Jesus put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
‘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.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a)
There’s something captivating about the idea of finding unexpected treasure…which of course is the reason for the success of the Antiques Roadshow – because we can all identify with the sheer delight of discovering that some strange knick-knack that has collected dust for years is really a priceless artifact. And I think we keep watching that show because we like to hope and dream that out there somewhere there is always another treasure just waiting to be found.
Jesus probably spoke with some of that same awareness in this collection of homey little parables that form today’s gospel reading. They all reflect familiar situations taken from the everyday life of his time – some of them no more than a few words, and each with its own unique image – planting mustard seeds, plowing fields, leavening flour for bread, buying and selling, and fishing – really, on one level, nothing could be more mundane…. and yet they all say something about God’s Kingdom … the kingdom that we live in now, and which will come to its complete fulfilment at a future time – and in these parables we see the kingdom not only in the details of growth, discovery, and abundance, but also in the actions and reactions of the people in the parables. And in two of these simple parables, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value for example, one option we have is to focus on the contrast between what is discovered by accident and what is diligently sought for, and to my ears, the two parables tell us that there’s more than one way to come to an awareness of the God’s kingdom, to catch the vision of the way things could and should be. Many people are active seekers, looking for a framework to life that will work for them intellectually and morally, something that will fit with who they are. These people invest in the search, and look for answers….and in the story of the merchant who finds the pearl Jesus teaches that the search will be worth it if we persevere.
By contrast, other people stumble across Kingdom awareness in the midst of the rigours and details of everyday life, like the plowman who discovers treasure in the field. These folks need only to be sufficiently alert to recognize it when it suddenly and unexpectedly confronts them.
Well, that’s one way to enter into these simple stories, and a pretty obvious one at that. We naturally tend to imagine ourselves either as the plowman or the merchant, easily identifying with how it would feel to find the unexpected or long-sought-after treasure; and by the same token we imagine that God, or God’s Kingdom is represented by the treasure, or the pearl of great value. Jesus didn’t tend to explain his parables, though – he offered them as open-ended stories from which people were invited to draw their own conclusions. So the lens through which we understand them can vary, and that’s the genius of the art form.
So, just for fun, let’s think about these two parables from a slightly different perspective, and this is one that I heard offered by Bill Cliff, now Bishop of Brandon, at a bible study at Synod a few years ago. Bill always said that the Gospel is astonishing, and that if we aren’t astonished by it, then we’re not reading it right. So let’s make these two little parables just a little more astonishing.
A detail about the two stories that often gets overlooked is that both the plowman and the merchant, on discovering the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, immediately sell everything they have in order to buy it. No price is too great – they liquidate everything, sacrifice all they have in order to possess their heart’s desire. So using that as the jumping-off point, let’s switch identities around a bit. Let’s suppose now that God is the plowman, that God is the merchant in these two vignettes…..and WE are the treasure in the field, WE are the pearl of great price….for whom God is prepared to go to unimaginable lengths, to give up everything, even to the extent of sending his Son to live and die as one of us, in order to possess our total selves – body, mind, and spirit. That’s a pretty astonishing slant, and I don’t know about you, but it’s one that leaves me just a little breathless. When seen through this lens, God’s love for us, for humankind, is extravagant and joyful.
And, significantly, God’s kingdom is built on that foundation. Within the creative and extravagant love of God lies all the potential for transformation, healing, and reconciliation that humankind so desperately needs – and we have access to that potential simply because we trust and believe. The kingdom which through God’s grace we are privileged to call our present and eternal home is under construction. For the joy of being its treasured builders we give thanks and together say Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams