The passage of Matthew’s gospel we have just read is a continuation, the third episode if you will, in the parables of the Kingdom series. Earlier we looked how following Jesus has the potential to completely transform the world and the society we live in, as Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast used to leaven the dough. Today Jesus teaches us on how the same Kingdom should also completely transform each one of us as he compares his followers to both a man and a merchant who drastically change their lives after discovering something amazing.
The parables of the treasure and of the pearl seem to mirror one another but their small differences gives us complementary views of what the Kingdom of Heaven should mean for every Christian. On one hand the treasure represents the sum of the many, abundant blessings and graces the Lord bestows on us through faith; the treasure also speaks to us of the joy of knowing Christ as we read that, once the man discovers the treasure he ‘goes off happy’ (Matt 13:44). On the other hand, the pearl represents the incomparable beauty of following the Lord through a life of faith, something that, once experienced, exceeds everything else. Both the treasure and the pearl show their splendour freely and openly to the characters in the parables, and in the same way the gospel and Christian teachings can be looked up openly and freely by anyone, but just looking at them is not enough. Much like the Hunchback of Notre Dame says in the story ‘Life is not a spectator sport’, so to look at the treasure that is the knowledge of Christ and to behold the beauty of the pearl that is following him is not what the Lord intends for us. We are not meant to be spectators, and after discovering the treasure and the pearl we must do our best to acquire them for ourselves, to lay hold on of the blessings and beauty of the Christian life, and to get involved in it.
But how do we do acquire the treasure and the pearl? The parables say that both characters invest all their fortunes to make their purchases. Then, in the same way, each one of us should sell everything he or she owns and buy the treasure…
Later on in Matthew’s gospel Jesus instructs a prospective disciple saying,
‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ (Matt 19:21).
And in another place he also says,
‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven’ (Matt 6:19).
So we could take the teaching of these parables as a commandment and strive to follow it face value. By dispossessing ourselves for the sake of the following Jesus and out of compassion for others we would certainly trade in our riches for blessings, and acquire treasures in heaven, taking hold on the pearl of great beauty that is the Christian life.
But there is another way of interpreting the parables. Selling everything we own, should first of all represent emotional detachment from the things of this world and its affairs. Actually giving away all that is superfluous is incredibly generous and highly honourable, but it would do us little spiritual good if then we found ourselves immersed in resentment and ungratefulness… So when the parable says that the men sold everything, this should speak to us about freeing ourselves of those emotions, things, and bad habits that distract us from God or actively lead us away from him.
The blessedness, beauty, and unquenchable joy of following Jesus stands before us each day as the most valuable treasure or the rarest of pearl. Let us then each day make an effort to rid ourselves of anger, envy, self-centredness, and spiritual apathy so that by trading in joy, gratitude, selflessness, and devotion from the Lord we may have enough to purchase for ourselves the treasures of the Christian life, and in the world to come, the life of heaven. Amen.
Luke 1:57-66, 80
‘His name is John.’ Luke 1:63
I guess that for many people, including the evangelists Matthew and Mark, St John the Baptist is more easily remembered in connection with his death, when his severed head was delivered on a platter by King Herod to his stepdaughter. But, taking our inspiration form Luke’s gospel, today we celebrate his birth of St John, the only other saint apart from the Virgin Mary, whose birthday is kept by the Church as a solemnity. This is because John’s birth, like that of Our Lady, signalled the end of the Old Testament era, and the beginning of the New Covenant between God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
From its very beginning John’s story assumes various similarities with previous Old Testament texts. For example, we have just read in the gospel that John is born from elderly parents, who many considered forgotten by God on account of their childlessness. His birth comes as a vindication of Zachariah and Elizabeth’s trust in God, much as the births of Isaac and Samuel did for their parents before them; a vindication expressed in the child’s own name, John, meaning “God is gracious” or “God has shown favour”.
But this is not all. Even as an infant, John challenges the social norms of his time when these become a distraction from God; for example, the name “John” is not in line with the traditions of the elders – something that, as we have read, causes much perplexity. Later on, John does not follow in his father’s and ancestors’ footsteps as a priest at the Jerusalem Temple, but he goes off – probably at a young age – to live in the desert in order to devote himself more fully to God and to prepare himself to be ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord”’ (Mark 1:3). As an adult, John embraces his call to prepare the people of Israel for the arrival of Jesus. He continues to be an almost contradictory figure, who at the same time challenges injustice and immorality with really tough words, but who also offers God’s loving forgiveness, and a second chance, to all those who step into the Jordan to be baptised. However, perhaps John’s most striking features are his personal humility and deep commitment to his vocation. We see this most clearly later in the gospels. When people begin to wonder whether or not John is the Christ he simply dismisses their speculations, and he points people towards Jesus. He says,
‘Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal’ (John 1:27).
St John the Baptist holds a place of special honour in the church; he is acknowledged as the last of the prophets – standing, as he did, on the watershed between the Old and the New Testaments – and, more importantly, he is the precursor, the forerunner, the one who went ahead to prepare the way for Jesus and his Kingdom. Indeed, the fourth gospel describes him, as a ‘man sent by God… who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him’ (John 1:6-7). But perhaps because of this, John could be easily set aside as one of those key saintly figures that have little to teach us in practice. Yet, his example of faith should inspire all Christians to prepare the way for the Lord in our world – to be the ones sent by God as witnesses to the light, so that all might believe through us. This is all the more true now than ever before, when in our post-Christian society so many people do not know the Lord at all.
Our vocation then, like John’s, is to challenge the injustice of our times, to subvert those popular customs that distract from God, to embrace the Christian life to which we were all called, and to point people towards Jesus Christ – the only source of true life.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
This morning we come to the end of our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments by looking at the last two instructions – “two”, if we use the traditional numbering, or “last one”, if we used the Anglican.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Deuteronomy 5:21)
These last two commandments are precisely the reason behind my preference for the traditional numbering over the Anglican one, which tends to lump together people, animals, personal belongings, and everything else under the Sun in the same precept.
In truth, there is a strong similarity between the two commandments, because both tell us not to unhealthily long after someone or something not available to us. But the Old Testament expressed this idea by using two distinct words in order to highlight the difference between the sense of desire we might experience towards someone else’s wife or husband, and the craving we might feel for something. Because, at the end of the day, a person (such as a wife) and a thing (such as a house or a field) do not belong in the same category and neither should the commandments controlling how we relate to them. The last commandment does mentions people, ‘you shall not desire your neighbour’s …male or female slave’ but only insofar as these servants – especially if numerous and capable – were seen as expressions of their master’s social status.
So, the ninth commandment is primarily a call to refrain from lusting after a person not available to us; whilst the tenth commandment forbids us from wrongly desiring anything whatsoever another person might possess. By keeping them both we would go a long way in keeping also the preceding eight rules because healthy, or orderly desires, lead to sound actions as well.
Conversely, failure to keep these two commandments can be understood in terms of the surreptitious vice of envy, or jealousy, which sooner or later will lead us to break the other commandments as well... But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would see that giving in to envy is a daily temptation for many of us – especially since we are surrounded by a culture where we are continually told that to be the object of envy is a great thing, a where envy of other people’s prosperity is the driving forces behind our consumerism, or at least behind most advertising campaigns.
But we would do well to resist this temptation. Envy is unbecoming to a Christian, ‘for just as rust destroys iron, so too does envy destroy the soul that has it’ (St Basil, Homily on Envy). It is a dangerous spiritual illness that makes our greed to grow exponentially. Under its effects we come to desire inappropriate relationships with people not available to us, and to crave the possession of things that do not belong to us. Envy can also drive us to feel distress at the prosperity of others, resentful towards those people that this disease has wrongly made out to be our rivals, and even to feel cheerful at their misfurtunes.
So what is the remedy against envy? And how can we keep the last two commandments? Sheer will-power can do only so much, but there are other two complementary ways to be immunised against envy. The first one is to take love as our yardstick once again. Loving our neighbours as ourselves will necessarily prevent us from coveting their fortunes in an attempt of making these our own. Furthermore, by loving our neighbours we will learn to exercise kindness, which is the habit diametrically opposed to envy. Instead of being distressed at the prosperity of others or happy at their demise, we will learn to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [and to] live in harmony with one another’ (Rom 12:15-16)
The second way to root out envy and to keep the commandments is learning to depend on God’s Providence. I spoke about this a few weeks back, but putting our ultimate trust in Providence is truly an essential tool for overcoming envy – if we really make God’s love for us the foundation of our existence, then no-one else’s wealth, husband, wife, or social status will ever cause us to be envious. And eventually we will be able to genuinely say with St Paul,
‘we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these’ (1Tim 6:7-8).