Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Kings 3: 5, 7-12; Psalm 118 (119): 57, 72, 76-77, 127-130; Romans 8: 28-30; Matthew 13: 44-52
26 July 2020
Here in Victoria, we’ve had a tough week with three to four hundred new COVID-19 cases each day. Our health professionals are doing a heroic job, but the stress is showing. Old people in our hospitals and nursing homes are dying almost alone, with no prospect of their loved ones being allowed to gather at their bedside. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s announcement this week of ‘eye-watering’ economic statistics shows that all Australians will be doing it tough for a long time to come. We are probably stepping from recession to depression – territory unknown to most of us, and unimaginable when we celebrated the new year with the usual round of Aussie fireworks and parties just seven months ago.
In the midst of these woes and challenges, we hear a couple of brief punchy parables in today’s gospel about the kingdom of heaven. The field labourer discovers a treasure in the field. He knows what he wants. He sets about achieving his goal. He sells everything he owns. Then, and only then, is he able to buy the field on which he had set his sights.
The jewellery merchant discovers the pearl of great price. She knows she wants it. She sets about achieving her goal. She sells everything she owns. Then, and only then, is she able to buy the pearl on which she had set her sights.
This week, we celebrate the feast of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius was like that field labourer and that jewellery merchant. He knew what he wanted. He gave up everything to get it. And he went for it. In hindsight, his path looks clear and straight. It was anything but.
Ignatius had his own COVID and economic crises rolled into one when he was wounded in battle on 23 May 1521. Over the next month, his life was in the balance. He was bed-bound for 10 months undergoing various surgeries without anaesthetic. Over those months, he daydreamed and fantasised about all manner of things. Exploits which previously gave him pleasure lost their appeal. He found himself inspired by Jesus and some of the saints he read about.
Once he was able to walk again, he went on pilgrimage to the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, intending then to make his way as a pilgrim to Jerusalem. After an all-night vigil, he set out on his pilgrimage. He arrived at Manresa a short distance away, suspended his pilgrimage, and stayed there for another 11 months. For some of that time, he lived in a cave. At one stage he was suicidal. He had some profound spiritual experiences, including a vision by the River Cardoner. He said, ‘This left me with my understanding so greatly enlightened that it seemed to me that I was a different person, and I had another mind different than that which I had before’.
Over these 21 months of ‘COVID-recession type’ hibernation, Ignatius learnt the art of discernment, coming to a deep interior freedom, sensitive to the influences (good and bad) which were at work in him. He then focused single-mindedly on finding God in all things, and on choosing and doing that which was more productive in the praise, reverence and service of God. This required that he forego dreams like working in Jerusalem and that he do years of study culminating in an MA at the University of Paris and that he place himself and his companions at the service of the Pope.
With his deep interior freedom, his passion for service, and his vision of God’s action in the world, he was able to sell everything he owned, responding with great discipline, investing all in that pearl of great price.
After the disciples told Jesus that they understood these parables, Jesus told them: ‘every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old.’ For us, it’s not simply a matter of replicating what Jesus said and did 2000 years ago, nor of replicating what Ignatius Loyola said and did 500 years ago. We have to make sense of our own situation. We have to shape our own world. This past week, an Australian court has ruled on a long-running controversy between James Cook University and Professor Peter Ridd, an outspoken professor of physics who doubts much of the present orthodox thinking on damage being caused to the Great Barrier Reef. The judges said:
‘There is little to be gained in resorting to historical concepts and definitions of academic freedom. Whatever the concept once meant, it has evolved to take into account contemporary circumstances which present a challenge to it, including the internet, social media and trolling, none of which informed the view of persons such as J S Mill, John Locke, Isaiah Berlin and others who have written on the topic.’
They quoted with approval an American academic who has written:
‘[A] host of new challenges have arisen in recent years in response to the changing norms and expectations of the university. With the increasing role of the Internet in research, the rise of social media in both professional and extramural exchanges, and student demands for accommodations such as content warnings and safe spaces, the parameters of, and challenges to, academic freedom often leave us in unchartered territory.’
We’re always finding ourselves in a whole new world, and not just on issues like academic freedom. But then again, we are always being called back to discern and articulate what is good, true and beautiful. There must be some aspects of academic freedom which are perennial and which trump novel developments.
This past week, the Jesuit provincial announced that one of our Jesuit schools would sell a beachside campus, while investing $35 million on developing the school’s remaining two campuses and providing additional scholarships. The unanimous decision was made by the school board after a year of deliberation. The provincial wrote: ‘At this time of significant change, we acknowledge there will be sadness and loss associated with aspects of this announcement. However, we hope that there will also be openness to new ways of lifting up our hearts and minds as the Xavier Community gives expression to the living tradition of Jesuit education in Melbourne.’ A friend texted me, ‘This is an appalling decision Frank!’ I replied, ‘I wouldn’t know. I trust the school board is rightly informed, committed to due process and animated by the Ignatian ethos. For me to second guess the decision would be a return to old-time clericalism, methinks.’
Our world and our church are ever-changing. But in the changing context, we are called back to the quest for the deep interior freedom, to the passion for the treasure in the field and for the pearl of great price. We need the wisdom of Solomon who in today’s First Reading from the First Book of Kings asks for ‘a heart to understand how to discern between good and evil’. Solomon had the wisdom in the first place to ask for the gift of wisdom. He did not ask for long life, or riches, or for the lives of his enemies. Yahweh gave him a heart wise and shrewd.
One with such a heart was the late Fr Ted Stormon who was the dean here at Newman College from 1954 to 1962. Ted came from the west. He was a very learned man. When preaching at a community mass once, he told us the story of driving across the Nullarbor Plain. He rolled the car. As he slid along upside down, he wondered, ‘Am I ready to meet my Lord and Saviour?’ He said, Yes. Then he wondered, ‘Am I ready to meet Ignatius?’ He thought, No. He lived many more years to share his urbane wisdom and humane insights with generations of young Australians. He had the wisdom of Solomon.
While in hibernation, let’s pray for that deep interior freedom, being prepared to sell up all we have and are, being focused on the big prize – that treasured field, that pearl of great price, that kingdom to come which promises us life to the full. Meanwhile, let’s spare a thought and a prayer for those dying alone and for those caring for them fully vested in PPE wondering when this lockdown might end.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).