Securing the treasure

Scriptures: Psalm 128; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

There’s a story that I read during this week, that I heard sometime back but I refamiliarized myself with it, about a little girl. Her dad bought her, when she was about four years old, a string of fake pearls, as a necklace.

That little girl loved that necklace. It was her favorite thing. Even after four or five years, if was still her favorite thing. Usually kids move on from one thing to the next. But she wore this thing all the time.

Her dad came to her around Christmas one year, and he said, “I have a special present for you.” She was so excited. But he said, “First, I need you to give me those pearls.”

She was heartbroken. She refused. These were her favorite thing. She wore it all the time. It wasn’t like pulling something out of her closet, like shoes that she hadn’t worn in years or anything like that. (Not that a kid that age would have shoes for years, she would just outgrow them, but you understand what I mean.)

Her dad looked disappointed, and he left. He came back, another day or two later. “I still have that present for you. But first you have to give me the pearls that I gave you.” She said, “Dad, that’s my favorite thing. I cannot give you those pearls.”

This went on for a little while, with her dad coming to her, offering her the present if she would just give him her little pearls, her fake pearls, and her refusing him. But finally it wore on her. It was her dad asking, and she wanted to please him.

She said, “OK, Dad.” She took her pearls off, her necklace, and she gave it to her dad. Her dad said, “Thank you. Here is your present.” She opened the box, and in there was a necklace of real pearls for her to have.

He had saved as the years went by, in order to buy her something real to make up for something fake. And she had delayed receiving that gift, because she couldn’t let go of what she currently had.

In our passage today in Matthew, there are a number of parables about the kingdom of heaven. We’re going to focus on two of them that are side by side, and that is the parable of the treasure in the field, and the pearl of great price.

When we look at this, we note that, as the liturgist noted, when the disciples were asked if they understood, they said, “Yes.” So obviously it was a context that was familiar to them. It might not be as familiar to us. So I want to share the context a little bit with you so that you understand things.

First of all, with the kingdom being like a treasure buried in a field, that the man came across, they didn’t have First National Bank or Wapello Community Bank or all kinds of other banks around. They had some money-changers and they had some vaults, but in general, people did not put their money in the bank.

It was also unsafe to keep it in your home. Not only were bandits a lot more prevalent, but it was a war-torn region, even as it is today. And one of the first things that an army will do when they invade a town is go in everybody’s houses and strip them bare, taking everything of value that is in there.

So it was a practice of people in that day and age to bury their most valuable items somewhere where only the head of the household or a couple select members of the family knew where it was. Then what happens if, in the war that comes, or banditry, that person dies without passing on the information?

Now you have a treasure that’s just kind of buried there for anybody to find. Kind of like these divers who go down looking for ships, exploring ships that have sunk and pulling up treasure. Just as those divers have the right to keep a lot of what they find, in Jesus’ day the person who found a treasure like that in a field has the right to keep that treasure.

They don’t have to turn it in for a finder’s fee. They don’t have to contact the police and ask if anyone has reported it missing. They don’t even have to contact the owners of the field that they found it in and say, “Does this belong to you?” – knowing that, I’m sure, the family would say, “Yes.”

The rabbis even said, if scattered coin is found by someone, it is theirs. We could call that “finders keepers, losers weepers.” So the idea of someone finding a treasure and taking ownership of it was not something that was unfamiliar to them.

In a like manner, with the pearl, pearls were exceptionally costly in Jesus’ day. In our day, they still cost. They’re not gems, but they’re part of jewelry. But we can get synthetic pearls that shine just as bright and look the same as real pearls.

And even if you get real pearls, we have oyster farms that they come from, where they get people that lay out oysters in a bed so they know where they are and they don’t have to go hunting for them. They have scuba gear and things like that to go down there and they go through the oysters. And even when they do that today, they only find one pearl in every three or four thousand oysters.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have those kind of luxuries. The way most pearl hunters got their pearls was they were very good divers, with very good lungs. They would tie a rock around their waist, then they’d jump off the boat and sink down to the floor.

Then they would start looking for oysters. Because remember, oysters are like clams. (Anybody ever done a clam dig? No? You haven’t lived on a beach, I guess.) They would root around in the mud for as long as they could, looking for an oyster. If they found one, they pried it open to see if there was a pearl.

Now, the rock wasn’t so heavy that they couldn’t get back up. It was there to keep them planted, so that their hands were free to go through the oysters. So they would pick up the rock, most of the time, and go back up to the boat when they ran out of air.

But if they stayed too long down there, then they could and sometimes did down. It was a hazardous job, a hazardous career. Therefore pearls were exceptionally expensive. Wealthy people, women in particular, would put strings of pearls in their hair as decorations. The Egyptians actually worshiped the pearl.

Even in our Bible, the value of pearls is recognized. What do we have that’s at the gateway to heaven, what do we call them? Yes, the pearly gates. If you read Revelation (which I’ve almost been in ministry long enough to teach from), it says each gate is made from one giant pearl. I don’t want to try to wrap my mind around something that’s big enough for a gate like that. But the point is that it was extremely valuable. It was something that was worthwhile.

So as we look at these two parables, we want to ask a couple of questions in this context. First, what is the kingdom of heaven that they’re talking about. In the first one, the kingdom of heaven is pretty clearly labeled as the treasure that this man found.

And even in the one about the pearl, contextually when you read the Greek, some people think it’s about the merchant but it’s not, it’s about the pearl and the whole situation. Just like the man found the treasure, the merchant found this priceless pearl.

The kingdom of heaven was understood by the Jews – and I’ve mentioned this before – as the rule of God. The kingdom of heaven is where God rules. When Jesus went around preaching at the beginning of his ministry, he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God” (or the kingdom of heaven, depending on your translation) “is at hand.” It is here. The rule of God in people’s lives is now. So the kingdom of heaven, in that way, was the rule of God in people’s lives.

Now, if you look at what the treasure is, you’ll see a lot of different ideas. Some people say that, what I just explained. Some people say that it is Jesus. Because the only way we can understand the rule of God in our lives is by knowing Jesus. The only way we can achieve following God and obeying His commands is by accepting Christ, making Him Lord of our life. Without Him, we have nothing. So He is the treasure.

Some people like to say it is the church, because the kingdom of heaven is being formed by the church as we love one another and we reflect God’s love with each other and the community at large. They go on with the one about the net and the fish that are being separated and say that the church is what’s being talked about, catching everybody.

Some people have even said that the treasure is you, because it’s all about God’s love for you, that created the gift of salvation and the gospel.

For myself, I guess in a typical Presbyterian or scholarly fashion, I’m going to say, “Yes. All of the above, and none of the above.” It is the rule of God in people’s lives, and yet, that doesn’t happen without Christ. It doesn’t happen without you. It doesn’t happen well without the church, and it is within the church that we express most explicitly the kingdom of heaven.

Why is this kingdom valuable? It is the means for eternity with God. Christ is the most valuable thing in the universe and all of eternity. What’s amazing is that, despite his value, despite his infinite worth, as it says in Hebrews, he chose to put himself into the form of man (in Philippians it says that), and take on the form of a slave, and be obedient to God even unto the cross and death. He sacrificed himself for us.

It is valuable because it gives the world its hope. It gives the world its future. The kingdom of heaven is valuable because it shows people what it means to be one of God’s children, because God chose you. You know the saying that the kids had, from VBS. God made you, and God is always with you. Things like that. Those are exhibited in the kingdom of heaven.

What must we do to obtain it? I’ll go through this quickly. God made you for a reason. He made you to show the kingdom of heaven and grow the kingdom of heaven here in the world. He made you in relationship with Him and to love Him.

But when we get this treasure, we need to do something about it. It’s given freely, as the treasure was that was hidden in the field. But there’s a cost to it. Christ paid the initial cost, for that pearl of great price. But then we’re called upon to do something as well.

Did you notice, in those two parables? In both of them, someone sells all he has to get the treasure. They sell all they have to get the treasure. They sacrifice for the treasure. So if the kingdom of heaven is the rule of God in our lives, we need to sacrifice for God’s rule.

We need to give sacrificially. People talk sometimes about giving in terms of the Scriptures. The Old Testament has the tithe. Some people ask, “Should I tithe on the net or the gross?” I had a fellow pastor who once said, “Either is probably an improvement.”

Some people say the tithe is only in the Old Testament. In the New Testament it’s never there. And I agree, it’s not explicitly there, although Jesus was a good Jew, and he tithed, I’m sure. No, Jesus asks for all of it. He told the rich young ruler, “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.”

Here in these two parables, they sold everything they had in order to gain that treasure. And once they had that treasure, their life didn’t end there. It wasn’t like, I’ve got it, I have nothing else I can do, time to die.

They knew joy. They shared that with other people, I’m sure. They celebrated. I don’t think that the merchant took that pearl and then just secreted it somewhere in a vault – since he probably did have one – and then never showed it to anyone else.

The man who bought the field went into the field to enjoy the treasure. It doesn’t say he dug it up again and looked at it, and spent time counting all the coins. But he knew it was there, and he enjoyed himself in the field. He knew joy, because he knew the treasure.

We will also experience joy. We will also experience the blessings of God, as it says in the psalm. That’s not necessarily the “prosperity gospel” health and wealth type of thing. God’s blessings just mean that God’s hand is upon you, that you can sense His presence and you know He’s there, that He is directing your life.

We trust, as it says in Romans, that all things will work out to the good in the end, even those things that are trouble right now, that are trials. Because we have the treasure. We know the hope. We love the Creator, who made each one of us. And we have eternity in our hearts and in our hands.

I hope that you have found that treasure in your life. I pray that it brings you that kind of joy that it brought these fellows here in these parables. And I pray that that same joy is shared with other people, so that they too can experience and gain the treasure that you were given by God Himself.

And through that, the kingdom of heaven will be displayed to all the world, and will bring praise to the One who gave us all things.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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