August 6, 2017
William G. Carter
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."
We have been working through the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, a collection of parables that Jesus told. The best definition of a parable came from the British Bible scholar C. H. Dodd. You may wish to write this down:
“At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
I think that’s a great definition. It reminds us that we are dealing with a literary form, a figure of speech. We hear the words “metaphor” and “simile” and we returned to that seventh grade English class when we weren’t paying attention when the teacher taught us about metaphors and similes. Those are comparisons, as in “the kingdom is like hidden treasure” or a “like a merchant search for fine pearls.”
And the parable, says Dodd, is vivid and strange. The meaning is not obvious which is precisely why Jesus told so many of them. He wants his listeners to work at it, to chew on it, to be teased (as Dodd says) “into active thought.”
As we have worked through the thirteenth chapter of Matthew over the last few weeks, we have heard some of the strangeness of the parables:
The kingdom is like a farmer who throws seed all over the place. Some of it takes root, some does not. He is sloppy, which is another word for generous, so he throws the seed everywhere he can. He is not cautious or calculating. That’s strange.
The kingdom is like a farmer who sows good seed in his own field. Somehow weeds appear in his favorite crop. When the servants suggest he purify the crop, he says, “No, let’s wait.” That’s strange. I wish I knew that parable when my parents sent me out to pull weeds out of the family garden.
The kingdom, says Jesus, is like a little bitty seed that grows so large that it takes over the whole field. We don’t expect the little one to become so large.
And as we heard last week, the kingdom is like a woman in the kitchen who works some yeast through a lump of flour. What’s odd about that? It is a sixty pound lump of flour! That’s a lot of flour.
So today we hear the kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure. What’s so strange about that? It seems pretty clear that a lot of people never find the treasure. It is out of sight. It is not obvious. It is not readily available for just anybody to saunter along and pick it up. No, the treasure is hidden. So what’s the vividness, the strangeness of this parable?
Simply this: it is found by a man who is trespassing. The man who finds it has stepped onto land that doesn’t belong to him. It is not his land, so it’s not his treasure. So, in a way, when he goes off to liquidate his assets and buy that field, he’s going after something that still doesn’t belong to him. It’s not quite ethical. He has to have that treasure.
Please notice what he does not do. He doesn’t find the treasure, stick it under his shirt, and slip away. That would be stealing. He is not interested in stealing it; rather, he wants to own this valuable thing, whatever it is. And he is willing to give up everything else in order to possess it.
At the same time, take note of what he does do. After he finds the hidden treasure, he hides it again. He hides it really well, because he doesn’t want anybody else to have it. He found it and he just has to have it. So much so that he will cash in everything else he owns, just to get that treasure.
Now, once again, that’s strange. If he gives up everything he has, how’s he going to eat? Where is he going to live? How will he take care of his family?
I mean, it reminds me of the man who was happily married for a long time. He had a few kids, had a nice house, drove a nice car, and all his bills were paid. One day, he comes home at supper time and says, “You’re all going to have to go and live somewhere else.” Why? “Because I found a hidden treasure.”
What do you mean you found a hidden treasure? He says, “Well, I was poking around a used bookstore, and there on a dusty shelf, was a first-edition Gutenberg Bible. You know, the very first bible printed on a printing press. It’s in excellent shape. It has buried under a couple of comic books, near some old Reader’s Digest condensed books. It’s priceless. I couldn’t believe my good fortune!”
Well, says his wife, what did you do? He says, “I covered it up, and then meandered around the store so I wouldn’t look suspicious. After a while, I found the owner and said, “I’d like to buy this book store.”He looked up from his computer and said, ‘You would?’ And I said, ‘How much money would you like for the bookstore?” Without blinking he said, ‘A million dollars,’ so I said, ‘It’s a deal.”
His wife is looking at him like he has two heads. “You just bought a bookstore?” He said, “I have to put together the financing. But if I cash in my retirement savings, and sell the house and the car, and sell you and the kids into slavery, I think I can acquire that book by buying that bookstore.”
She said, “What are you going to do with that book? Will you resell it?” He says, “Oh no, I’m going to keep it.”
She said, “I’ve grown attached to living here. I think I’d like to stay.” He said, “Well, I simply have to have that book…”
Can you believe that? I can’t believe it. The story is so ridiculous, such a complete exaggeration. What’s so special that you would give up everything to get it?
Good question. The parable doesn’t say. It’s an open question where we must fill in the answer. What answer would you give?
To tell you the truth, I was sitting in a picnic bench in New Mexico last month, and somebody asked me a version of that question. We were eating enchiladas at a conference center. Evening was upon us. We finished our dinner, took a sip of coffee, and watched the hummingbirds flit around. And my host posed the question this way: “What is the one thing so special to you that you could never give it up?”
I looked at my beautiful wife and she said, “Be careful what you say.” She’s a smart woman. But I said to her, “You married a guy who got a philosophy degree in college. I like questions like this.” Besides, the friend who asked the question is a retired geologist from NASA, so he was used to dealing with extremes. I mean, if you take it seriously, it’s really some question.
What’s the question again? “What is the one thing so special to you that you could never give it up?”
What prompted the question was a decision that my friend’s daughter had made. She was raised Presbyterian, but she converted to another faith when she fell in love and married.
So I thought about that: could I ever give up being a Presbyterian? I’ve been taking part in the church for 57 years. Is that the one thing I couldn’t give up? Well, I wouldn’t want to give it up, but the day will probably come when I retire, and there might not be a Presbyterian church wherever I go. And if I retire and stay here, it would not be neither fair nor helpful to keep worshiping here. I would inevitably step on my successor’s toes, so I’d have to worship somewhere else. That wouldn’t be the end of the world. If I had to give it up for the greater good, I would do so.
What is the one thing that I couldn’t give up? My friends? I love my friends, but friends have been coming in and out of my life since I was eight years old. I have a lot of long-term friends, but none of them are permanent.
Could I give up my family? I wouldn’t want to; I love them very much. But who knows how much time we will have together? It’s taken a long time to get the kids launched. We hope they stay launched. And I’m hopeful that I’ll have another thirty years with my wife. But who knows? It is a happy marriage, and fruitful in so many ways, but one day death will separate us. That’s just reality. And life will go on. Different, but it would go on.
Could I give up my relatively good health? I wouldn’t want to; I’m feeling pretty good these days. But when you’re a pastor, you know that one good slip on the ice could ruin your health. Illness an strike at any time. Weakness can surprise us. None of us are exempt from that. I think of my father, gone two years ago this July. Strong as an ox, tallest man in my world, and then his rational mind started to go, and there was a long, long slide to the end. Would I want to cling to my health, stay strong, and live forever? Truth be told, that’s not reasonable. Wisdom comes from numbering our days.
“So what is it?” he asked. What is the one thing you want more than anything else, the one treasure that you have to have, the one thing you would never give up?
I’ll tell you what it is for me. It’s Jesus. Because if I had to lose everything else, I’d want to know that I could lean on him. That I would land safely with him. That in spite of my imperfect faith and wayward inclination, he would still take me in
It’s like the passage where Paul writes to the church in Philippi. He loved those people, but he was separated from them. He loved his Christian freedom, but he was stuck in a prison cell. He had a tremendous family of faith, a righteous religious heritage, but that didn’t count for much when you live behind bars. So he writes to those good people in Philippi with words that will be read at my funeral some day. Listen:
I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things . . . in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own …but one that comes through faith in Christ.
When all is said and done, when everything is cashed in, when we (quite literally) buy the farm, our hidden treasure is Jesus. He is the Christ, the Living One, the Life-Giving One. And he is at the center of all things, waiting to be found, waiting to take first place in everything.
Because there is nothing more important than him, nothing more important than his truth and his grace. So we seek him, and keep seeking, in the great promise that he has already found us.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Philippians 3:8-9