There are All These Levels (homily)
July 24, 2011
Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
What’s wonderful about these parables today is that they can mean so many different things. They can speak to us in so many different ways.
There are all these levels.
If we’re depressed, if our life seems empty and barren and flat, the parables are saying: yes. Sometimes that’s the way life is. Life is a field, a barren field, a fallow field.
But wait. There’s hope, too. There’s a treasure buried there. There’s a pearl beyond price.
If we’re upset with the church, if we’re mad at the church, if the church has disappointed us, the parables are saying: yes, of course, what did we expect? The church, too, is a field. The church, too, covers things up. It buries things.
But wait. There’s a treasure here, underneath. There’s a pearl.
If we’re disappointed with a child, or a spouse, or a parent, or a friend, or with ourselves, the parables are saying: look deeper. Look beyond the obvious, because the truth is rarely obvious. People are like the sea, they are full of good fish and bad, as the church is like the sea, full of good fish and bad, and we just have to get over it. We just have to accept that.
If we don’t know how to read the Bible, if we can’t believe in miracles, if we can’t take the scriptures at face value, the parables are saying: don’t. Look deeper. The Bible is the field and the Bible is the sea and its meaning is not obvious and its meaning is not singular. It’s deep and it’s multiple. It’s inexhaustible. But we have to dig. We have to let down our nets.
“I therefore decided to give my attention to the study of the Holy Scriptures,” St. Augustine writes in The Confessions. “And what I saw was something that is not discovered by the proud and is not laid open to children; the way in is low and humble, but inside the vault is high and veiled in mysteries.” This is the key, in the reading of the scriptures and in the reading of our lives. We need to humble ourselves so that we can enter in through this little door, and we need to sharpen ourselves so that we can penetrate the depths that are hidden there once we get in.
If we’re doubtful about God, if the existence of God doesn’t seem obvious, if there doesn’t seem to be any obvious proof, the parables are saying: yes, that’s true. The kingdom of God isn’t like a fleet of giant space ships that come sailing in over our cities and just float there above us, for everyone to see. It’s like a pearl. It’s like a seed. It’s small. It’s easy to overlook. A bird on a branch. A certain slant of light. A smile. A memory. A sudden intuition.
That’s the good news: that God is everywhere and always.
That’s also the bad news, the hard news: because this isn’t obvious, we can’t pin it down, we can’t make it stick. “I wanted to be as certain about things which I could not see,” Augustine says, “as I was certain that seven plus three equal ten.” But that’s not how it works. It just isn’t.
If we’re really mad at people who disagree with us, at people who vote for the wrong party or people who don’t share our particular understanding of the faith, the parables are saying: who are we to judge? Who are we? It’s the angels who sort out the fish, not us, it’s God who separates the good from the bad, and as Fr. Steve pointed out last week, that’s not going to happen for a long, long time. There’s still plenty of opportunity for things to change, in us and in others, to get better or worse. In the meantime, we just have to mind our own business.
If our lives are hectic and chaotic and out of control, if we don’t have time to hear ourselves think, if we’ve buried ourselves in commitments and possessions and anxieties, the parables are saying: sell it all, give it all up, and keep what matters most. Simplify.
If we don’t know what matters most, if we can’t figure that out, they say: wait. Be patient. Give it time.
And they say: follow your joy. Follow what most gives you life and hope. That’s what the man does when he finds the treasure in the field. He sells everything: and not out of fear, not out of narrow, unthinking conviction. He sells “out of joy,” the scriptures tell us. He acts out of joy.
And if you do feel joy, if you do feel pulled, if you do feel hope—that leaping up of your heart, that surge—trust it. Listen to it. It’s God speaking to you, underneath everything else. It’s God calling to you.
“Do whatever most kindles love in you,” St. Teresa of Avila says.
All these meanings, all these levels and layers, because these texts today are the field, and these texts today are the pearls, and there is treasure everywhere and there is paradox everywhere and there is meaning and invention and hope.
If we’re lonely and afraid, we have to act.
If we’re lonely and afraid, we have to do nothing.
Act: because the treasure is buried. It’s not handed to us on a silver platter. It’s not spoon fed to us. It’s not for children but for adults and it’s time we grew up and stopped criticizing God for not meeting our own immediate and childish needs; time we examined who we really imagine God to be, deep down, unconsciously, as a sugar daddy, as a granter of wishes, or as something far richer and deeper and more infinitely believable.
Do nothing: because it’s the angels who will sort it all out, in time. It’s God who will make sense of all this, not us. Sooner or later. And we have to surrender to that, give in to that, with humility, which is hard, but also with trust, which is finally freeing. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. The challenge is just to be patient. The challenge is just to accept the way the world really is, in its subtleties and its mixed-upness, and the way we are, too. The challenge is to believe, is to have hope, and so to let the love beyond all love enter into us and enter into our situation and change us and change others, and to believe that it can, that He can, and to believe that He will, to believe that everything can change, and that it will, and that it always is. That whatever is intractable will be moved. That whatever is unsolvable will be solved. Will be softened. Will be opened. Will be found.
Just not in the way we expected it to be. Just not in the way we wanted it to be. In a better way: far, far easier, far more joyful, far more playful, far more multiple and leveled and layered.