1 KINGS 3:5, 7-12
We’re concluding our reading of the 13 th chapter of Matthew’s gospel today which consists of a string of seven parables each imaging the kingdom of God. This week we’re reflecting on the last three in the series. Let’s get right into them.
1. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and
goes out and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of lounging on the beach. But I remember, from the olden days, seeing beach combers wandering along the beach with electronic metal detectors. They were looking for things like lost wedding rings or gold ear rings – anything of value.
Well, in Palestine, at the time of Jesus, it was not unheard of that someone found a real treasure buried in a field. Palestine was in itself an unimportant country on the coast of the Mediterranean. Because of its geography it suffered, but survived, countless invasions.
The powerful countries of the north and the west like Assyria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt frequently engaged in wars among themselves and other smaller countries. The main roads that connected these countries snaked through Palestine. So, it was common for families to flee the advancing armies with the hope of returning after the armies marched through. Families would sometime bury their valuables before fleeing. Sadly, some of them never returned. Like today’s beach combers there were always people who wandered around looking for a dent in the soil that might signal a buried treasure. From this common phenomenon Jesus spun his parable.
(Focus Thought) Many of us carry the hope of discovering a treasure and, with it, a new life. Are you searching for a treasure, temporal or spiritual?
What do you think about letting go of everything you value in order to buy the field with the buried treasure? What are your thoughts and feelings about letting go of the things you value?
2. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that pearl.”
In the Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle East, pearls were highly valued because of their delicate beauty. They came from the sea which was considered the source of all life and therefore had a mystical quality. Pearls aren’t like gold or silver that’s mined from the earth and must go through a series of processes to become the valued coin or the piece of jewelry. A pearl is beauty itself.
(Focus Thought) Are you searching for a deeper meaning to your life? What is the pearl that, if you possessed it, would put your soul to rest? Take special note of your feelings as you think about the meaning of this parable.
3. The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into baskets. What is bad they will throw away.
Hmmmm. This sound a little bit like last week’s parable of the wheat and the weeds. They grew together only to be separated at harvest time. Here the image is more aggressive. Fisherman cast their nets when they see the water moving, bubbling in a way, because a school of fish is swimming just below the surface. With strength and precision, the nets are cast over the school and immediately yanked back to the boats to catch as many fish as possible. After the haul, the catch is separated. The fish are kept. What’s unwanted is thrown back into the sea.
(Focus Thought) Have you ever experienced the excitement of hope? I’m thinking of a song from West Side Story that poetically catches that excitement: Something’s Coming. “Could be, who knows? There’s something due any day I will know right away soon as it shows. It many come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose. Who knows?” What are you hoping for? What’s just under the surface? You can almost see it. You can almost reach out and touch it.
You’re not sure what it is – but you know – it’s there. Don’t be afraid to think about this. It can bring up feeling. Don’t be afraid of thoughts that seem illogical or off the topic. Respect every thought and feeling. Don’t be afraid to cast the net out onto the unknown.
Matthew concludes this chapter of parables with an important maxim. “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
Through the Focus Thoughts we’ve been looking inside ourselves. These parables are symbolic maps meant to guide us as we travel the inner path. Our fears, hopes, dreams and even our style of living are the things that can inhibit or help our spiritual development. This is what Jesus refers to as “the old.” When we recognize them, we can be more prepared to begin a new way of living – a spirit-filled way of living. This is the foundation of new life in the kingdom of heaven.
WISDOM 12:13, 16-19 ROMANS 8:26-27 MATTHEW 13:24-30
Today we’re thinking about the kingdom of heaven, the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. Sometimes, as in the passage we’re reading today, Jesus spins a parable that delivers an impression of the kingdom.
What makes the kingdom difficult to describe is that it’s not just a concept; it’s also, and primarily, an experience. As we walk the Christian journey, the kingdom will intersect our lives. Sometimes it may come as a flash of lucidity but a definition may allude us. Sometimes it may not be a thought at all, but a feeling – a deep, downin-the-heart experience that’s difficult to describe.
I wish I could share with you a precise definition of the kingdom, but I can’t. What I can do, however, is focus the images Jesus uses to describe it. From that point on, I will leave it to you to form your own idea of the kingdom.
There are three images of the kingdom in the gospel today. The first is a field of wheat that has lots of weeds. In the story the landowner declares that an enemy has planted these weeds. He can’t pull the weeds up because he’ll pull the wheat up along with it. So, he’ll let them grow together and separate them at harvest time. (Focus thought) There’s tension built into the story; an enemy has planted the weeds. It seems there’s opposition to the flourishing of the kingdom. What does this image teach us about the dynamics of the kingdom?
The second image is that of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree. (Focus thought) What power is hidden in that tiny seed that transforms it into a tree? Does that power manifest the energy of the kingdom in our midst? How?
The third image is a lump of yeast that mixes with flour. (Focus thought) When yeast is mixed into flour, there is no longer yeast nor flour – combined, they become dough. What can this teach us about the kingdom?
These little parables are meant to be pondered and prayed over. Let your heart guide your thoughts. Feel free to let your mind wander about with these images. All kind of ideas might surface. Respect them. As you reflect don’t ignore your feelings; they’re connected to the heart. We want our reflections to be thoughtful and personal – heartfelt. The Spirit works through the heart as well as the intellect. While reflecting, keep in mind what Jesus taught us: “The kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:21)
Rosemary, a gracious and generous-hearted lady, left us on July 2, 2020 at the age of 99. She was a gifted teacher, author, Dickens scholar and lover of the arts who attended Caldwell College and received her Masters degree from Fordham University.
She taught in the NYC school system and in 1983 she was honored as Manhattan’s Teacher of the Year. After her retirement in 1990, she taught the classics and creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College’s School of Continuing Education and was Adjunct Professor of Communications at NYU where she later taught literature in their continuing education program into her 90s. Rosemary was the recipient of several Fellowships in World Literature, published extensively in literary journals and wrote a book on classical literature, as well as co-authored eight English as a Second Language textbooks with her dear friend, Judith Kay, published by St. Martin’s Press and Cambridge University Press.
Rosemary was a world traveler, but NYC was her home. She volunteered her time in many innovative ways, conducting creative writing classes with homebound adults by conference call and teaching English skills to workers at a local supermarket chain.
She lived for her faith, her country and her love of people. Her brilliance, wit, generosity and kindness brought joy to all who knew her. She will be sorely missed by her family and friends.
A remarkable force of life and energy, Richard Lopez, who passed away on June 21, 2020 will be remembered for many talents. An award-winning titan of the ad world in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, he was a creative director admired for his vision and distinct design sense.
He began his association with St. Jean’s in 1971 using his musical talent as the director and guitarist in the weekly folk mass. His connection with our church would last for the rest of his life. St. Jean’s was the site of his wedding in 1973 to Barbara O’Dwyer, the baptism of his son and granddaughters as well as their first communions. A 2001 book on the church’s restoration and history, on which he collaborated with his wife and Pastor John Kamas, is a showcase of the art and beauty of our national landmark.
He devoted decades of his time and skills to design work for Eglise St. Jean Baptiste. The church logo––which is the first thing you see when you open this website––is his design. His touch is on so many things: stationery, posters, fliers, fundraising booklets, invitations, the weekly bulletin, website consultation, even coffee mugs, among other things.
Music was always the backdrop for his life. In his later years he turned to composing music for piano in the romantic style, publishing an album of his work in 2002 and continuing to write until the final year of his life.
He was a wonderful husband and father who will be deeply missed by his wife, Barbara; son, Damon; daughter-in-law, Kendra and granddaughters Evelyn and Nina.
His legacy will be felt and cherished forever.
ISAIAH 55:10-11. ROMANS 8:18-23 MATTHEW 13:1-17
The gospel passage presented for our reflection today is long and, frankly, confusing in several ways. At one and the same time Jesus is giving one message to the disciples and another to the crowd. In addition, an interpretation of the parable is tacked on to the passage. It isn’t Jesus’ interpretation. It may be Matthew’s or a later editor. Here’s the outline of the entire passage.
1. Jesus sat in a boat while a crowd gathered along the shore to listen to him. He spun a parable for them – the parable of the sower.
2. Afterwards, the disciples asked him why he taught with parables. He answered them by quoting a passage from the prophet Isaiah.
3. Jesus then commended the disciples for being able to understand his teaching.
4. The last part of the passage is an editor’s interpretation of the parable.
I’m going to focus on parts one, two and three. I won’t address part four. You can read it on your own. It’s a perfectly fine interpretation. Traditionally, a rabbi never interpreted his parables. He simply told the story and left it for his disciples to ponder and interpret personally. This interpretation is perhaps Matthew’s , but more likely, someone who later edited Matthew’s gospel. Let’s move on and re-read the parable.
A crowd was following Jesus. He led them to the shore of the lake and got into a small boat that was moored just a few feet off shore. He sat down, taking the position that a rabbi would take as his disciples sat around him on the ground. When everyone sat down he told them a parable.
He used an image that everyone could relate to, a farmer planting seeds. There were two methods of sowing seeds in his day. A farmer would strap a bag of seeds over his shoulder, fill his hand with seeds and cast them over the ground as he walked along the paths between the furrows. Or the farmer would strap the bag of seeds onto the hind end of a donkey and make holes on either side of the bag. As he led the animal along the path the seeds would spill out into the furrows that were on either side of the narrow walkway.
The parable describes what might happen to the seeds. “Some seed fell on the path and birds came and ate it up.” Fields always had paths that ran through them. The sower, and anyone wanting to cross the field, would walk along these paths. They were hard from the traffic. The seed that fell onto these paths had no chance of taking root because the ground was too hard, and so they were destined to become lunch for the birds.
“Some fell on rocky ground where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots.” Much of the ground in Palestine consisted of shallow earth over a shelf of limestone. This was what Jesus meant by “rocky ground.” The seeds would spring up quickly, but because of the shallow earth, but they wouldn’t develop the necessary root system to catch any moister. They’d spring up but wither away quickly in the arid climate.
“Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.” Here Jesus is referring to weeds. Anyone who has ever tended a garden knows the stubborn strength of weeds. They seem indestructible and will choke to death everything around them.
“But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Finally – some seed made it! That’s the parable. I’m going to move on to the rest of the passage now. I’ll backtrack after we’ve looked at part two and three of the passage.
A simple question asked by the disciples generated a profound answer from Jesus. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Don’t interpret Jesus’ answer in a harsh way, though it may seem harsh. He quoted a very frustrated prophet Isaiah. “You shall hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.”
It’s not difficult to apply the imagery of the parable to Isaiah’s statement. Ears are meant to hear a message. Eyes are meant to see what lies ahead. Sadly, so many don’t hear God’s personal invitation. Many don’t see the pathway God laid out for them. Many miss the opportunity to be healed by God – to receive a new heart from God – a new life.
Jesus ended this simple teaching moment with Fourth of July fireworks the big booming, weeping willow-like fireworks. He spoke directly to the hearts of his disciples. He confided a secret to them. Many aren’t ready yet to hear what I have to say. Many aren’t ready for healing and transformation. “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears because you hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
The parable of the sower was meant for the people who couldn’t see or hear. It was telling then that if they convert, turn the direction of their lives toward God, they would reap a wonderful harvest: “a hundred, sixty or thirty-fold.” Jesus was teaching his disciples that they who have hear what he taught, and understood his actions, have actually peered into the heart of God In Jesus they have seen and experienced God’s love. From now on, they’re the seed that was planted in fertile soil. He guarantees them a magnificent harvest – a new life flowing from the heart of God. This is the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth.
ZECHARIAH 9:9-10. ROMANS 8:9-11 MATTHEW 11:25-30
In this Sunday’s Gospel we read one of Jesus most popular sayings.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give your rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” It’s a loving invitation on one level, and a challenge on another. Let’s take a good look at this beloved saying because its message is so important.
To properly understand the depth of his invitation, we need to take his statement very personally. Jesus is reaching out with profound compassion and empathy to anyone who might listen to him. He sees our inner restlessness and our deeply felt unhappiness. He offers us healing. But we need to prepare ourselves in order to hear his message and accept the healing by questioning ourselves at the deepest level. How might I describe my unhappiness? What’s that inner restlessness that’s continually churning within me blocking my peace of heart, my inner peace?
Let’s turn to today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans to assist us in our inner reflection. He writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Be careful here, however. This passage has been misinterpreted often.
Many ascetics throughout the history of Christianity have taken this to mean that anything that has to do with bodily pleasure couldn’t possibly come from God but could come only from the evil one. As a result, a cult of mortification, penance, self- flagellation, and the condemnation of human sexuality have stubbornly persisted in Christianity and has enthroned an image of a wrathful god in Christian spirituality. We want to avoid this type of thinking as we ponder St. Paul’s teaching.
The best definition for “flesh” that I’ve come across is this: “Flesh recoils from anything that might cause us to be anything less than the center of the universe.” This is what St. John refers to as “the world” in his Gospel. It’s whatever distracts us from the love of God. Self-centeredness is, perhaps, the clearest definition of “flesh” or “the world.”
St. Paul is teaching that “flesh,” our stubborn self-centeredness, doesn’t reward us with a deeper experience of life. Rather, it detaches us from the love of others, and leads to the destruction of our sacred and God-given humanity. He calls that death.
The challenge St. Paul places before us is to live a Spirit-filled life that puts “to death the deeds of the body,” self-centeredness. A Spirit-filled life frees us to reach out, to love. This is life to its fullest. Jesus is offering the same challenge in his teaching. It’s part of his invitation, “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
When we recognize that deep inside we feel weighted down, burdened, unsettled, not truly content – incomplete, we have to assess our basic motivation, our modus operandi. Am I expending all my energy on trying to be happy? Has securing power and fame not been successful in helping me feel whole and complete? Has financial security not made me happy? Has sculpting the perfect body for myself not made me feel any better about myself? Have my family, friendships and relationships never really brought me contentment of heart. Do I ever wonder why I’m here on planet earth?
Jesus is inviting us to live differently. He’s promising us “rest” from these inner burdens that weigh down our souls. His promise isn’t a free gift though. We have to work for it. We have to challenge our thoughts and actions and begin to live differently. “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” We have to study Jesus. We have to look at his life and listen attentively to his teaching. He tells us so clearly, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it!” We have to come to the realization that self-centeredness is our original sin. It isolates us from God, the people around us and ourselves. It bars us from paradise.
Jesus could not have been any clearer in directing us to a new way of living than when he gave us the new commandment. “Love one another as I have loved you.” This isn’t romantic, feel-good love. This is sacrificial love the opposite of self-centeredness. His commandment goes on to clarify what he means by love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
I believe we’re living in a very special, Spirit-filled time. The powerful illusions we’ve worshipped, wealth, security, prestige, health – all have been challenged by a virus – one hundred twenty-eight thousand deaths and forty million unemployed in the United States. But the Spirit has liberated his gifts throughout this time. The Spirit has been guiding us through the darkness with the light of love. Many of us are putting our lives on the line by caring for one another. Our health-care professionals and essential workers have been willing to lay down their lives for the greater good.
That virus has uncovered terrible inequalities and injustice in our society and our culture. The voice of prophecy is being heard, once again. We’re being challenged to judge our way of thinking about each other. We’re being challenged to rebuild our society. We’re being challenged to care for one another. We’re being challenged to lay down our lives for one another. We’re being challenged to love. May the day come soon when we all hear the voice of Jesus saying to us, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”