Treasure Beyond Price

Seventeeth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I have been to Las Vegas just once in my life.  One summer a few years ago, I visited my brother and his family in San Diego. We then took a six hour drive across the desert to the city that boasts one operating slot machine for every eight residents and 15,000 miles of neon lighting. I am not drawn particularly to the excitement of the casino floor with their gambling tables and slot machines. We all know people who relish the joy of taking big risks with their money for the chance of getting even more money. Maybe you’re one of them. But I did spend five dollars on the quarter slot machines and I won twenty more. That’s a 400% return! So I quit while I was ahead. Besides, I would rather spend my money at the dinner buffet. That’s the one place I am guaranteed to come away with more than I had when I arrived.

The thrill of gambling comes from the possibility that you might get back more than you put in. Not much skill is required really except knowing when to take a risk and knowing when to fold.  But the payout depends entirely on what you are willing to lose. And unless the game is rigged (and I don’t want to hear it), you have about the same odds of winning as any other person, regardless of how much you put down. The problem is you have the same exact odds of losing. The nickel slot machines of Las Vegas pay out on average 87 to 93% of the time. So odds are good you will win something back each time you play. Some questions to consider though: What do you really hope to gain? A momentary satisfaction? A lasting joy? And how much are you willing to risk?

When we participate in games of chance, where winning is entirely independent of any intellectual or physical skills, from casino style games and coin slot machines to church bingo and state approved lotteries, whether for pure entertainment purposes or to satisfy a potentially destructive addiction, we take risks that are totally elective and unnecessary to living full and productive lives. But we take these risks with every hope that just one positive outcome will greatly enhance our lives and increase the potential for even more positive outcomes. I’m sure you think about it every time you buy a lottery ticket, or at least the first few dozen times.  What would you do with all that money if you win? Hmm. You would definitely retire the mortgage, the car payments and those college loans. Then you could get a bigger house, a couple more cars and take care of the kids’ or grandkids’ college education. Then you could invest in stocks, go on a cruise or get a wardrobe makeover while fending off new-found neighbors and relatives who show up at your door. Then when you become popular, you get to do the rounds of the morning and late night TV and radio talk shows, maybe get to mingle with the rich and famous, get invited to some award shows or to host something on MTV, whatever. You’d be in the tabloids and the gossip columns of every newspaper in the country. Then maybe you would contribute to some successful political campaign and find yourself accepting an appointment as ambassador to France or Monaco or Canada. Or not … because you didn’t buy a ticket.

Scripture today asks us to consider an even more important question. What are we willing to risk to gain all? What are we willing to give up to gain the ultimate prize? But the ultimate prize is not something of an earthly nature, not wealth or popularity, not material possessions or the envy and admiration of others. Instead, if we could ask God for anything we wanted, as Solomon was invited to ask in the first reading, what would we ask? And just so we don’t make any rash decisions, we read how the young Solomon asked God the gift of wisdom. Wisdom simply understood, according to that very popular prayer, is the ability to tell the difference between accepting the things we cannot change and changing the things we can. It is the ability to choose wisely, to consider all possibilities and consequences before making a judgment, and then being humble enough to admit it when we make a bad judgment in hindsight. This request for wisdom God granted most willingly, and as an added bonus, God gave Solomon even greater wealth than his father David, greater popularity, material possessions and the envy and admiration of all.  But we might lament, God doesn’t do things like that anymore.  If you want a God like that, you’re asking for a genie.

Jesus offers for consideration a parable about a man who by sheer luck found a treasure buried in a field. He may have been working the field, he may have just been cutting across it on his way home. He went off, sold all he owned and bought the field. Another man who dealt in fine pearls found one of great value.  He too went off, sold all he owned and bought the pearl. If it were just these two parables, it is easy to conclude that when we find a treasure of great value, we should be willing to risk all to possess that treasure. But Jesus adds a third parable comparing the kingdom of God to a net thrown into the sea collecting fish of every kind. When the day’s catch is sorted, the good fish are kept, and all that is useless is thrown into the fire. This is wisdom, the ability to choose rightly.  How will we know that the treasure we have found is of any value? If we had wisdom, we would know. But wisdom is seldom appreciated by those who do not have it. So like Solomon, we should really be asking God for the gift of wisdom. And if God so wished to grant us everything else besides – wealth, popularity, material possessions, the envy and admiration of all – we would be more than grateful. But when was the last time the tabloids reported of a lottery winner who dealt with his windfall wisely?

The kingdom of God is that treasure in the field, that pearl of great price. If we gain the kingdom, we gain all. But do we truly desire what Jesus offers? It is a special concern that we the baptized, we who go to church regularly, we who are active in parish life, develop an indifference, a complacency toward the treasures of the kingdom Jesus offers. He is willing to give us forgiveness and mercy, peace of heart and mind, everlasting joy and all the gifts that the Holy Spirit brings, but often we are content with treasures of lesser value. If we asked for the gift of wisdom, we might understand the true value of the kingdom of God. Then we would be willing to risk all to possess it. What we need is the gift of wisdom. Pray for the gift of wisdom and understanding.