Buried Treasure A man somehow finds a treasure buried in a field. How he finds it we do not know. What he was doing when he found it, we are not told. Unexpectedly, he came upon a treasure he wasn't looking for. He covers the treasure up in great excitement and goes to find some way to buy the field so he could own the treasure in it. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is such a treasure. We happen upon it in an unexpected place, and we are surprised and overwhelmed when we find it. Immediately we know that we must have it, even if it requires giving up all that we have to obtain it. For him, the discovery of the treasure is an experience of transforming joy. It is an aspect of the Gospel that is often overlooked. The Perfect Jewel A merchant, after years of searching, finds at last the perfect jewel. He is probably a rich man, in contrast to the poor man of the first parable. Pearls were the most valuable things in the ancient world, even more precious than gold, and this merchant has found one of extraordinary perfection and value. A perfect jewel is worth having for the purely aesthetic pleasure of handling it, admiring it, contemplating its perfection. The implication of the parable is that there are other attractive things in the world, but the kingdom surpasses them all and by comparison makes them of little worth. The beauty and perfection of the kingdom of heaven surpasses all other objects of beauty and loveliness. The Dragnet There is a third parable in this Gospel, and it presents an old theme, something that we have heard before. Like last week's parable of the weeds, the parable of the net teaches that we must wait until the end for the final separation of the good from the wicked, and that until then we must have patience. The kingdom is like a fishnet that is dragged through the sea and catches every kind of fish in its path, some good, some worthless. The net of the kingdom will not be full until the close of the age, and then the separation will take place. The time of transition between the appearance of the kingdom and its fulfillment must occur. The fullness and perfection of the kingdom will be achieved only at the final period of history. In the meantime, we must be patient. Finally, after telling these parables, Jesus asks the apostles whether they have understood "all this." They say they have. Kingdom is the key word in today's Gospel. The kingdom of God, or of heaven, is the central theme of the teaching of Jesus. It involves his whole understanding of his own person and work. The kingdom means the "kingship" or "kingly rule" or "reign" or "sovereignty" and expresses the lordship of God over his people and over the world that he has made. The kingdom of God is where God reigns. It cannot be the product of our own efforts. It is an act of God himself to break the power of evil and to establish his rule in the world. God rules eternally, but in the person of Jesus God rules in a new way. In Christ, the kingdom has arrived though it is yet to be completed. The kingdom is both "now" and "not yet."
At the time of Jesus the people believed that the coming of the Messiah would be the start of a Kingdom where there would be only good people. And what about evil? What was going to happen to the wicked? Simple: they would be burnt up by fire from heaven! John the Baptist predicted about the coming of the Messiah saying: "His winnowing fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat in his hand; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out" (Mt. 3:12). Even the disciples of Jesus shared his thinking (Lk. 9:54). But Jesus did not approve of or share this kind of thinking at all. He held the Baptist in great esteem, but he did not want to hear any talk of fire. He not only never intended to destroy sinners, but he welcomed them into his house, he invited them to share his meals, he kept company with thieves, heretics, prostitutes. In short, he was not that energic Messiah everybody expected and, as a matter of fact, at his death there was no change to be seen in the world: evil was still there. Fifty years after the death of Jesus, Matthew, now an old man, looks around and what does he see? There is still a lot of evil in the world. There is also some good, it is true, but side by side with it evil grows luxuriantly. The Christians of his community keep asking him: what kind of Kingdom did Jesus start if it cannot destroy evil once for all? The evangelist gives the answer to this question in the parable of the weeds. The servants would like to destroy all the weeds, eliminate them. Why doesn't the owner accept their advice? He keeps his calm; he does not show surprise, and does not share their anxiety. His answer (that takes up more than a third of the whole parable) reveals to us the attitude of God towards the evil that exists in the world, in the Church, and in every individual. Good and evil, says the owner, cannot be separated, they have to grow up together and it will be like that to the end of time. The separation will take place, but not this year, not today, not immediately. Why can it not be done immediately? The line separating good from evil does not pass in the space between individuals, or between different groups of people, or between nation and nation; it passes within the heart of every person. We find good and evil in every person. That's why it is not possible to intervene with fire from heaven: everything would then be destroyed, the evil as well as the good. Even the most wicked of people have, together with a lot of weeds, some good grain in themselves; why burn it up also? "Keep calm!" says the owner of the field. People are instinctively led to divide humankind into two groups: the good and the wicked, the friends and the enemies. The tragic consequence of such a distinction is intolerance and the desire to solve problems rapidly and violently. Thus we might have believers who, since they cannot do all this personally, ask God to intervene to judge and punish. The readings of today tell us very clearly that God will never carry out these crazy wishes. The gospel tells us to accept with peace of mind the presence of evil in the world, and invites us to recognize the weeds present also in our hearts, and it assures us that the love of God will one day destroy all evil.
Within this parable of the sower, the sower does his job. The seed is all of equal quality. Yet there is unequal growth. The problem is with the soil. It helps to know that in Palestine the seed was sown before plowing so the sower could not tell what the ground was like and what depth the soil there was as he sowed. Some soil is hardened, like the path that is beaten across the field, and there is no place for the seed to enter. Some hearers are calloused, made hard by life, their disappointments, the circumstances around them. They cannot hear, because they will not let themselves hear. Some soil is shallow, lacking in depth. It appears to be receptive but just below the surface is solid rock and no room for roots. Some hearers respond with immediate fervor, but soon it chokes and their good beginning is over. The problem here is that their great enthusiasm is superficial. Some soil is deceptive, so filled with the seeds of other plants that there is not sufficient room for the grain to grow. Evil desires choke out evil good desires that God plants in our hearts. A portion of the field is good and fertile soil. Most hearers cannot nurture and support the word; three quarters of them, if we read the parable literally. But Jesus is not interested in numbers or percentages. It is enough to know that not all of those who hear will be receptive to real growth. But some will hear and respond, and this consolation is at the heart of the parable; its central teaching. The few who accept more than balance the great numbers who do not. They maybe little in number but their growth and productivity is miraculous. The best yield that a farmer in Jesus' time could expect would be something around tenfold, more usually sevenfold. But the seed Jesus plants in receptive hearts multiplies up to a hundredfold. The great theme of today's Gospel is hope in the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. It is grounded in the certainty that the Word of God will be effective. The First Lesson is important in helping us understand this (Isaiah 55:10-13). God's Word cannot be ineffective. The ancient Hebrews understood the power of the Word to accomplish what it was intended to do. In the beginning, "God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). We ought not read that with surprise, for the creation of light follows naturally from the command. God creates by his Word: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth" (Ps. 33:6). God's Word is creative, and it carried with it divine force to accomplish its intention. This may be a new idea for many of us. We assume that words are merely "hot air," empty, meaningless, without power. But a careful reading of the Old Testament shows again and again that this is not the biblical concept of the Word. The Word has power to do things. We know as soon as an insult slips past our lips that we have made a mistake. Yet we cannot bring back the words; they are already out there doing their rude and destructive work. Words do have power. The kingdom of God, because it is rooted in the Word of God, will succeed. Its ultimate triumph is certain. But its beginnings are small and unnoticed by the world. Contrary to expectation, the kingdom came without fanfare; there was no perceptible change in the human condition. Everything seemed to go along as it had before. The kingdom, like a tiny seed, was planted and began to grow imperceptibly. It was not at all what the world or God's people expected. The parable can be seen on different levels. It speaks to us when we are sowers of the seed. This is not only the task of preachers, but of us all. Consider how we can be sowers. The basic point is that one needs to have faith in the Word one proclaims. If it is the Word of God that we proclaim it is assured of success. But patience is required, for the growth of the kingdom is very slow by human standards. Also, we need to learn not to be too concerned with results. Faithfulness is far more important. Faithfulness to one's duty is the key. Too much attention to the results of one's work can be deceptive and misleading, and can even corrupt the messge itself. If this is true, what are the implications for church membership? Is a growing church necessarily a good church? Can a church that is losing members still be doing its job? These are important and probing questions. This parable also speaks to us as hearers of the Word. It is easy to find contemporary illustrations of each of the kinds of soil the parable mentions. We might even be tempted to mention the representatives of these categories by name! But the parable is not meant to encourage spiritual pride. It ought to be applied personally. We should be encouraged to examine ourselves -- using the kinds of soil as a measuring rod. Each person will probably find this parable can function as law, driving us to our knees in confession as it brings God's judgment to us. Yet it can also function as gospel, consoling us with absolute certainty of God's promises, which may work slowly, but also work surely.
(v.28) "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." These are among the most beloved and quoted verses in the Bible, because all of us feel burdened and in need of rest. In their original context, these verses spoke specifically to those burdened by the Jewish law. God gave the law to guide the Jewish people through the moral thickets of life, but well-intentioned people embellished the law until it became its own thicket. Religious "professionals" in Jesus' day prided themselves on their observance of the law, but even they could not avoid infractions. The common person did not stand a chance of perfectly observing the law. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me" (v.29). Jesus does not propose that we go yoke-less, but that we accept his yoke, which is "manageable." While the original context referred to the burden of the Jewish law, there is nothing in these words to suggest that they should not also extend to our weariness and burdens today. We are weary today, even though we do not observe the Jewish law. We are burdened by many things: busyness, concerns about jobs, marriage, money, health, children, security, old age, loneliness, and a thousand other things. Jesus' promise is "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." Jesus still does that! Jesus still gives us rest! Jesus invites all those exhausted with life to have peace with God. As St Augustine put it in the memorable line at the beginning of his Confessions, "You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you."