Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Treasure, the Pearl, and the Kingdom Worth Everything

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).

The concreteness of Jesus's parables is not just a "literary device," much less a cover for some arcane philosophical or gnostic teaching. (Whether the parables prove enlightening or perplexing to people depends on the openness of their hearts to God's grace.) The images are concrete because Jesus is proposing something real for people's lives, something that "corresponds" to the total desire of their humanity (even as it also transcends and transforms their humanity and their capacity to love).

Jesus talks about people in the real estate business and the jewelry business, but he is saying more than just that the kingdom of heaven is a worthwhile investment, a "good deal." He uses the context of commercial transaction in order to communicate that the kingdom truly corresponds to "what we really want," what we are seeking and aiming for (with varying degrees of clarity, and often beyond our immediate conscious awareness) as we carry out the activities of daily life. We "meet" the kingdom in the midst of ordinary circumstances, and we must choose it freely ("buy" the field, the pearl).

But the story implies that, if we have our eyes and our hearts open, if we are paying attention to reality, we will choose it. We will gladly assent even as we are "swept up" and renewed by an encounter that is both familiar and unexpectedly wonderful.

The kingdom of heaven overwhelms all our calculations and modes of evaluation. In both cases in the parable, our earnest businessmen sell everything (note: everything is a big word — think about that), but there is no tension in these transactions, no concern for balancing the ledger books.

Our real estate man discovers this spectacular treasure in a field. Really, when we hear this, what do we think? C'mon, be honest. You know you've thought about this. Everybody wants to find buried treasure.

I'll tell you what I think (please excuse me while I indulge in a bit of unscientific JJ Midrash 😉). Here's my man, finding the treasure in the field: "He opened the treasure chest and it was full of gold, and he said to himself, 'Dude!...this is worth, like, ten times as much as everything I own. I don't need to call my surveyors, or soil inspectors, or accountants. I am ready to do this deal now!'"

So he hides it again, and... wait, wait, wait! WAIT!

A "bad" thought enters my mind here: Nobody knows about this treasure? It's been hidden? Nobody sees you "finding it"?

Why bother buying the field?

More JJ Midrash: "'But wait,' he thinks, 'Why don't I just call Josh and tell him to bring his truck out here... hey man, can you bring the truck. I've got this big box I need to move...from, ya know, the "field" — oh nothing interesting in it, but I figured I'd just bring it over to my garage...'"

But in fact, none of this happens in the story. Not a word of it. Not even a hint. Of course, Jesus knows how we think. He knows that as soon as we hear the word "treasure," we (at least subconsciously) start calculating and scheming and dreaming. But he doesn't give us time. Immediately, our man "sells all he has and buys that field."

There's no assessments of value, no calculation, and not even the shadow of a temptation toward theft or any kind of worldly cunning. On the contrary, we are told that he gets rid of everything and buys the field "out of joy"!

"Out of joy..." Once he saw the treasure, it was all that mattered. Selling everything sounds like it was as simple as taking off a jacket on a sunny morning. Suddenly, "all-he-had" seemed superfluous. Unnecessary. He gave all away, out of joy.

What kind of treasure was this?

When the merchant finds the "pearl of great price," he also does something rather unusual, something that perhaps seems hasty or even reckless in the jewelry business. He doesn't negotiate or haggle over the price. He doesn't think, "maybe I should start with a bid of 20% of 'all-that-I-have' and see how that goes over." No. He finds the pearl, and it turns his whole business upside down. He sells all his stores, all the inventory, the house, the jacuzzi, the fancy cars, the stock portfolio — everything goes!

Either the merchant has lost his mind, or else this pearl really is worth everything. Indeed, it's worth everything and more, so much so that he sells all his stuff without a second thought, without concern. His whole focus is on the pearl.

He doesn't worry about "searching for fine pearls" anymore — not because he no longer thinks that pearls have value, but if anything, the opposite: he has found the pearl that corresponds to the whole scope of his search. Here the image of "the pearl" clearly points to an immense, mysterious, transcendent reality, but also to a concrete reality that the merchant encounters while living within the circumstances of his ordinary life.

No doubt people listening to this story (including us, if we really think about it) found it both puzzling and fascinating in varying degrees.

Some were inclined to say, "That doesn't make sense. No pearl could be worth 'everything' ... we will never encounter any reality in this world that has such evident value, such convincing promise to fulfill the totality of our searching and desiring, that we will 'sell all we have' and invest our entire selves in this new reality. It's not possible."

Others leaned toward thinking, "Wow, that pearl must have been totally wonderful and amazing if it moved the pearl merchant so deeply that he sold everything. Is the Teacher proposing something — this 'kingdom' he talks about — that would be like that pearl for my life?" Some people who heard the parable (and who hear it today) felt divided, a bit tugged in both directions. Perhaps they argued the points or sat in the sand and tried to figure the story out by themselves.

But there were those who looked at Jesus and said, "I don't know what I'm supposed to understand here, but I know that this man, Jesus, is not like anyone I have ever met. I think it will all come together, somehow, if I keep following him. I don't know about pearls or treasures, but when this man looks at me, whenever I see his face, I experience a kind of love for my person, my life, my whole being that... I can't describe, but I'm going to stay with him. Being with him is worth ... gosh, there's no end to it. He fills me with the conviction that God really loves me beyond all imagining."

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Enough rambling from me. The Pope preached about this Gospel reading at the Sunday Angelus. Here are a few of his words:
"Jesus proposes to involve us in the building of the Kingdom of Heaven,... [but] those who fully pledge themselves to the Kingdom are those who are willing to stake everything.... The building of the Kingdom requires not only the grace of God but also the active willingness of humanity.
"Everything is done by grace, everything! We need only have the willingness to receive it, not to resist grace: grace does everything but it takes 'my' responsibility, 'my' willingness.... It is a matter of abandoning the heavy burden of our worldly sureties that prevent us from searching and building up the Kingdom: the covetousness for possession, the thirst for profit and power, and thinking only of ourselves....
"Indeed, those who have found this treasure have a creative and inquisitive heart, which does not repeat but rather invents, tracing, and setting out on new paths which lead us to love God, to love others, and to truly love ourselves. The sign of those who walk this path of the Kingdom is creativity, always trying to do more. And creativity is what takes life and gives life, and gives, and gives, and gives. It always looks for many other ways to give life.
"Jesus, who is the hidden treasure and the pearl of great value, cannot but inspire joy, all the joy of the world: the joy of discovering a meaning in life, the joy of committing oneself to the adventure of holiness."