17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 27, 2014

Many years ago, at a previous parish assignment, there was a permanent deacon who worked in the parish office; he loved to tell silly, old-fashioned jokes. I was reminded of one of those jokes when I read this Sunday’s Scriptures.

There was a man who had been feeling poorly. He had blurry vision and headaches. He had equilibrium problems and digestive problems. He was constantly irritable, and was unable to focus on any task for very long. He began to get very concerned about his health, and made an appointment to see his doctor. He described his symptoms to the doctor, and the doctor ran a series of tests. When the test results were in, the doctor explained to the man that there was no indication of disease, and no clues about the source of his symptoms.

The man was disconsolate, and asked, “Doctor, what am I going to do?” The doctor replied, “There is a technique that I’ve used in situations like yours; I’ve gotten very good results from it.” The man was desperate for help, and said, “I’ll do anything if it will improve my health.” The doctor said, “I want you to record your dreams over the next few weeks, and then come back to see me again.” The man was incredulous. “Really? Record my dreams? Are you joking?” The doctor replied, “I’ve had good results from this; just try it.”

A few weeks went by, and the man returned to the doctor’s office. He explained, “Doctor, I’m more worried now than I was when I first came to see you.” The doctor asked, “Why are you so worried?” The man replied, “One night I dreamed that I was a Wigwam.” The doctor nodded knowingly, repeated “Wigwam” to himself, and made a note in the man’s chart. The man continued, “Another night I dreamed that I was a Teepee.” The doctor said to himself, “Teepee,” and made another note in the chart.

The man asked, “Doctor, what does it mean?” The doctor replied, “I can tell you precisely what is causing all of your medical problems. You’re too tense.”

In today’s first reading, God appeared to Solomon in a dream, and says, “Whatever you ask I shall give you.” (1 Kings 3:5) Solomon asked for the wisdom to be a faithful servant to God and a good King for the people. Solomon demonstrated both faith and wisdom in making his request of God, and God’s response was fashioned to enhance Solomon’s wisdom and faith.

This is more than a quaint story about an ancient King; it is instruction to us about receiving guidance from God. In the ancient world, God was thought to speak routinely through dreams. This was both a normal means of communication, and an assurance that the message wasn’t being influenced by some third party. Dreams were considered reliable and trustworthy communication from God. Most people today don’t view dreams as communication from God, but God has not stopped communicating with God’s people.

God continues to speak words of consolation and guidance; it is our responsibility to attune our hearts to God’s guidance. The parables in today’s Gospel can help us know where to look for God’s guidance, and how to recognize it when it occurs.

The three parables in this Sunday’s Gospel speak about the Kingdom of God, but each speaks with an unique voice. The parable of the treasure buried in a field portrays the Kingdom of God as something found unexpectedly. Depending on how one reads the parable, the unexpected discovery of treasure is either serendipitous or dishonest. The parable of the pearl of great price portrays the Kingdom as the culmination of a long process of diligent search, and the parable of the great catch of fish portrays the Kingdom as a relationship for which one is selected by another.

How is it that the Kingdom of God can be an unexpected discovery, the result of a diligent search and the product of being chosen? These three would seem to be mutually exclusive. One way to view these parables is to see them as the different paths that people take to faith. Some come upon faith almost as if by accident. Some come to faith after a diligent search for God, and some are selected for the Kingdom by another.

It is likely that each of us can identify with one, or more, of these possible paths to faith. Each path has its own characteristics, and each tells us something about the ways in which God guides us. Moreover, in each circumstance, we can discern how God might lead us in the future.

Those who happened upon faith serendipitously might expect God to lead them to a greater appreciation of the many, hidden ways in which God works in the world. Those who come to faith by diligent search might expect God to show them how human will is created to work with God’s will. Those who are chosen for faith by another (e.g. most Catholics, who were brought to baptism as infants), might expect God to lead them to a personal, conscious appropriation of the gift given to them.

Today, in our culture, the most common and reliable form of communication that we can expect from God will probably come through the events in the world and our personal history rather than in dreams. Solomon received a gift from God that matched his life, talents and personality. He was very aware of the need for faith and wisdom; these were the gifts that God gave, and the means by which God guided Solomon. We can expect similar gifts and guidance, as long as we are attentive to God’s presence and action in the world.