Historical Cultural Context
The very last words of this verse constitute the major problem: “[he] buys that field.” As John Dominic Crossan has pointed out: “If the treasure belongs to the finder, buying the land is unnecessary. But, if the treasure does not belong to the finder, buying the land is unjust.”*
Burying valuable objects was a common practice in antiquity. Retrieving them was also common. Forgetting about the treasure or dying without telling one’s heirs or before being able to retrieve it are possible explanations for the finding of treasure by those who don’t own it.
Rabbinic lore is filled with debates concerning how to determine whether the finder had a right to the find or not. The circumstances of Jesus’ parable suggest that this man did not. Why else would he hide it again?
Remember that a parable always points to “something more” or “something other.” The key word here is “joy.” God or God’s reign is the hidden treasure. To find God brings great joy, but the discovery has a potential for disaster as well as for grace.
The finder’s joy seems to have led him to disaster. He sells “all that he has.” Given what we know of the difficulties of farming, such self-impoverishment to purchase a field courts disaster. The finder has nothing to fall back upon.
Worse, he now owns a field with a buried treasure which he dare not dig up because it will raise questions about ownership of the treasure, the morality of buying the field, and the character of this “lucky” (!?) finder. (Recall that in a society like this one which believes that all goods are finite in quantity and already distributed, when someone suddenly has increased possessions, that increase must be explained.)
American folk wisdom would say: “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” but modern Americans would be no less suspicious and critical of the finder in this parable than his own Middle Eastern contemporaries. The treasure of the kingdom can be both rewarding and potentially corrupting.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University