Let the Scriptures Speak
First Comes the Finding
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. (Matt 13:44)
“Wait a minute,” you may want to say. “If the person finds the treasure on someone else's property, doesn't it belong to the owner? Consequently isn't the finder acting deceptively?” This is a needless distraction. Since the owner sells the land without adverting to buried valuables, he is obviously unaware of the stashed goods. In that time and place, before banks, safes and strongboxes, safeguarding precious items by burying them in the ground was a common practice. The scenario of this little parable implies that the finder has stumbled upon a long-forgotten treasure of which the present land owner is oblivious. But since it is indeed on someone else's property, the finder does need to purchase the land in order to claim the goods. But there is nothing unethical here.
A second distraction is the wording “the kingdom of heaven is like ... ” Does that mean the parable is somehow about heaven as a place, or “getting to heaven”? No, the parable is not about the kingdom which is the place called heaven, for “kingdom of heaven” is simply Matthew's preferred expression for what Mark and Luke call “the kingdom (or reign) of God.” And this is first of all a reference to a relationship, not a place. Recall that the reign of God in Jesus' teaching and preaching refers to the end-time coming of God to rescue his people. It is, in other words, the fresh initiative of God inaugurated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—and still to be fulfilled completely in the future.
Distractions cleared, the main question remains: how does the situation of the person finding a treasure, and then selling all in order to possess that treasure—how does that situation show how one relates to the reign of God? The author John Dominic Crossan once wrote a little book about this parable, along with other treasure trove stories. He called it Finding is the First Act. And that is precisely the point. First of all, one encounters the kingdom of God as a given. As the first letter of John puts it, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us … ” (1 John 4:10). Then, in the sheer joy of that discovery, one lets go of everything else to embrace that gift. The point of insisting that finding is the first act is that it reminds us of a truth so much stressed in Paul's letters, that God's gift is prior to human response.
Jesus says the same thing in other terms when he says, “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17). Receiving comes before entering, just as finding comes before the selling and buying in our parable. This parallels the experience of those who, like C. S. Lewis, describe their Christian conversion as being “surprised by joy.” That dramatic experience of God's grace is a special blessing. For others, the discovering of the invitation of God’s reign in their lives comes after a long search. Matthew honors their experience by coupling the story of the buried treasure with the one about the merchant who finds the pearl of great price after a long quest; but, like the one who stumbles into the buried treasure, he too “sells all that he has and buys it.”
The story about King Solomon in the First Reading illustrates the spirit of these parables in Solomon's prayer. Told by the Lord God to ask for anything he wants, he asks for “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” God's answer shows that this choice indicates a willingness to “sell all,” let go of everything else (long life, riches, the life of his enemies).
Simply put, these little parables are ways of reflecting on the love life of a disciple. Jesus puts it yet another way in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things [food, clothing] will be given you besides” (Mt 6:33). Or again, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:21). In still other words, Paul, in this Sunday's Second Reading, catches both elements, divine initiative and the simplification of life that comes from “selling all” to receive the treasure: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).
To consider what “selling all” to buy the farm might mean today, ask yourself this: If the reign of God entails a consistent ethic of life—honoring the lives of the unborn, the enemy, the aging, the handicapped, the poor, the convicted—as my Church teaches, what residue of selfishness or vengeance do I need to let go of to fully embrace such an ethic?
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University