Posted July 24, 2020
17th Sunday of the Year (Yr A)
‘Out of joy, he went off and sold everything he had!’ So we read in today’s Gospel (Matthew 13: 44-46). This looks like a classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket. The buyer was taking some risk, to say the least. No cooling-off period, either. He must have been drunk!
Well, he was drunk – not with wine, but with joy! Notice that St Matthew does not say, simply, ‘he went off full of joy and sold everything’, but that ‘he went off and sold everything because of his joy’. Joy took over, and caused him to exchange everything he had for this single object of his desire. And given that the two parables in today’s reading are so closely related, we are surely to understand that it was also sheer joy that impelled the merchant to sell up and sink all his assets into a single pearl.
These two parables are about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven, as St Matthew prefers to call it). The Kingdom of God was at the heart of Jesus’ preaching from the beginning of his ministry. These parables tell us that the Kingdom brings such joy that it changes your life and prompts you to part with everything in exchange for it. Of course, the Kingdom of God is not something distinct from Jesus himself, for Jesus is the Kingdom of God in person. So the message of today’s parables is that Jesus himself brings extraordinary joy. It is Jesus’ own joy imparted to his disciples. We recall Jesus’ words in St John’s Gospel: ‘I have told you all this so that my joy may be in you and so that your joy may be complete.’
From the historical point of view, it is difficult to explain how the message of the gospel spread within Palestine, and then throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, with such incredible rapidity, unless the people who heard it found it thrilling. There must have been in Christian faith an experience of joy that people felt was worth dying for (for many of them did die for it), a joy that surpassed everything they had ever experienced, like the treasure hidden in the field or the pearl of great price. In comparison with this joy, nothing else mattered any more.
Of course, joy was soon mixed with hardship and tribulations. The Christian gospel was, after all, the message of Christ crucified. Perhaps the earliest communities were surprised when suffering came their way. St Peter in his first epistle had to warn his communities: ‘Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something alien were happening to you.’ And it has been well said that St Mark wrote his Gospel to teach believers to become believers when the going got rough. But suffering never extinguished the faith nor lessened the commitment of the early communities, and nor has it deterred countless millions throughout the Christian centuries. In the heart of every Christian, there must be the memory of, or the experience of, or the yearning for, that same joy that filled the heart of the man who found the treasure, or of the merchant who found the pearl he was looking for.
I wonder if joy is the first characteristic that comes to mind when non-Christians think of Christians. It must be admitted that there is a venerable tradition in Christianity that equates holiness with joylessness. More to the point, I wonder if joy is an important facet of your own Christian experience. I do not mean that we should all be happy-clappies. (If you are one, and you’re here, you took the wrong turning at Chancery Lane.) Joy is not always demonstrative, and it is not always accompanied by happiness, nor the other way round. Jesus surely experienced joy on the cross, but I doubt he was happy. Conversely, you will find lots of happy people around the city pubs when the offices close, and long after they have closed, but speak at any depth to individuals among them and you will find a lot of joylessness. Unhappiness, even depression, can be there in the Christian as in anyone else, but often these depend on circumstances, or they can be alleviated by a little human support or by professional help. But there is a kind of joy that does not depend on circumstances nor on human support, a ‘firm anchor of the soul’, quietly providing security and stability amidst the lashing storms.
If joy is not there in our lives as Christians, then perhaps we have not yet found, or not yet consciously found, the treasure in the field. Perhaps that is partly because most of us have been Christians from childhood. The parables speak of suddenly finding the treasure or the pearl and being overcome with joy. This must have rung a bell with the earliest Christians, because they had all experienced the overwhelming joy of conversion. It is a less familiar experience to us, for most of us were brought up as Christians, and the treasure has become ours through a gradual process of osmosis rather than through a sudden, overwhelming discovery. But the Kingdom of Heaven is always there to be taken hold of anew, and with it the joy that comes from discovering it.
It goes without saying that this renewal of joy in our Christian lives is a most personal and intimate matter. It touches you in the depth of your consciousness. It means realizing perhaps for the first time that Jesus loves you. Oh, how I hoped to avoid that phrase, because it has become trite through too much use; and to rough diamonds like me and you it can sound rather corny. (I remember preaching a retreat to a religious community, when one of the lay brothers, who had been in religious life for 70 years, said to me: ‘I’m glad I’ve never had to preach.’ ‘Why is that, Brother Joe?’, I asked. ‘Because as soon as you say it, it sounds daft!’) But however daft it sounds, to know the reality of being loved by Jesus, to realize it, to experience it, grabs you emotionally and psychologically at a far deeper level than ever the merely human experience of falling in love can affect you, or hearing your child first utter the phrase, ‘I love you’. For to know that Jesus loves you is not simply to feel affirmed by the thought that you are the object of someone’s special affection, but to be set free for eternity. When you experience that love, you know you have experienced a joy that no one will ever be able to take away from you, for nothing can ever reverse the everlasting commitment of this divine lover of your soul. ‘Christ loved me, and delivered himself up to death for me.’ ‘Who will be able to separate us from Christ’s love for us? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?’ ‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy away from you.’
My wish for myself and for you in this Eucharist is that we will indeed experience anew the love of Jesus, rediscover the joy that comes with it, and be prompted to let go of everything – that is, our very selves – in order to possess it.
Fr Tom Deidun