourge of AIDS in Africa. Or Solomon might have asked to be rid of enemies in his life, and that’s surely something worth asking for.

There is a whole world full of goods in creation to choose from. The issue is not a shortage but a wide menu of gifts God holds out for us.

And what does Solomon choose? He chooses the gift that will enable him to fulfill his vocation in life. He reminds the Lord that God has made him ruler over this vast people, with all the complex decisions that would be required if he is to rule justly in the face of so many conflicting claims. That is his calling and he desires to fulfill it supremely well. Everything else is secondary.

I wonder: as we contemplate the question of the pearl of great price, the one thing we desire over all, would it be the fulfillment of our vocation in this world? Would you instinctively ask to be a worthy husband, or wife, or father or mother or grandparent? Would I ask to be a good priest? Or might I ask first to fulfill my calling as one of the baptized?

The Scriptures place the question for us. They don’t supply the answer that would most please the Lord. For you, for me. That unique gift that corresponds to our mission on earth.

It’s not easy to know what we’re really looking for. Let me tell you a story.

A Jesuit friend of mine was the headmaster of one of our high schools, and he knew that we would need to hire a new dramatics teacher in the fall. He had heard about a program that helps leaders to clarify just what they are looking for in personnel decisions, so he decided to participate.

It was very demanding discipline. Five full days, being compelled to critique his thinking and get in touch with what he really wanted. He started out saying, “I want a drama teacher.” Well, maybe he could get someone who graduated from Yale’s Fine Arts program; would that do it? No, the person might not be a good teacher. So he went around and around. Until it got very clear. “I want someone who can turn kids on to an exciting learning experience through drama! Exploring the whole range of human emotions through the works of great dramatists; learning what it means to collaborate with many other people in an effort to produce a work of art — and enjoying it!”

After learning better skills for interviewing he finally made his choice. He hired a man who had never directed a play before! But he just knew this fellow would have the kids eating out of his hand. And that’s what happened. The new teacher took the school by storm. Everyone wanted to get into dramatics.

It’s also possible to think or say we want thing, when our behavior shouts out that we are really looking for something else.

Have you ever wondered what some parent are really seeking when they go to one of their kids’ sporting events — a basketball game or soccer game of their son or daughter? If you asked them, they’d say, “I just want to support my daughter or son.” Do they know what their behavior reveals? Is that really what they want when they assault a referee or umpire? Or when they badger the coach and say, “Why isn’t Billy playing short? You’ve got him in right field?” Or “Why is Suzie playing doubles when you’ve got Nancy’s daughter playing number one singles?” Are they really there for their kid, or for their own ego, trying to re-live their own younger days?

I was visiting a friend and he invited me to watch a baseball playoff game in which his grandson was playing. The boy’s father was sitting in the first row behind the batting cage. At one point the boy struck out. He was clearly upset with himself. As he passed his dad, the father cried out, “You’re dropping your hands when you swing!” It was the last thing the kid needed at this moment. The grandfather shook his head and said under his breath, “Why does his father act like that?”

As I was thinking of these things I had a fantasy occur to me. What would it be like if they held a game and no adults were allowed to come — and the kids just had fun. . . .

But then I had a different image, even more improbable. What if all the adults could come — but just sit there in total silence and contemplate the miracle taking place before their eyes: the beauty of their children, who sprung from their very bodies, out there striving to achieve their human potential; succeeding once in a while, failing more often than not; just participating in the joyful dance of life?

Could our prayer be just to have our kids enjoy themselves, instead of filling them with the illusion they were headed for the NBA?

What are we really seeking from the Lord? And what would we be willing to say no to on order to make it happen? When I preach, can I put my ego aside, not trying to wow you or get you to like me but really intent on getting out of the way in the hope that the word of the Lord might really touch you?

Our God says, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” The one thing we are promised is that, if we really seek it from God, it will happen. God’s bounty is infinite. Let’s pray that we may be just as bold in asking for the best gift, the one that is most pleasing to our God.