4:56 PM 7/27/2014 — If you were with us here at the Shrine last Sunday, you may remember how we struggled with the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, and how antithetical it is to our sense of justice to accept the fact that good is rewarded and evil is punished not here on earth, but in the life to come. We chafe at that idea: we want to see the wicked punished now, we want to see those who wrong us get their comeuppance before our eyes, and we want the good we do to be rewarded in the here and now while we can bask in its glory. And I had suggested to you that this attitude is grounded in a lack of faith. We try to go through the motions of believing our Lord: we confess our sins, we grieve for the wrong we've done to others, we offer prayers and sacrifices for the outrages committed against our Lord, our Blessed Mother, our Church; but, when push comes to shove, and some tragedy comes our way, we just can't help ourselves, and find ourselves asking that perennial question of doubt: “I've lived a good life; why is God letting this happen to me?” It's part of our human nature to feel that way in spite of the lesson our Lord taught us in the parable of last Sunday's Gospel.
Today's Gospel lesson, which is a continuation of the same passage, hammers this same point home, but even more forcefully. Our Lord speaks of fishermen casting their nets, and hauling in all kinds of fish: fish worth keeping and fish worth throwing back. It's only after they haul the nets up onto the deck that they sit down to sort them out, at which point our Lord adds those striking words:
So it will be when the world is brought to an end; the angels will go out and separate the wicked from the just, and will cast them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping, and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 13:49-50).
…the operative words in that passage being, “…when the world is brought to an end…”; not before. And, as I said last week, that's a hard truth to accept.
But it's not the only parable contained in today's Gospel. The Gospel begins with two very brief parables, each no more than a sentence in length: the treasure buried in a field, and the pearl of great price. In each case, someone stumbles upon something he's wanted all his life, and goes and sells everything he has in order to obtain it. And those lovely stories are sandwiched in between the two very harsh lessons of last week and which end the Gospel this week. And I can't help but think that our Lord desires to say something to us by doing that. And to understand what that might be, we would do well to look at the first lesson of today's Mass, the reading from the First Book of Kings.
Solomon is very young. He's just inherited the throne from his father, King David, and he doesn't know what to do. So, the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Ask me, and I'll give you whatever you want.” And what does Solomon ask for? He doesn't ask for money, or a long life, or for God to punish his enemies;—all the things that you and I might ask for—instead, he asks God for an understanding heart, to know the difference between right and wrong, so that he can rule God's people with mercy and justice. And the Lord is so pleased with this, he says to Solomon:
For this request of thine…thou shalt be rewarded. Thou didst not ask for a long life, or riches, or vengeance upon thy enemies, but for wisdom to administer justice. Thy prayer is granted; hereby I grant thee a heart full of wisdom and discernment, beyond all that went before thee or shall come after thee. And I grant thee moreover all thou didst not ask for; in wealth, in glory, no king that ever was may compare with thee. And if thou wilt follow the paths I have chosen for thee, as thy father did, keeping charge and commandment of mine, long life thou shalt have too (I Kings 3:11-14).
For Solomon, the pearl of great price was a heart full of wisdom, and what he desired more than anything else in the world was to know and do the will of God. And it is certain to me that this is the context in which our Lord desires us to hear his parables; as our Responsorial Psalm today said:
I have said, O lord, that my part
is to keep your words.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces (Psalm 119:57).
And what was the response that we all said together? “Lord, I love your commands.” Now, who in his right mind wants to be commanded? The answer is: the one who loves God. And if we love God, and love him above all else, then we won't want to see a mere human justice done on this earth, we won't want to see those who have wronged us convinced of their wrong and come crawling back begging for forgiveness at our feet, we won't want all the material things that we think should come our way because we've been faithful to our Lord, our Lady and our Church. We'll be content to leave that in God's hands, where it truly belongs.
And here, I think, we can begin to understand what last week's Mass and today's Mass are really all about: the forgotten virtue, the one virtue that we all know from our catechism, but that none of us ever think much about: the virtue of Hope. It's the denial of the virtue of hope that causes us to look for what we want here on earth, and it's cultivating the virtue of hope that inspires us to look forward to the life to come. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in treating the virtue of hope, quotes some of the most beautiful words ever written about it, from St. Teresa of Avila, and it's with those words I'll leave you:
Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end (St. Teresa of Avila, Excl. 15:3).