17TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
YEAR A Matthew 13: 44-52
THE HIDDEN TREASURE
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure which lay hidden in a field. A man found it, and hid it; and, as a result of his joy, away he goes, and sells everything that he has, and buys the field."
Although this parable sounds strange to us, it would sound perfectly natural to people in Palestine in the days of Jesus, and even to this day it paints a picture which people in the East would know well.
In the ancient world there were banks, but not banks such as ordinary people could use. Ordinary people used the ground as the safest place to keep their most cherished belonging. In the parable of the talents the worthless servant hid his talent in the ground, lest he should lose it (Matt. 25:25). There was a rabbinic saying that there was only one safe repository for money--the earth.
During War Time
This was still more the case in a land where a man's garden might at any time become a battlefield. Palestine was probably the most fought over country in the world; and, when the tide of war threatened to flow over them, it was common practice for people to hide their valuables in the ground, before they took to flight, in the hope that the day would come when they could return and regain them. Josephus speaks of "the gold and the silver and the rest of that most precious furniture which the Jews had, and which the owners treasured up underground against the uncertain fortunes of war."
Thomson in The Land and the Book, which was first published in 1876, tells of a case of treasure discovery which he himself came upon in Sidon. There was in that city a famous avenue of acacia trees. Certain workmen, digging in a garden on that avenue, uncovered several copper pots full of gold coins. They had every intention of keeping the find to themselves; but there were so many of them, and they were so wild with excitement, that their treasure trove was discovered and claimed by the local government. The coins were all coins of Alexander the Great and his father Philip. Thomson suggests that, when Alexander unexpectedly died in Babylon, news came through to Sidon, and some Macedonian officer or government official buried these coins with the intention of appropriating them in the chaos which was bound to follow Alexander's death.
Thomson goes on to tell how there are even people who make it their life's business to search for hidden treasure, and that they get into such a state of excitement that they have been known to faint at the discovery of one single coin. When Jesus told this story, he told the kind of story that anyone would recognize in Palestine and in the east generally.
It may be thought that in this parable Jesus glorifies a man who was guilty of very sharp practice in that he hid the treasure, and then took steps to possess himself of it. There are two things to be said about that. First, although Palestine in the time of Jesus was under the Romans and under Roman law, in the ordinary, small, day to day things it was traditional Jewish law which was used; and in regard to hidden treasure Jewish Rabbinic law was quite clear: "What finds belong to the finder, and what finds must one cause to be proclaimed? These finds belong to the finder--if a man finds scattered fruit, scattered money...these belong to the finder." In point of fact this man had a prior right to what he had found.
Second, even apart from that, when we are dealing with any parable, the details are never meant to be stressed; the parable has one main point, and to that point everything else is subservient. In this parable the great point is the joy of the discovery that made the man willing to give up everything to make the treasure indubitably his own. Nothing else in the parable really matters.
(i) The lesson of this parable is, first, that the man found the precious thing, not so much by chance, as in his day's work. It is true to say that he stumbled all unexpectedly upon it, but he did so when he was going about his daily business. And it is legitimate to infer that he must have been going about his daily business with diligence and efficiency, because he must have been digging deep, and not merely scraping the surface, in order to strike against the treasure. It would be a sad thing, if it were only in churches, in so-called holy places, and on so-called religious occasions that we found God, and felt close to him.
There is an unwritten saying of Jesus which never found its way into any of the gospels, but which rings true: "Raise the stone and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and I am there." When the mason is working on the stone, when the carpenter is working with the wood, Jesus Christ is there. True happiness, true satisfaction, the sense of God, the presence of Christ are all to be found in the day's work, when that day's work is honestly and conscientiously done. Brother Lawrence, great saint and mystic, spent much of his working life in the monastery kitchen amidst the dirty dishes, and he could say, "I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as ever I did at the blessed sacrament."
(ii) The lesson of this parable is, second, that it is worth any sacrifice to enter the Kingdom. What does it mean to enter the Kingdom? When we were studying the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:10), we found that we could say that the Kingdom of God is a state of society upon earth where God's will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. Therefore to enter the Kingdom is to accept and to do God's will. So, then, it is worth anything to do God's will. Suddenly, as the man discovered the treasure, there may flash upon us, in some moment of illumination, the conviction of what God's will is for us. To accept it may be to give up certain aims and ambitions which are very dear, to abandon certain habits and ways of life which are very difficult to lay down, to take on a discipline and self-denial which are by no means easy, in a word, to take up our cross and follow after Jesus. But there is no other way to peace of mind and heart in this life and to glory in the life to come.
It is indeed worth giving up everything to accept and to do the will of God.
THE PRECIOUS PEARL
"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant who was seeking goodly pearls. When he had found a very valuable pearl, he went away and sold everything he had, and bought it."
In the ancient world pearls had a very special place in men's hearts. People desired to possess a lovely pearl, not only for its money value, but for its beauty. They found a pleasure in simply handling it and contemplating it. They found an aesthetic joy simply in possessing and looking at a pearl. The main sources of pearls in those days were the shores of the Red Sea and far-off Britain itself, but a merchant would scour the markets of the world to find a pearl which was of surpassing beauty. There are certain most suggestive truths hidden in this parable.
(i) It is suggestive to find the Kingdom of Heaven compared to a pearl. To the ancient peoples, as we have just seen, a pearl was the loveliest of all possessions; that means that the Kingdom of Heaven is the loveliest thing in the world. Let us remember what the Kingdom is. To be in the Kingdom is to accept and to do the will of God. That is to say, to do the will of God is no grim, grey, agonizing thing; it is a lovely thing. Beyond the discipline, beyond the sacrifice, beyond the self-denial, beyond the cross, there lies the supreme loveliness which is nowhere else. There is only one way to bring peace to the heart, joy to the mind, beauty to the life, and that is to accept and to do the will of God.
(ii) It is suggestive to find that there are other pearls but only one pearl of great price. That is to say, there are many fine things in this world and many things in which a man can find loveliness. He can find loveliness in knowledge and in the reaches of the human mind, in art and music and literature and all the triumphs of the human spirit; he can find loveliness in serving his fellow-men, even if that service springs from humanitarian rather than from purely Christian motives; he can find loveliness in human relationships. These are all lovely, but they are all lesser loveliness. The supreme beauty lies in the acceptance of the will of God. This is not to belittle the other things; they too are pearls; but the supreme pearl is the willing obedience which makes us friends of God.
(iii) We find in this parable the same point as in the previous one but with a difference. The man who was digging the field was not searching for treasure; it came on him all unaware. The man who was searching for pearls was spending his life in the search.
But no matter whether the discovery was the result of a moment or the result of a life-time's search, the reaction was the same--everything had to be sold and sacrificed to gain the precious thing. Once again we are left with the same truth--that, however a man discovers the will of God for himself, whether it be in the lightning flash of a moment's illumination or at the end of a long and conscious search, it is worth anything unhesitatingly to accept it.
THE CATCH AND THE SEPARATION
"Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net which was cast into the sea, and which gathered all kinds of things. When it was full, they hauled it up on to the shore, and sat down, and collected the good contents into containers, but threw the useless contents away. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come, and they will separate the evil from the righteous, and they will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there."
It was the most natural thing in the world that Jesus should use illustrations from fishing when he was speaking to fishermen. It was as if he said to them: "Look how your daffy work speaks to you of the things of heaven."
In Palestine there were two main ways of fishing. One was with the casting-net, the amphiblestron (GSN0293). It was a hand-net which was cast from the shore. Thomson describes the process: "The net is in shape like the top of a bell-tent, with a long cord fastened to the apex. This is tied to the arm, and the net so folded that, when it is thrown, it expands to its utmost circumference, around which are strung beads of lead to make it drop suddenly to the bottom. Now, see the actor; half bent, and more than half naked, he keenly watches the playful surf, and there he spies his game tumbling in carelessly toward him. Forward he leaps to meet it. Away goes the net, expanding as it flies, and its leaded circumference strikes the bottom ere the silly fish is aware that its meshes have closed around him. By the aid of the cord the fishermen leisurely draws up the net and the fish with it. This requires a keen eye, an active frame, and great skill in throwing the net.
He, too, must be patient, watchful, wide awake, and prompt to seize the exact moment to throw."
The second way of fishing was with the drag-net, the sagene (GSN4522), what we would call the seine net or the trawl. This is the way referred to in this parable. The seine net was a great square net with cords at each corner, and weighted so that, at rest, it hung, as it were, upright in the water. When the boat began to move, the net was drawn into the shape of a great cone and into the cone all kinds of fish were swept.
The net was then drawn to land, and the catch was separated. The useless material was flung away; the good was put into containers. It is interesting to note that sometimes the fish were put alive into containers rifled with water. There was no other way to transport them in freshness over any time or any distance.
There are two great lessons in this parable.
(i) It is in the nature of the drag-net that it does not, and cannot, discriminate. It is bound to draw in all kinds of things in its course through the water. Its contents are bound to be a mixture. If we apply that to the Church, which is the instrument of God's Kingdom upon earth, it means that the Church cannot be discriminative but is bound to be a mixture of all kinds of people, good and bad, useless and useful.
There have always been two views of the Church--the exclusive and the inclusive. The exclusive view holds that the Church is for people who are good, people who are really and fully committed, people who are quite different from the world. There is an attraction in that view, but it is not the New Testament view, because, apart from anything else, who is to do the judging, when we are told that we must not judge? (Matt. 7:1). It is not any man's place to say who is committed to Christ and who is not. The inclusive view feels instinctively that the Church must be open to all, and that, like the drag-net, so long as it is a human institution it is bound to be a mixture. That is exactly what this parable teaches.
(ii) But equally this parable teaches that the time of separation will come when the good and the bad are sent to their respective destinations. That separation, however, certain as it is, is not man's work but God's. Therefore it is our duty to gather in all who will come, and not to judge or separate, but to leave the final judgment to God.
Courtesy: William Barclay – Commentary on St. Matthew’s Gospel
Fr. Rudolf V. D’ Souza