Sunday, August 3, 2008

Treasure hunt

by John D Ramsey
A few days ago, we discussed the first three parables commonly referred to as the Mysteries of the Kingdom in Matthew 13. After Jesus interpreted the Parable of the Weeds to his disciples, he makes two brief comparisons of the kingdom. Remember, that the mysteries of the kingdom are really illustrations of how things work in the kingdom of God. I refer to them as the economy of the kingdom. We learned that Jesus taught three principles of the kingdom: Subversion, Appropriation, and Decay. In Matthew 13:24-43, Jesus states the problem. In verses 44-46, he provides the solution.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. Matthew 13:44-46 (NIV)

Some interpret these two stories as parallel – that is telling the same truth using different symbols. The word, “Again”, in verse 45 invites us to interpret the story of the merchant as a reiteration of the story of the treasure hidden in the field. However, the word, “again”, while conjoining the two stories does not necessitate reiteration. It could as easily have been translated as “further” or “furthermore.” In such case, Jesus would have been inviting contrast rather than engaging in repetition.

There is very little context with which to interpret the meanings of these parables, and Jesus provides no further explanation. Furthermore, these verses do not appear to have been expounded upon by other New Testament writers. Consequently, we are left to decipher word meanings using the best available information. When Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field”, our best assumption is that the field is the world. We assume this because according to verse 37, the field is the world in the parable of the weeds, and there is no evidence in verse 31, the parable of the mustard seed, or in verse 44, to indicate that the field is anything other than the world.

The parable of the treasure hidden in a field then portrays Christ’s redemption of the whole world in order to obtain a hidden treasure. Some might propose that the treasure is the church, but we are better off to take a broader interpretation and claim that the treasure is the faithful.

This interpretation is consistent with what we know about Jesus sacrifice. He gave up all that he had. He took upon himself the sins of the whole world, and those who believe in him, he gives eternal life. In Exodus 19, God promised Israel that if they would hear his voice and keep his commandments, then they would be a kingdom of priests. We learned in an earlier discussion that Israel refused to hear God’s voice, and there is no further mention of kingdom-priesthood until 1 Peter 2. Peter tells us that those who believe are indeed a kingdom of priests.

In the parable of the treasure in the field, the man redeems the whole field for the sake of the treasure. Christ paid the ransom for the whole world, but this does not indicate that he extends salvation to unbelievers. In fact, the story of the merchant, tells our side of the redemption story. The merchant, who had been collecting pearls, finds a pearl of true value, he abandoned all that he had to lay claim to the one.

The word “pearl” does not appear often in Scripture. There is not much contextual or comparative help in understanding its meaning; consequently, our best analysis builds upon evidence that exists rather than evidence that does not exist. Job 28:18 compares pearls to wisdom, but this interpretation benefits from the English translation. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew to mean “crystal”, not “pearl”. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

This is not easy to interpret, either, but if we ask, what are we supposed to seek, what are we suppose to share? The answer would return, “Truth.” Throwing pearls before swine would be worthless because hogs cannot appreciate pearls. This does not mean that we do not preach truth to unbelievers, but rather it tells us how not to package or present the truth.

Farmers used to raise hogs alongside cattle in feedlots because the hogs would nourish themselves from the cattle’s excrement. This maximized the farmers return on investment because feed was not wasted. Still, it reflects poorly upon the discernment of the hogs. The message in Matthew 7:6, is not that we should avoid sharing the truth with unbelievers, but rather that we should respect the truth that we are sharing. Imagine casting pearls into the feedlot. They would be immediately lost in the filthy muck. The truth is special. We should treat it as such. We should not present truth in a context that disparages it. It would be throwing pearls into a hog woller.

If pearls represent truth in Matthew 7, then pearls might also represent truth in Matthew 13. If so, then the kingdom of heaven is like a man searching for truth, and when he finds the Truth, he abandons everything else to acquire it. Such is our relationship with the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We abandon all our worldly, religious, and philosophical ideologies in order to claim salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

The two parables are related, but they do not picture the same truth. The parable of the treasure in the field tells of Christ’s love for us, and the parable of the merchant and the pearl speaks of our commitment to Christ.

Earlier, Jesus told stories that reflected sad truths. In the kingdom of God, the servants of God are easily, subverted. What grows from faith is appropriated by the ambitious to serve them instead of God. We harbor sin and pride; consequently, decay eventually permeates what was once pure in us.

The solution for us is that Christ died for the ungodly. We are reconciled to God through faith, but if we still cling to earth, we will experience the sadness that accompanies sin. Our best hope is to abandon all else in favor of the one Truth. If we obey, we will not be subverted. If we know the truth, then we will not follow the ambitious that appropriate religion to empower themselves. If we are following Christ, we will be looking to him for our hope, and not to leaders of men. If we “clean out the old leaven,” we will not harbor the sin and pride that puffs us up even while it consumes us from within.

We are to be as the merchant who found the pearl of great value. He gave up everything he had to obtain the one most valuable pearl. Likewise, we follow Christ, not in addition to spiritual ideologies, but instead of all other spiritual ideologies.

We who believe are Jesus’ treasure in the world. We should respond by making him the sole ambition of our lives.

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