17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.
AIM: To show the joy of Christian discipleship.
In the middle years of the last century there was no more widely read or more convincing spokesman for Christian belief than C.S. Lewis. A professor of English literature at both
Oxford and who died in 1963, his books still
sell briskly today. In his only autobiographical work Lewis tells how he moved
from the formal Protestantism of his childhood in Cambridge to abandon all
religious belief in his teens. Only in his thirties did he come back to
believe, first, in God, and then to accept Jesus Christ as God’s Son. He called
the book Surprised by Joy – a tribute to the wife, Joy Gresham, whom
Lewis, a confirmed bachelor most of his life, married in 1956 when he was
fifty-eight. The 1993 film, Shadowlands, tells the story of their
marriage. Northern Ireland
Both of the men in today’s gospel were “surprised by joy.” In this the man discovering buried treasure, and the merchant finding “a pearl of great price,” were alike. In other respects, however, the two men were quite different.
The first man is a day laborer plowing his employer’s field. As he walks back and forth over the familiar ground, the plow catches on what he at first takes for a rock. Investigation shows it to be a pottery jar filled with gold and silver coins. Before the days of banks, the best way to guard such a treasure was to bury it. Who had buried it, or when, he cannot know. He realizes, however, that this unexpected find can change his life, giving him the first financial security he has ever known.
He realizes also, however, that he has a problem. The law of the day said that buried treasure belonged to the person on whose property it was found. Rather than carrying off the treasure at once, and risk having the owner of the field challenge his right to possess it, the man carefully buries the jar again and finishes his day’s work. Later he scrapes together his meager savings and makes his employer an offer for the field. He is careful to appear casual about it, so as not to arouse suspicion. When his offer is accepted, the man is overjoyed. The purchase has cost everything he has. The treasure which is now his, however, is worth far more.
The merchant is different. He is not poor but well off. And he is looking for treasure. He probably started collecting semi-precious stones as a youngster. In time what began as a hobby became his livelihood. Years of buying and selling have sharpened his eye, and refined his taste. He smiles now when he thinks of the worthless baubles that used to please him years ago. One day, walking through the bazaar, he sees a pearl so large, and so flawless, that it takes his breath away. He knows he must have it. It will mean the sacrifice of all he owns. But no matter. When you have found perfection, no price is too high to pay.
“God’s kingdom is like that,” Jesus is saying. Neither of these two men thinks for a minute of the sacrifice he is making. Both think only of the joy of their new possession. Both know that the great treasure they have discovered is worth many times over what they are paying to possess it.
Must we pay a price to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? Of course. Sometimes that price is high. But when we think only of the cost of discipleship, we make our religion grim and forbidding. In these two little parables Jesus is emphasizing not the cost, but the infinitely greater reward. From the great chorus of Christian disciples who, like the men in these two stories, have been “surprised by joy,” let me quote two voices.
The first is the late fourth century north African convert, later a bishop,
All through his twenties the intellectually brilliant Augustine wanted to be a
Christian. But he found the price too high. He was unable to give up his
freedom to live his life as he pleased. After God granted him the grace of
conversion, Augustine wrote that what he had sacrificed for Jesus Christ was
nothing compared to the treasure he had gained. St. Augustine
“How sweet did it become to me all at once to be without those trifles!” Augustine writes in his Confessions. “What I previously feared to lose, it was now a joy to be without. For you cast them away from me, you true and highest sweetness. You cast them out and instead entered in, you true and highest sweetness. You cast them out and instead entered in yourself, sweeter than all pleasure.” (Confessions ix.1)
Then there is Fr. Alfred Delp, the German Jesuit who gave his life for Jesus Christ in 1945, under the tyranny of Adolf Hitler. In a farewell letter, written with manacled hands in his prison cell on death row but full of peace and joy, Fr. Delp wrote of his great discovery, and changed perspective.
“I know now that I have been as stupid and foolish as a child. How much strength and depth I have sacrificed in my life! How much fruitfulness I might have had in my work, how much blessing I might have given to others! Only the person who believes, who trusts, who loves, sees truly what human life is really all about. Only he can truly see God.”
Let me conclude by recalling an event most of us can still remember: the tragic death in an automobile accident of the British Princess Diana on the last day of August 1997. The story was brilliantly told a few years later in the film The Queen. I saw it twice. For days television showed the public grief of crowds in
London. Grief also fueled their protest that there
was no flag at half mast over . Royal
officials explained that the only flag permitted there was the Royal Standard,
which is flown only when the sovereign is in residence. Since the Queen was in Buckingham
Palace Scotland, the flagpole remained bare. Within days,
however, tradition yielded to sentiment.
For the first time ever, the Union Jack flew over ,
and at half mast. Buckingham Palace
Why do I tell you that? Because we followers of Jesus Christ have a royal standard. On a field of red, the color of the Savior’s blood, the price of our redemption, is emblazoned in letters of gold the single word: “Joy.” It flies – or should fly – above the Christian heart, to show that the King is resident within.