Gospel of the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus said to His disciples: 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.
47 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. 48 When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. 49 Thus it will be at the end of the age. The Angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
51 “Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And He replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt 13:44-52).
I – Why Speak in Parables?
The Gospel selected by Holy Church, infallible Teacher of the truth, for this 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time corresponds to the final passage of chapter 13 of St. Matthew, in which Our Lord teaches through metaphors: “All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed He said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world’” (13: 34-35).
He explained the meaning of the allegories privately to His disciples, in order to instruct them properly and prepare them to be the teachers of the Church, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains.1 The crowds who listened to Him, however, were unable to penetrate the mysteries of the Good News announced by Jesus. In this sense, He shows himself severe with those who listened to Him, for a simple reason: their hearts were far from the truth because, imbued with a utilitarian spirit, they only wanted to benefit from the miracles worked by the Divine Thaumaturge. The perspective of a change of life in the line of sanctity, insistently requested by the Saviour, did not matter to them. There He was, according to their deviated concepts, an outstanding Prophet, capable of resolving the most adverse situations through extraordinary prodigies, which made life safer and more pleasant. Such a prospect attracted not only good people, but also countless opportunists.
Therefore, when asked by His followers why He preached to the people in parables, Our Lord rigorously replied: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given. […] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for Me to heal them’” (Mt 13:11-15).
In the opposite sense, the three parables proposed in today’s Gospel seem to be spoken privately, in the intervals between the Lord’s various sermons. Questioned by the Master, the disciples affirm that they have understood their meaning, a sign of being in harmony with Revelation. In the light of the comments made by the Angelic Doctor, let us meditate on these divine teachings, of extreme importance for every believer.
II – Abundance, Beauty and Ecclesiality
According to St. Thomas, in these parables, Our Lord intends to show those who are closest to Him the dignity of His teaching by emphasizing three aspects of the Gospel doctrine: abundance, when He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a treasure hidden in a field; beauty, when He equates it to a pearl; and ecclesiality, when He refers to a fisherman’s net in which a multitude of fish are gathered up.
There is yet another aspect to be stressed: the fact that the Kingdom of Heaven is of such lofty sublimity that it justifies leaving everything to acquire it.
As Our Lord will later emphasize in the episode of the rich young man, all created things become nothing and dust in comparison with the spiritual quality of eternal salvation, purchased by Him at the high price of His Most Precious Blood: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mt 19:21).
The abundance of sacred doctrine
Jesus said to His disciples: 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.”
Just as a treasure is characterized by an abundance of riches, the doctrine of the Holy Gospel consists in the profusion of wisdom, leaving human knowledge behind, however subtle or elevated it may be. And why is it a hidden prize? Because it is not for everyone.
Indeed, impure hearts cannot find it, which explains the lack of understanding that the truly Christian way of life produces in the great men of the world. Our Lord’s words to the Father point in the same direction: “Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Mt 11:25).
Analysing this aspect with precision and unction, the genius of St. Thomas discovers in it still other meanings. Sometimes certain very lofty realities must be hidden out of caution, in order to avoid envy. Moreover, just as the heat of a fire becomes concentrated within a closed place, so the treasure of the Word of God warms the fervour of charity more intensely when it is lovingly guarded in the heart. Finally, not displaying it superficially prevents its true value from being obscured by the sin of vainglory, as would happen to the flame if exposed to the wind.
On the other hand, the treasure properly symbolizes the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which contains all the riches of wisdom and knowledge. The Kingdom of Heaven, therefore, is identified with the Person of Our Lord, considered in the fullness of His holiness, as the Redeemer who extends His salvific action to men. The field, in its turn, represents the fertile and virginal soil of Holy Church, which conceals the Divine Treasury. Having found the Mystical Bride of Christ, we must leave everything in order to belong entirely to her, participating in the infinite riches she offers us.
Beauty and sublimity of Gospel teaching
“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.”
To compare the Kingdom of Heaven to a pearl of great price is to highlight the beauty of the Gospel message, proclaimed by the Word of God Incarnate himself, who opens the gates of Heaven to lead us there.
Recalling that St. Gregory the Great relates the pearl to heavenly glory, since this is the greatest good to be desired, St. Thomas cites the Psalm that says: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (27:4).
There is yet another, more sublime meaning in the parable, taken from the first: since substantial Beauty is infinitely superior to all created beauty, God the Son must be preferred absolutely to every creature, which gives full meaning to the obligation to sell everything in order to acquire the Divine Pearl.
Finally, Aquinas proposes another interpretation, based on St. Augustine. All the virtues can be compared to precious pearls, but among them one stands out for its importance: charity. Because it is the queen of the virtues and the most outstanding perfection of the most holy humanity of Our Lord, it is preferable to all goods, as the Apostle of the Gentiles emphatically recalls: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).
The wicked shall be separated
47 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. 48 When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away.”
In commenting on these verses, St. Thomas emphasizes the ecclesiality of the Gospel doctrine as a common participation in great goods. The sea represents the world, and the nets represent the Church, in which fish of various sizes and species are collected. The universality of salvation is a characteristic of the New Testament, since the law of the Gospel gathers all men. Not everyone, however, takes advantage of it, as is well illustrated in the parable of the sower, narrated in this same chapter of Matthew (cf. Mt 13:4-9). Some hearts make themselves infertile ground, stony or full of bad weeds that prevent the seed from germinating and growing, just as there are unwanted fish in the fisherman’s net.
Indeed, during our period of trial in this world, God allows tares to grow up among the wheat, and bad fish to mingle with the good, but they will be separated at the end of time. Only at the end of time? In an absolute and definitive way, yes. However, in the course of history the Lord allows certain separations to take place, in order to preserve the life and holiness of His Church.
If we recall, for example, the Arian heresy, its expansion, preponderance and power, we can calculate to what extent Our Lord Jesus Christ had to intervene with irresistible force in favour of His immaculate Spouse, who had been profaned, humiliated and seriously weakened by the spread of false doctrine. However, thanks to the intervention of God’s arm, orthodoxy triumphed.
This fills us with confidence, since even today the Church is the target of attacks and conspiracies, often coming – it pains us to say – from those who with the greatest respect and veneration should give their lives to protect it. On the contrary, by making diabolical use of their influence, they seek to dishonour, distort and sully it, in an always futile attempt to transform it into a branch of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rv 3:9).
None of this should frighten the faithful who, gathered under the mantle of Mary Most Holy, await with unwavering confidence the help from Heaven promised at Fatima and in so many other apparitions approved by the Church. God will intervene and triumph, as happened in the millennia preceding us. This time, however, considering the particular horror of the evil that ravages the Church and the world, we will undoubtedly witness an intervention unprecedented in rigour, power and mercy.
There are only two ways
49 “Thus it will be at the end of the age. The Angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
Having made the separation portrayed in the preceding verse, Our Lord now points out that, with regard to eternal destiny, there is no third way: one ultimately either goes to Heaven or to hell. Those who claim to lead a correct life – in reality mediocre or lukewarm – form a multitude, and thus think they can bridge the gap between good and evil. The end of the world, however, places us before the only true alternative: salvation or damnation.
Who will cross the glorious gates of Paradise? The very sequence of the parables tells us. Only those who know how to give due value to the hidden treasure and the precious pearl will be made, in the words of St. Paul, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). Those who, while avoiding criminal extremes, have lived outside the practice of the Commandments – and here it should be remembered that the first of these is the most forgotten and the most relevant – will be cast into the furnace of fire by the Angels of justice. In view of this reality, it can be concluded that, to God one either gives all or gives nothing…
At the present time, unfortunately, preaching on the dogmatic truth of hell has fallen into oblivion, when it is not viewed with suspicion, as something outdated. Nevertheless, on fifteen occasions Our Lord threatens His hearers with this eternal punishment, reserved for those who, preferring their selfishness or enslaving themselves to their passions, turn their backs on God, who alone has the right to be loved above all things. Let us not lose sight of the last things and we will avoid the everlasting failure announced in the Book of Revelation: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (21:8).
The Old Testament explained in the light of the New
51 “Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And He replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
The disciples were examined by the Lord and passed the test well. They had understood the spiritual meaning hidden in the parables, so that they were preserved from the curse of Isaiah referred to at the beginning of these lines. They were enlightened by the light of the Holy Spirit, thanks to the reverence they had for Jesus and their union of hearts with Him.
This is why the Divine Master then calls them “teachers of the Law”, no longer of the outdated Mosaic Law but of the Kingdom of Heaven. St. Thomas explains the meaning of this title clearly: they became heralds of Christ by writing His commandments on the tablets of their own hearts and those of others.
Jesus also compares them to the father of a family, since they had to generate the life of grace in the souls of their listeners through the preaching of the Divine Word and the distribution of the Sacraments. On the other hand, He states that it is necessary to draw out of the treasure of Revelation new and old things, because the Old Law, although full of valuable teachings, becomes clear in the light of the Gospel. Our Lord is preparing the Apostles to discover, especially after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the authentic spiritual meaning of everything contained in Scripture.
III – Let Us Give Ourselves Unreservedly to Jesus!
Although of sublime simplicity, the three parables of this Sunday are full of meaning and, above all, of demands. Listening to them implies an invitation to change our mentality completely, giving God the absolute predominance that is due to Him in every state of life. We must seal our hearts with His love and dedicate every moment of our lives to Him alone, which demands a radical attitude. It is necessary to understand, as previously said, that there are only two ways – the way to salvation and the way to perdition – and, faced with this alternative, to strive with all one’s interior strength to reach the longed-for goal of Heavenly Paradise.
Unfortunately, countless are the lukewarm Catholics who, at best, give a portion of their hearts to God, and the rest to the world. Concerning this class of superficial and sometimes false disciples, St. John warns: “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you” (Rv 3:1-3).
It is therefore vital to beware of the temptation to mediocrity. The cardinal virtues seek equity between two bad extremes. For example, fortitude overcomes faintheartedness and dominates reckless audacity. The same is not true, however, of the theological virtues, among which is charity. Because it refers directly to God, charity has no middle term. It is an extreme virtue, as St. Bernard teaches that “the measure of the love of God is to love Him without measure.”2 St. Thomas himself, in his famous hymn Adoro te devote, beseeches God: “Fac me tibi semper magis credere, in te spem habere, te diligere – Make me ever more believe Thy promise, hope in Thee, and love Thee.”
The mediocre or lukewarm person sins, as mentioned above, against the first and most important Commandment, which demands: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5). To be faithful to this precept, we need to concentrate our energies on this holy affection, striving to grow in it without ever growing tired or giving up, because the Most High is infinitely worthy of being loved.
Many, however, reduce this Commandment to the summary observance of a few acts of worship or to an indolent behaviour that limits itself to avoiding the most extreme moral deviations. Thus, by not living the Commandment of love well, they fall almost imperceptibly into the abyss of mortal sin and slavery to certain disordered passions. The Book of Revelation again tears the blindfold from the eyes of these mediocre persons, so that they may recognize their state and do penance: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (3:15-16).
A popular adage applies to God: all or nothing. To think of giving Him only a little or a part is an illusion. Faced with the inexhaustible goodness of God and the fascinating splendours of His incomparable beauty, there is only one thing we can do: set aside our attachment to creatures and give Him our heart completely, unconditionally and without reserve.
The Blessed Virgin Mary will be the intercessor of all those who, recognizing their weaknesses, know how to turn to Her and ask for this grace: to give everything to God, to give always and to give joyfully. ◊
1 In harmony with the homage that this issue of our magazine offers to the Angelic Doctor, the quotations and references in the present article were taken from: ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Lectura super Matthæum, c.13, lect.4.
2 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Tratado sobre el amor a Dios, c.VI, n.16. In: Obras Completas. 2.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1993, v.I, p.323.