Every now and then, after seeing a political sign on the house, someone says, “Well, Father, you have a right to your opinion about the election, but you shouldn’t mix your religion and your politics.” I do not respond well to that bit of advice; my faith and my politics are the same thing. Any political judgments I make grow out of my understanding of the good news that all humanity is one, as taught by Jesus. The attitude that we ought to make a distinction between our private, internal faith and our public, external political life is a consequence of bad thinking that is not in our best interest. This way of thinking about the world posits that some people know everything important on a topic, and they are called “experts”; other people don’t count, and they are called “non-experts,” or, “lay people.” I am, in the minds of some, an expert on religious studies and postmodern sociology of religion; I am a non-expert on constitutional law and physical anthropology. If I say something about biblical interpretation or Catholic theology, people pay attention to me; if I say something about physical anthropology, no one needs to pay any attention to me.
There are some problems with this habit of dividing up the world into experts and non-experts; the first is that people think they need an expert to tell them what God wants for them in their lives. Nonsense! No expert can tell you what God intends for your life, only you can determine that on your own, by entering into the Silence and spending time listening to God within.
Another bad consequence of this way of thinking is the notion that our knowledge is the private domain of little clubs: the biblical theology club, the physical anthropologists’ club, the legal club, and so on. But if knowledge about things is broken up into little knowledge clubs, then if I come into the club that is concerned about how people in the U.S. ought to live, people expect me to speak only the official public language of government; my knowledge from the Catholic theology club over there doesn’t even make sense to them. I’m like a tourist trying to get directions at a Seven-Eleven—I speak a different language, and everyone in line wishes I’d either learn English or just go away.
As I said, I don’t accept the proposition that religion and politics are mutually exclusive. For one thing, if I’m not allowed to talk about my faith in public, I don’t have a whole lot more to talk about. But more than that, the assumption that people of faith should check their convictions at the door when they enter the arena of politics depends on a superficial understanding of what it means to be human. This view holds that we are nothing more than wardrobe junkies who dress up in different sets of convictions depending on where we’re going; at church, we’re Catholics. In the voting booth, we’re public citizens. In our offices and businesses, we’re competent, driven people contributing to the American economy. At home, we can relax and finally be ourselves—but even there we’re told: “Don’t talk shop,” or “Let’s keep politics and religion out of this.” Remarks like these—which are peculiarly American, by the way–show that someone has a fragmented understanding of who we are and who we are called to be. One of the critical aspects of the Christian message is that there are to be no “experts” in the house of God. Or, better still, we are all called to be full-time experts on discipleship. Jesus talked about this all the time. He insisted that the disciples who wanted to be greatest could only become great by avoiding greatness. He taught the disciples strictly not to call any religious authorities “good,” because God alone is good. He thanked God for hiding the most important things from experts, and for revealing the most important things to children.
Everybody is called to be an expert; everybody is called to exercise the gift of judgment, of discernment, so that we can work together to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong. When we start making priests or church officials the experts on what we ought to be doing, we are abdicating our responsibility for making our own moral decisions. Yes, the priests and church officials are here to support us in our journey, but it is ultimately up to each of us to determine the best choices. It’s about trust in God. And ourselves.
This point is crucial because God claims every sphere of our lives. God doesn’t just want our attention for an hour or so Sunday evening. God wants our attention Monday afternoon during the sales meeting, and on Election Day when we vote, and on our day off, when we’re just sipping margaritas on the beach. That, I think, is the point of two of the parables that we hear today. Our relationship to the Reign of God, to God’s way of living, should be like the passer-by who found buried treasure, or the jewelry expert on HSN who found the magnificent pearl.
Most of the time, we are taught that these parables are about
the importance of setting aside lesser things to obtain the incomparable wealth of the kingdom of heaven; we’re supposed to notice the contrast between earthly goods and heavenly treasures, just as the parable of the mustard seed contrasts the small beginnings of the gospel with its predetermined future as a weedy shrub that invades everything and can’t be controlled.
I would like us to think of the parables of the buried treasure and the pearl of great price in a different way. I suggest that these two parables are not so much about the difference between earthly and heavenly values so much as they are about our focusing on what is important. The point is that we should have the wisdom to seek the one goal of our lives, the reason we are here in the first place. The real focus, the one really authentic truth that we seek lies within our hearts, planted by the wisdom of God. It requires only that we attend to it and it will manifest itself and grow.
Look at the example of Solomon. In our reading tonight he prays for one thing: for the wisdom properly to serve God’s people as their king. Solomon certainly got a reputation for having wisdom, but if we look at his career, it’s not clear just how wise he was; even as the Bible repeats that there was never anyone as wise as Solomon, it tells us about some of his questionable decisions. Despite God’s explicit instructions, Solomon married about a thousand women, (though the Bible—typically—blames them for diverting him). He drafted the people of Israel to do forced labor on his vast building projects; he taxed the living H-E Double Hockey sticks out of the people; he rejected the God of Israel, and started worshipping foreign gods. Solomon got off to a
good start, but in the course of his reign he did just the opposite
of the characters in these parables: he traded in his focus on God for a host of distractions. While he started out asking for the will only to follow in God’s way, he eventually started paying more attention to the perks of his office, to his monumental infrastructure plan, to his territorial wars, to his (ahem!) foreign affairs. Solomon the wise became Solomon the preoccupied, the distracted; he lost track of his one calling, and he became exactly the kind of king that God had warned Israel about in 1 Samuel.
Today’s parables point in another direction. They suggest that we are called to lives of focused integrity, with ourselves and with God. But we can’t get there if we divide up our lives into separate little segments, each with its own set of responsibilities, each with its own goals, each with its own language and its own assumptions about what’s right and wrong. Parceling out our responsibilities, separating work from faith from politics and from recreation gives us the illusion that all these fields are separate from our calling as a Child of Heaven.
In truth, there are no divisions which separate faith from politics, or the workplace, or from our quality time on the beach. There are no experts who can take on the responsibility of living your faith life for you. Instead, we help each other set aside the distractions, the divisions, the fragmentations of our lives, and come together confessing one faith, sharing one loaf and one cup, but acknowledging and loving the fact that we each have our own treasure to pursue, the treasure that is our hearts’ desire and our only path to the fullness of the Reign of God.