A few years ago, I started teaching a unit called "Biblical Themes" in the parish Confirmation Prep program. I was given six 90-minute sessions to work with, and no curricula whatsoever. Since I was recruited for the task a mere week before classes were to begin, I didn’t have a lot of time to plan out the program, but I relished the idea of having such free reign to come up with six Biblical lessons for the high school kids.
I quickly sketched out a plan of study that I can only describe now as grossly optimistic. It involved touching each week on the Biblical meaning of one of six important concepts: revelation, covenant, sin, faith, righteousness, and salvation.
About halfway through the third class, I finally made it out of the first lesson. Needless to say, I did some serious adjustment to the plan, and completely re-worked it the next time I taught it, focusing the whole unit on the reality of the Bible as God’s Word.
So I found myself, the second time through, trying to show about 20 high school kids how they can encounter Christ in Scripture, and taking the opportunity to perhaps reiterate the importance of some moral and religious duties. Yet I wondered if I was using the time well. These kids already knew the moral law, after all, and they already knew that God can be found in the Bible.
But, as was apparent during our lessons, they weren’t in the habit of going to the Scriptures to find God. So, I thought: Instead of spending my time telling them what they already know – at least at a basic level – perhaps I should be trying to understand why they’re not pursuing their ready opportunities to encounter God. It dawned on me pretty quickly that their knowledge of God was probably such that it was leading them to conclude that, if they did open the Bible to find God, He’d likely tell them, so to speak, to clean their rooms. What they really needed was to hear the Gospel.
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
1Ki 3:5,7-12; Rom 8:28; Mt 13:44-52
44 "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. 46 When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.
Matthew 13:44-46 (NAB)
At just that time, I was involved in putting together a reflection on two of the mini-parables in this Sunday’s Gospel reading: the Hidden Treasure, and the Pearl of Great Price. In both parables, a man gives up all that he has to possess the treasure he found.
As I found myself thinking about the best way to use Scripture to convey to my high school charges God’s love and yearning for them, I considered extrapolating on John 3:16, but decided it might come off as too cliche. It was early winter, when John the Baptist appears in the liturgical readings, and I got to thinking about how John’s insight "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3:30) was recapitulated by Paul, in a post-Ascension context, when, in Galatians, he says:
"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Galatians 2:20 (NASB)
It struck me that the Son of God could not have given up more than Himself; that like the man in the parable who gave up his all to possess the hidden treasure, Christ has given up His all to possess the Church. This is the same essential message as John 3:16; it is the heart of the Gospel.
We’re accustomed to hearing this parable in quite different terms – that the treasure is the Kingdom of God that the wise disciple is willing to give up everything to possess (c.f. Mark 10:17-31), but I think Matthew primarily has something else in mind.
The parable of the Hidden Treasure (like that of the Pearl of Great Price) is set in the midst of a series of parables in chapter 13 of Matthew, which all suggest God as the subject and principal actor (the person), and the disciples/church as the acted upon objects (seed, wheat, yeast, fish).
It seems clear to me that the Lord is trying to tell us in these parables, not so much about what our priorities should be – as important as that is to understand – but just how much He thinks of us, and what we’re worth to Him.
My friend, in God’s eye, you are that pearl of great price whom He has given up all He has to possess. Next time you see a high school kid, see if you can find a way to convey that message – it’s the gospel truth.
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Deuteronomy 7:6 (NRSV)