Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the psalter, ingeniously constructed. Not only is it an acrostic with verses beginning with successive letters of the alphabet, all twenty-two of them, but is an expansive acrostic. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by eight verses – eight times twenty-two for a total of 176 verses. Thus verses 1-8 begin with ׳aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, verses 9-16 with beth, the second letter, and so on. As if this were not enough, there are eight synonyms for “Law” which are woven throughout the poem: teachings, decrees, precepts, laws, commands, edicts, words, promises. Very few of the verses do not have one of them.
As long as it is and as complex is its structure, one might expect that it is also difficult to understand. However, the key to its meaning lies in the word “law” or the Hebrew “torah.” When we think of law, we suddenly conjure up images of what we must do and what we must not do. The law says that we must pay our taxes. It also tells us that we should not go faster than forty-five miles per hour on Highway 45. However, the word “torah” means something else entirely – it means instruction. The word instruction implies something that we don’t usually consider part of the law. For instruction to be at all worthwhile, one must listen and eventually understand. If one does not listen and does not understand, then the Torah, the instruction, does little or has little effect.
When God tells Solomon to ask for something, Solomon first demonstrates that he understands that his kingship is something that he has already received from God. "O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act.” This act of humility on Solomon’s part sets the stage for an incredible request. “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” The words “understanding heart” in this verse could also be translated “listening heart.” In fact some translations of the Bible do just that. Solomon asks for the ability to listen and to understand. God is so pleased by this request that Solomon not only receives his request, he also gets the perks that come with it. For if we read a little further than the verses given in the lectionary, we hear God say: “In addition, I give you what you have not asked for: I give you such riches and glory that among kings there will be no one like you all your days. And if you walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and commandments, as David your father did, I will give you a long life.”
Solomon’s desire to act with wisdom is the key to his wealth, his victory over his enemies, and to his long life. Even today, thousands of years later, we speak of the Wisdom of Solomon when we speak of someone who, in our estimation, has it all together. Solomon asked to be able to listen and to understand.
Fast forward to the Gospel we heard today. After speaking to the disciples in parables, parables which we have heard for the last three Sundays, Jesus asks his disciples a powerful question: “Do you understand all these things?” They answer in the affirmative. Have they really listened? Do they really understand? Subsequent chapters of the Gospel seem to indicate that they did not completely understand what Jesus was saying. Even though the Gospel tells us that they have left everything to follow Jesus, toward the end of the Gospel, they will run away and leave Jesus alone to be executed by his enemies.
If they had really understood what Jesus was saying, they would have realized that the treasure and the pearl of which Jesus speaks in the parables are, as he says, like the Kingdom of God. They are there simply waiting to be discovered. The treasure and the pearl were found, discovered. In other words, they are not the product of our own labors and efforts. God’s Kingdom is there waiting to be discovered, waiting to be found. Towards the end of the Gospel, the disciples will ask Jesus if the time for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom is about to happen. They obviously don’t understand that it has been there all the time.
What does this have to say to us? Have we found the treasure or the pearl of great price? If we have found it, have we been able to acquire it for ourselves? According to the parable, the treasure is so great that in order to acquire it, one would have had to find the resources necessary in order to purchase the field or to purchase the pearl. That involves selling things off, things not nearly as valuable, in order to acquire the treasure.
What must we get rid of? What must we lose in order to acquire? In other parts of the Gospel, we are told that if we wish to save our life, we must lose it. We are told that if we wish to be first in the Kingdom of God, we must be last. If we wish to be served, we must serve others. Did the disciples really understand all of this? Do we understand all of this?
The answer to those questions is not easy, which brings us back to Solomon. Solomon asked for a listening or understanding heart. In order to listen and to understand, we have first to hear. This means that we have to constantly plumb the depths of the Scriptures, we have to open the Scriptures and listen to the Word of God over and over and over again. If we wish to understand, if we wish to possess a place in God’s kingdom, we must constantly reevaluate, reread, and reacquire the message that God is offering to us. This is a life-long task or quest. We must continue to look for, to discover the treasure of God’s Kingdom. It is not a “one and done” kind of thing.
This is precisely why the Church asks us to come together to listen to God’s word every Sunday. While many think of Sunday worship as one of those rules and regulations to which we must adhere, Sunday worship is really about listening and understanding, about discovering God’s treasure.
The Eucharist has been called the source and summit of our faith. Let us never forget that an integral part of every Eucharist is being exposed to God’s Word. While receiving communion is important in our worship, no less important is the fact that we are also fed by God’s Word. If we wish to find the treasure, we must, like Solomon, have a listening or understanding heart.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Admiistrator