Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from the First Book of Kings, describes a conversation between God and King Solomon. Solomon had just been named king after the death of his father David. God promised to give Solomon whatever he wants. Solomon then mused that he was young and inexperienced. He said this: “Give your servant a heart to understand how to discern between good and evil.” God was pleased that he asked for this instead of wealth or long life and replied: “I give you a heart wise and shrewd as none before you has had and none will have after you.” In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as a treasure hidden in a field. When someone found it he sold off all he had and purchased the field.
I have to confess that when I was a child I didn’t much like these readings. I think many of us grew up at a time when children knew the question “what do you want” was a loaded question. If we asked for the hottest, newest toy, we were told that our request was foolish and we should have asked for something more responsible. How many times have we asked parents for ideas for gifts for their children and were told: “They have enough toys”?
And I think almost all of us sat in doctor’s waiting rooms and opened Highlights magazine to find the cartoon “Goofus and Gallant.” For those who didn’t have the pleasure, the cartoon depicted two children: one bad (Goofus) and one good (Gallant). Without fail they portrayed Goofus as making poor and selfish choices while Gallant makes good and generous choices. You can google Goofus and Gallant and find plenty of examples, but here’s my point: As children when we were asked what we wanted we knew that instead of asking for the newest toy we were supposed to ask for a book or a box of thank you notes.
And if the first reading weren’t enough, I looked at the Gospel and wondered about the guy who owned the land and sold it without knowing about the buried treasure. Simply put, he got screwed.
And OK, I still struggle. But let’s see what we can find.
We admire Solomon because he was overwhelmed and recognized that he was given a difficult job. All he needed to do was watch how his father, King David, struggled to lead his people. He didn’t see the mantle of leadership as a reward but as a responsibility. Good leaders command respect while bad leaders crave adulation and we’ve all experienced bosses and coworkers who cared little for the job and a great deal about how well they looked.
Solomon could have done that. He could have decided that he was smart enough to lead and decided that he was deserved power and long life. He could have decided that he earned his place on the throne and God should reward him by making him rich and popular. But he didn’t. Solomon recognized that he (and all of us) found himself in a place way beyond his abilities and he asked God for the ability to do the job his father gave him.
I have to confess a certain understanding of this. When I was barely 25 years old I found myself directing a 1,000 student CCD (Sunday School) program that also tasked me to begin a high school youth group program. My role would have been hard enough but it was made harder because while I wasn’t a priest I replaced a priest whose alcoholism made it impossible to hide his affair with a divorced woman in the parish (with six children). And while he left his job he didn’t leave the community, and several parishioners ran into him at the grocery store and PTA meetings.
I remember well my prayer during this time. I didn’t ask for a comfortable paycheck. I didn’t ask for an opulent office. I didn’t ask for prestige in the parish. And frankly, I didn’t get any of these. Instead I asked only for an ability to create a place where children were given the ability to learn about discipleship in Jesus and teenagers were given the chance to find a place for themselves that honored their values and made them proud to be Catholic.
And I got that. I held that job for three years and I’m still in touch with several adults, teenagers, and children who I served. I’m grateful for that job because it was a hard job and it also taught me what to value and ask for. Shortly after I arrived the parish got a new pastor who made it clear that he didn’t want me (and I reminded him that I didn’t choose him either).
Much like Solomon I asked for the gift of wisdom. Actually, Solomon asked for the ability to discern right from wrong but I think we can all call this the gift of wisdom. When I was a priest I spent countless hours listening to confessions. I thought often of this first reading as I listen to good, brave men and women (and children) who spoke to me about times that they failed to live up to their best selves. Many times I asked them to pray for the gift of wisdom and said this: “Wisdom allows us to make decisions in the moment that would be the same decisions we would make if we had time to discern what we should do.”
But wisdom does more than that. When we make good and wise decisions we set ourselves on a path that makes our next good decisions easier. If Solomon had asked God for wealth he would have been given a finite gift. At some point the wealth would have been spent and Solomon would have needed to go back to God, hat in hand, and ask for more wealth. If Solomon had asked for long life he likely would have found himself an old man wondering why his people were so demanding.
Instead he asked for wisdom and this gift allowed him to rule wisely and learn not only from his mistakes (of which he was not immune), but more importantly from his good decisions. It allowed him to learn from his decisions and make even better decisions, and it made him a good king. I dare not compare myself to King Solomon, but when I asked for that same gift of wisdom I gained the same benefit. Not everyone liked every choice I made but by the end of my tenure there most people supported me and liked the job I did.
And so can we redeem the Gospel? Perhaps. We don’t know what treasure was hidden in the field; maybe it was a pot of gold but maybe not. Maybe it was something as boring as good soil for growing crops. And the Gospel does not tell us (though I assume) that the owner of the field didn’t fully appreciate its value. But maybe the wisdom granted to Solomon also informed the person in the Gospel who sold his things of little value to purchase something of great value.
At the end of our lives we will look back on both our best decisions and our worst. Likely our worst decisions will have been made out of greed or impatience or fear. And our best decisions will have been made out of love, kindness, and generosity. And wisdom will allow us to choose between them.