Homily for 17th Sunday of the Year

This is the third consecutive Sunday we’ve heard the parables of Jesus – the seven he gives in ch. 13 of St Matthew’s Gospel. Today we hear the last three: the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price and the fishing net. And of these three, the first two are what the liturgy seems to want to highlight: the treasure and the pearl. They form a pair. As parables go, they’re fairly straightforward. And in the Old Testament both treasure and pearl were symbols of wisdom, that wisdom the 1st reading shows Solomon asking of the Lord.

Our hearts are made for treasure and pearls. ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Mt 6:21). ‘A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he that has found one has found a treasure’ (Sir 6:14).  ‘A perfect wife – who can find her? She is far beyond the price of pearls’ (Prov 31: 10).

Our Lord knows all this. So he gives us these analogies – ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’, and he tells two mini-stories.

They begin with something hidden: a pearl once hidden in an oyster in the sea, a treasure hidden in a field. In those days, more than now, people did hide treasures in fields – safer there than under a bed or in a cellar. And in the field of this world and the ocean of time, God hides Himself. His kingdom – which means ‘kingship’ – is not on the surface of things. It’s rare we catch a glimpse of it in the news. God hides his kingdom, his presence, his action below the surface. Only if we’re looking for it, like the merchant, will we find it. The treasure was hidden in Israel which, as nations went, was hardly then a world player. To the great bafflement of Satan, he hid his Son in the womb of a virgin and under the form of just another child. He hid him under the suffering and death of the Cross, and the Son hid his Father by speaking in parables. The Incarnation was a hidden event and so was the Resurrection. Here and now, the treasure is hidden under the appearances of bread and wine. It’s hidden in the Church, sometimes under the ashes of scandal. It’s hidden in us, because, like St Paul, we’re only the earthenware vessels that hold it.

Such is the long, patient self-concealment of God. But it really is a case of hide and seek. It’s the hiding of someone longing to be found. So, in the parable, one day this man was walking in a field or sowing or ploughing, and a glint of light catches his eye. One day, not far from Pluscarden, a farmer was ploughing and he unearthed two pots of Roman coins, coins that went back to the 2nd century A.D. and had been hidden in that field for centuries. They’re now in Elgin museum. One day this merchant who has spent years travelling in the east, going from market to market, handling and haggling sees a pearl that glows like none other he has ever seen. There’s a moment of epiphany, of light breaking out. There’s astonishment and joy. Both of them realise, ‘This is it!’ And the revelation provokes a revolution. Everything in their lives must now be re-arranged. They’re ready to strip themselves of everything they’ve acquired and so enter into the joy of having the one thing necessary. This is what over their years with Jesus the apostles were realising. He was the treasure and the pearl. This is what happened at that dramatic moment in Assisi when St Francis took off his clothes in front of his father, gave them back, renounced his inheritance, and became a poor man following the poor Christ. This is why St Paul will say: ‘nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him’ (Phil 3:8-9). This is why in the Church the religious life, the consecrated life, has sprung up. It’s not for the sake of the renunciations; it’s because now, with the coming of Christ, there’s an incomparable treasure and a pearl of great value waiting to be found. There’s a great all-encompassing love in the field of the world. Or think of those Christians in northern Iraq who, rather than lose their freedom and convert to Islam, are letting go of everything. It’s because they treasure the treasure of faith.

Hidden in the field of our own lives or in the marketplace of our hearts, these precious things are present too. They’re always there to be discovered again. Often this happens at a time of loss; the secondary things are taken away, and the real priorities shine out again. May God’s kingdom come in us! May we put nothing before Christ, before our faith, nothing above living in grace, cost what it may, nothing above the Eucharist and the friendship with Christ it brings!

I know an indomitable lady in her 90s. She has spent her life doing good in unusual and effective ways. But she never married. And so she cheerfully describes herself as an “unclaimed treasure”. Beyond the humour, there is a lovely truth. She has always treasured her faith above everything. And she is a treasure and has been a treasure for many. And the apostles who realised that the pearl of great price was standing in front of them, telling them parables, and who gave everything to have him – what becomes of them in the end? We’re told in the book of Revelation, in the Bible’s very last outburst of imagery: they become the gates of pearl for the heavenly Jerusalem, and through them, as the hymn goes, ‘streams in the endless host’ of the redeemed. We become what we love. And if we love what’s supremely lovable, we will become more and more loveable ourselves. And love will be multiplied and the Kingdom come. If we treasure the treasure and value the pearl, we’ll become what we treasure for others, not just for ourselves. And even through us the hidden God will let himself be glimpsed.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122