17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

The treasure in a field, the pearl of great value
(Readings: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52)
Introduction to Mass
Conventional religion is often a surface commitment that doesnít really take hold of a person and transform him or her. Genuine acquaintanceship with God, on the other hand, is something which, once we experience it, we place at the centre of our lives. We become willing to surrender everything else which previously we had thought so important.
Often our commitment to Godís Reign is far from wholehearted, so for those times we apologise to God and ask him to strengthen our faith.
One of the things that have shaped the modern world - the western world, at any rate - is the value placed on freedom.
We believe that everyone should have freedom of conscience Ė people should decide for themselves what moral values and principles they follow. We believe in freedom of expression - everyone should be free to express his or her opinions about politics, for example, and what the government is doing without being silenced or thrown into prison, as under a dictatorship.
And especially now, with the spread of the global market, thereís a widespread belief in freedom of choice or consumer freedom - the freedom to choose between a large variety of products and services.
Having these kinds of freedom are something that we tend to take for granted. We think we have a natural right to them. But, as always, because human nature is weak and imperfect, thereís often a less benign aspect to the possession or the exercise of freedom, as we understand it.
Some people, for example, can be so anxious to safeguard their own freedom to do exactly what they want, and not be restricted by anything, that their "right" to freedom becomes a kind of selfishness, a type of self-assertion. They don't recognise any duties or commitments to other people, because that limits their freedom of movement.
Commitment to people, to relationships, to beliefs and ideals become endlessly negotiable rather than binding. Even when we use the language of solemn promises, we really have the model of the short-term business contract in mind: open-ended, subject to various conditions.
Another less beneficial aspect of this modern idea of freedom is that, when you have an almost total freedom to choose what moral values and principles you want to live by, it doesn't necessarily lead to great self-fulfilment for everyone.
What it actually leads to very often is a deep confusion, and bewilderment. People can experience a loss of direction or purpose in life or a collapse of personal identity.
Iím not an expert in the field of mental health, but my impression is that at least some of the many mental problems which affect people in our society can be traced back to a confusion or an inability to reach a basic judgement about what to believe and what moral values to hold to. The individuals concerned feel adrift, and are adrift, and that makes them very unhappy, of course.
Jesus was somebody who knew what human beings' deepest needs were, and he knew that the total freedom that we tend to idolise isn't something that liberates people, it's something that enslaves them. He knew that we need something at the centre of our lives to be committed to, to find our security in - and for Christ, that something was the Kingdom of God.
The images of the parables in the gospel this Sunday about finding treasure in a field, or a pearl of great value, might seem to us to have an almost fairy-tale quality about them, but the point is that for the disciple, there's something absolute about God's Kingdom.
Once we've discovered where real happiness lies, in communion with God, and in the sense of close kinship with our fellow human beings which flows out of that communion with God, we don't mind giving everything else up for it. It becomes a force that fills our whole life, and it carries its own reward. Other goals, previous ambitions, are seen as inferior and become unimportant.
Unlike a lot of Jesus' other parables, these ones are addressed to the disciples as individuals - they're about each individual's commitment to God's Kingdom. We're all supposed to ask ourselves: what's my attitude to God and God's Reign? Do I treat it like treasure in a field, or a valuable pearl, which is worth selling everything else for?
Many people today who are brought up as Christian believers reach a point, maybe in late childhood or adolescence, when they donít see religion, or faith in God, as very important or relevant. When that happens some of them drift away from the Church and never come back. They find their values and their sense of identity elsewhere.
But for others, faith in the Christian message is re-discovered. The religion of childhood Ė part of the ideas and values which children accept without analysing them until theyíre older - is replaced by an adult faith, and the mark of an adult faith is that itís a commitment held by a definite personal decision.
Very few people today remain Christians just because their parents brought them up with it or because they went to a faith school.
The person who believes in God as an adult today is someone with their own definite personal experience of God, someone who prays to God, reflects hard on Jesusí often difficult teaching, and actually takes on the vision of God's Kingdom that he talked about.
People who spend time in those activities find that they are led forward in their faith. Self-serving, worldly priorities get left behind and they are drawn towards God's priorities, into God's life, in fact. Eventually God is recognised as a treasure, a pearl, and those who have discovered him are prepared to surrender everything else to possess him.
In the first reading today, King Solomon asks for discernment. He asks for the gift from God to be able to see things truthfully. For us to be able to see God's Kingdom, and where our true happiness lies, we need the same kind of discernment, because it isn't always obvious and a lot of our experience actually gives the opposite impression.
So this Sunday we can pray the way Solomon did, for the wisdom to see things properly, to gain a truthful knowledge of God and God's ways, and for the commitment that makes God's Reign the reality that everything else in our lives revolves around.