Jesus said to his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)
Anybody seen this summer’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie? Is it true that there is no buried treasure in it? How about a precious pearl? What about Keira Knightley?
Well, if the movie has no treasure chest and no pearl earrings, that’s okay. Because the gospel reading does.
Pearls come from oysters or other mollusks. Every mollusk possesses the capacity to produce a pearl. Early in the 20th century, the Japanese developed a technique for culturing pearls by injecting ‘seeds’ into a mollusk. But these modern cultured pearls, while lovely enough, do not approach the beauty of fine natural pearls.
Like I said, every oyster can produce a pearl. In nature, one out of every 10,000 actually does. The ancient Greek words for ‘merchant’ and for ‘sea-traveler’ are the same. A pearl merchant would traverse the world seeking fine pearls.
After years of experience, a pearl merchant would be able to assess the value of a given natural pearl. Most shimmer with muted loveliness. Some astound even the discerning eye. A few are so round and so perfect that they out-value the gross domestic product of some small countries.
The wizened pearl merchant of our Lord’s parable, then, certainly wears a gray-flecked beard. He has seen the sun rise over the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and the Tyrrhenian Sea. He can tell how old an oyster is with his eyes closed, just by running the tip of his finger along the heel of the shell.
He has amassed considerable wealth. He has connections. He has a sharp eye. And he knows how to make things happen quickly when they have to happen quickly.
Now, sliding over to the other parable…Perhaps we think that buried treasure can only be found in pirate stories. But, in fact, in the ancient world, people were known to bury treasure somewhat frequently. Constant wars made property ownership an unstable proposition. When the ancient Romans besieged Jerusalem, many wealthy families of the city buried their jewels in the ground.
So a Palestinian tenant farmer could very well have heard the surprising clank of his hoe hitting the wood of a buried treasure box. And, if all the stars were aligned for him, he might be able to scrounge together enough cash to buy a tiny, isolated field from a wealthy absentee landlord–provided he was ready and willing to sell his hoe and the tunic on his back for cash. And such a farmer, naked, digging with his bare hands in the little patch of ground he bought with his last penny—he would have the legal right to keep any treasure he found, according to the property laws of the time.
So both of the parables we just heard have realistic, if unusual, scenarios. And they both have a common element: Something more valuable than anything lies within reach, provided you are willing to sacrifice everything for it.
But let’s pause for a moment and consider the difference between the two protagonists. On the one hand: a seasoned man of the world with his hands on the levers of capital. On the other: An illiterate field-hand, wearing nothing but farm dust. It took the merchant a lifetime of tireless searching to come to this moment. The field-hand stumbled upon it with no preparation.
These two very different men have one thing in common: Both are cautious enough to know when to throw caution to the winds. Both are careful enough to seize the moment without a care. Both are prudently reckless.
Getting to heaven occupies a unique place in the ‘scale of values:’ There is no scale that can measure its value.
Generally speaking, the wise path is the middle path; moderation leads to health; compromise is the work of great statesmen. But there is no middle path between heaven and hell. There is no compromise between obeying a commandment and sinning against it. It makes no sense to love God moderately.
No. Let me be moderate about everything else–because I love God immoderately. Let me be a careful peacemaker in this world, because I would rather die than break a commandment. Let me slowly walk the narrow way of virtue–because it is the fastest way to run to paradise.
The difference between the two parables teaches us that the whole thing does not rest on my cleverness or lack thereof. Patience, yes. Humility, yes. Attentiveness, yes. But I can’t make the treasure appear.
God will strike when He will strike, in the way He chooses to strike. And when that happens, it’s all or nothing.
The prudence of the world says, Hedge your bets. ‘What do we really know about life after death anyway?’
But the wise old merchant and the goofy, happy tenant farmer teach us this: When God says, ‘Come, friend,’ the smart move is to throw down every last penny.