A seminary professor I know teaches that each sermon should have just one point, and that everything should guide you to the one point. In our study of the kingdom parables, I have found that to be challenging. What Jesus says and how he says it in these parables presents us with layers of meaning and innuendo even for our understanding of the kingdom. Everything Jesus says is more interesting, more radical, more suggestive than we often recognize. As a child growing up in the church, I heard each one of these parables and thought I understood them. Certainly, I understood the simple message I needed to hear as a child. But now I have been challenged to see even more here and I hope you have been challenged, too. Let’s do a quick recap:
Through the parable of the sower the great emphasis on inclusiveness really stood out. The seed of the kingdom gets sown everywhere in everyone; good people/soil and bad people/soil alike. We learned that many commentaries say that God is the sower and that Jesus is the Word or seed that is sown. We considered the possibility that the soils represent four potentialities that reside in us all the time. That we could at any given moment be closed off and hardened, sometimes shallow, sometimes with mixed up priorities, sometimes even good and fertile receivers of the seed. We found good news and hope in the knowledge that the sower (God) has implanted the seed of the Word (Jesus Christ) in all. And what looks at first like it might be a bad harvest as a result of rocks and thorns and drought, actually turns into a mighty harvest.
Through the parable of the mustard seed and the leaven we explored the idea that this inclusive kingdom of God will proliferate and work its way through everything – it is unstoppable; growing and flourishing from even the smallest of seeds or tiniest bit of leaven.
And today as we look at the parable of the treasure and the pearl of great price, we see that the kingdom of God is the most priceless of all things. Giving our all for the kingdom is the right response to so great an (offer/gift) but what does that mean?
Let’s look at the parable of the hidden treasure first. With this story, Jesus does one of his favorite things – he again takes a common story, familiar to all who would hear it that day and turns it around. Treasure stories were common in that culture. (our culture, too!) Rabbis frequently told treasure parables in which the plot went like this: a man buys a field and works hard in the field. His plow hits something hard, and what do you know – it is a great treasure, making the man rich. The classic theme is: 1) you buy the field; 2) you work hard; 3) then you find the treasure. The Rabbis offered up many variations upon this theme (possibly add Mark Trotter shares one of these in his book pg37. Or not). A theme similar to this is found in prosperity theology today that equates Christian faith with material, and particularly financial success – work hard and you will receive material reward. Be a good Christian and only good things will happen to you. The kingdom does not operate like that.
Jesus’ parable goes like this: “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.” (Matt 13:44)
Do you see the difference in this parable from the normal treasure stories? In the rabbinic versions the message is buy your plot of land, work hard and eventually you will rewarded. That was the common expectation and treasure stories were told to reinforce this. In Jesus’ version of the parable, the first thing is finding the treasure. This is counter-to so much of what we have been taught or expect. Too often we approach the treasure of our faith as something that only those who really work hard can attain. One of the hardest things for us to grasp is that we are save by grace and not by our own abilities. The religious leaders then (and even now) couldn’t get over the idea that grace would come to us out of the blue, without our deserving it, or expecting it – even when we might be going about our normal daily activities – such as the person in this parable. It’s just hard to understand Jesus sometimes. He doesn’t say, I’ll forgive you when you stop sinning. He says, “I forgive you, now go and sin no more.” Jesus says it will be as if you were crossing a field one-day and you stumble upon a treasure that enables you to live the way you have always wanted to live. The message here is that you don’t have to find it, because God has found you in Jesus Christ. Remember the sower, the seed already sowed? The kingdom already planted and beginning to grow. The treasure already found. Then once found, and recognized for what it is, we are willing to do anything to claim it – this treasure of the faith which is everything.
Next we look at the parable of the pearl in which the pearl merchant is looking for fine pearls. It helps to know that pearls in 1st century Mediterranean world represent the highest value. Kind of like diamonds now, pearls were a symbol of the best/ultimate. So he is seeking the most priceless object possible. Which he finds (seek and ye shall find), realizes its value and sells all that he has in order to obtain it. This priceless treasure is worth giving up everything else. Like the person who sold all to obtain the hidden treasure, the pearl merchant sells everything for that priceless pearl. What is your most priceless treasure? Author Glenn McDonald shares this story that he discovered in the December 1980 issue of Proclaim magazine. A man named Bill Rittinghouse was traveling through Kansas many years ago, the article reads. As a station wagon passed him, loaded to the max with suitcases and items even strapped to the roof, Rittinghouse noticed that one of the suitcases was working itself loose and it suddenly fell from the station wagon, hit the road, then bounced onto the shoulder of the road. Rittinghouse sped up to try to signal the driver of the wagon, but he failed. He went back and retrieved the suitcase, finding inside some clothing, personal items, and a small white box with a rubber band around it. Inside was a $20 gold piece cushioned in cotton. On one side it said, “twenty years loyal and faithful service.” On the other side was printed, “presented to Otis Sampson by the Northwest State Portland Cement Company.” Once he returned home, Rittinghouse began a search to find this Otis Sampson. After contacting seventy-five different cities, he finally located the cement company where he obtained contact information for Otis Sampson (remember this was years ago, long before the internet. His search would be much simpler in the present). When Rittinghouse placed the call to Otis, Otis was ecstatic. “You can keep everything else in the suitcase, but please send me the $20 gold piece, It is my most precious possession.” As Rittinghouse boxed up the coin he decided he would include a personal letter. In the letter he described his World War II adventures, his escape from a Romanian prison and his calling out to God for help. He told how his family had decided to become Christians, and exactly what it meant to know Christ. ‘In fact,’ he wrote, ‘I can truthfully say that my relationship with Jesus is my most prized possession.’ And he mailed the coin and the letter. Thinking that he would probably not hear anything more from Otis Sampson, Rittinghouse was quite surprised when he received a small box in the mail. Inside he found the $20 gold piece and a personal note. Otis had written, ‘We want you to have the gold piece to carry with you. Last Sunday my wife and I were baptized – we are both in our seventies. You were the first one to tell us of Jesus Christ. Now he is our most precious possession.’”
There is a contemporary worship song that I love titled “all in all.” They lyrics go like this: You are my strength when I am weak, you are the treasure that I seek, you are my all in all. Seeking you as a precious jewel, Lord to give up I’d be a fool, you are my all in all.”
The Mystery of the Kingdom! It is a paradox – The mystery is that it requires nothing. The kingdom is a gift freely given – it is a seed sown everywhere, it is alive and growing, it is inclusive of all people and all of creation. It is bestowed by grace through the faith of Jesus Christ. And the second half of the mystery/paradox is that it requires everything – it is the treasure that requires us to sell all we have to attain it, it must become the essential in your life, the treasure, the pearl the pervasive mustard plant, the thing that grows and shelters and nurtures others seeking the kingdom.
As I sat in this sanctuary on Thursday afternoon praying, I knew that I was in a special place. It was quiet and peaceful, a place of worship. But God is not locked up in here all week waiting on us to show up. The Kingdom isn’t hidden in here – it IS here, but it is also OUT THERE. So go out into the kingdom – value the priceless treasure of grace that is yours in Jesus Christ.