Why was it, again, that Jesus spoke in parables? It wasn’t simply to illustrate his point by using a world of images familiar to his congregation. It was to pull the rug from under the feet of his listeners… to get them nodding in agreement, thinking – yes, yes, yes, and then suddenly – Bang! What? What’s he talking about. And by the time the penny’s dropped, it’s too late to grab hold of him and stone him to death.
So – if that’s function of parables, what is going on with these last two parables we heard in today’s reading, which just seem to function like a tedious exercise in stating the obvious? Treasure hidden in a field, so you sell everything to buy the field – well, that makes good economic sense, and then there is the expensive pearl so you sell everything to go and buy it. Again, simple straightforward common sense. But then, Jesus really didn’t go in for common sense – that’s why he ended up crucified. Common sense, is nothing other than the sense that people have in common – and Jesus, it seemed, had largely set about challenging the common sense.
Anyway – you turn to the commentaries of the bible to read what the experts say on this passage, and you will usually read words to the effect of “following Jesus is all-or-nothing.” You have to be totally committed. And quite often, the same illustration surfaces. In the 1960s, a Marxist and a Christian are having a constructive conversation with one another about their respective beliefs. And the Marxist says… “Christianity means something to you… But Marxism means everything to us.” Total commitment – that is what is required, and isn’t it tragic that other people can give total commitment, when we Christians cannot. And so the sermons begin – simple and straightforward, common sense.
And what are the consequences? This morning, Norway is grieving the loss of at least 91 people, because a young man showed total commitment to his Christian beliefs, armed himself with explosives and small arms, and went on a shooting spree designed to set the world to rights, to bring about the justice he believed his country lacked. The more you read about the story, the more chilling it becomes… A man who had essentially given up all he had, even setting up a farm so he could buy the fertiliser that was crucial to building the explosive device he needed – reads almost like a grotesque parody of the parable in which the man sold all he had and bought the field so he could gain what was precious to him.
Now, of course, the received wisdom would say – ah, yes, this tragedy only goes to show that you can be committed – and wrong! Ah. There, you see. The trouble is – when it comes to a belief system, you cannot be committed, and think you’re wrong. Who can give up everything they have, with the conviction that their cause is not just?
Let’s look again at the parable. As usual, of course, instead of hearing the parable in the flow of its story– the lectionary chops all the material up, so we don’t hear it in context. As we explored this passage last week (when we looked at the same text but the verses that were chopped out of this week’s lectionary), last week, the parable of the weeds and the wheat issued a sharp challenge to those who heard it:
That people who think they know what needs to be done for the sake of justice, may be utterly and completely wrong. The great perpetrators of injustice were the Romans, so in order for justice to be done – the Romans would need to be gotten rid of – therefore – take up arms against Rome, and that will be justice. We don’t have to look far beyond today’s headlines to see a contemporary example of this. But the point of the parable, was that we may not have a god’s-eye-view on the world. Our view of justice, about what needs to be done for everything to be okay, could be completely wrong. We might think that our energies in church life, our private beliefs, our core values are absolutely and timelessly right. But we are subject to a monstrous scope of fallibility. We could be completely wrong – so, best we focus less upon booting out the Romans, and more about the kind of justice that comes from loving others and leave things like revenge in God’s hands.
And now, on the back of that, comes these two parables. “The Kingdom of heaven is like this: a man finds a treasure hidden in a field, he covers it up again, and is so happy that he goes and sells everything he has, and then goes back and buys that field.” Well – that makes good economic sense, I suppose. But it is quite deceitful. I that man was wearing one of those bracelets that says, “What Would Jesus Do?” surely, they would go and tell the man who owned the field about the treasure that was hidden there! If we read this off at the most obvious, literary level – then Jesus is encouraging us to be underhand in our business dealings! If you read it literally, instead of hearing it as a parable.
When you hear this as a parable, there is something else going on. The act of buying a field, is not simply like acquiring a property in modern Britain. In first century Israel, that land is more than precious. The land itself is the gift from God: it is the promised land, every square inch of it. The land is everything. Rather like the settlers in what became known as America. I read Gone with the Wind recently, and there was a quotation from the father of the heroin, Gerald O Hara, urging his daughter to value the Plantation called Tara, that he had built from nothing – because of the sheer value of land.
Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that Tara, that land doesn't mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts.
In the Kingdom of heaven, says Jesus – land has only a secondary value, that is supposed to draw you to something else. A treasure, even greater than the promised land. Because if the land is less precious to you, you are less concerned about Romans tramping all over it – and more concerned with finding whatever treasure it is that is hidden within this place you call the Promised Land. In fact, this is a lesson that is learnt in the course of the great novel, Gone with the wind, because the land of the South is defeated and trampled upon by those nasty northerners called ‘Yankees’. The book is a lament for the loss of the land, and the loss of a whole way of life. But Gone with the Wind was written after the land had been lost: Jesus is telling this parable before the land was laid waste. This parable is calling the people to let go of the land as though the land itself was the treasure: it is a call instead to find that the real treasure is hidden somewhere in the land.
When you discover treasure, nothing else matters. The land itself is neither here nor there – it’s the treasure to be found in the land that gives worth to the land. That was not a safe thing to say in Israel!
And then there is the other parable: “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls, and when he fids one he goes and sells everything he has, and buys that pearl.” It seems to me that the first parable here, helps us to interpret the second. Before we jump into vague generalities about selling your possessions and giving up precious things, that don’t actually mean very much: try to hear it in context. Try to imagine someone says to you: ‘Ah, you’re looking for the perfect car – and then one day, you find a Rolls Royce Phantom that is worth a fortune – and you go away and sell everything you have to get it!” First of all, how many people – realistically – are going to be able to afford that? What on earth are you going to be able to sell that will enable you to have it? Your house! Your share of the land! Once again, Jesus is telling his followers that there is something more important than the land.
In fact, this entire series of parables is about the land: the sower in soil, the mustard seed, the field… The land is worth nothing! That is verging on blasphemy to a first century Jew. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus has declared that the people who don’t have any share in the land – are blessed! Blessed are the meek – the meek meaning those who do not own any land, blessed are the meek, he says, because they will inherit the land!
What do we do with all this? Because we don’t have the same kind of rootedness in the soil. We don’t need to own land in order to guarantee that we and our families will be able to have food on their plates. What is the equivalent of land for us? What is it that we think we need to have in order for justice to be done?
In Xchange recently, some of the young people noted the different answers between parents of bygone generations and today’s parents – when asked with the question, what do you hope above all, for your children to be. I can’t remember the era, but there was some research to show that years ago, parents would say “we want our children to become good people.” Today, the prevailing answer was, “we want our children to be happy.” Of course, we want our children to be happy. But when happiness lies at the core of what we want, it’s likely to ruin everything for everyone! When something else lies at the core of what we hope for, we may well find happiness accidentally along the way…
Now, we can all shake our heads and say – ah, hedonism yes: let’s do away with that. But happiness is not our only central hope. What about other unquestionable hopes that drive us: Fulfilment? Meaning? Value? Purpose? Respect? Appreciation? And when we feel that we cannot get those things – which is inevitably the case because if we hope for them too much, we will always want more than we currently have, we are likely to moan and complain that we don’t have them. Even in church life!
And if Jesus were stood here addressing us today – it would not be the land that was so precious to the cause of justice: it would be the quest for fulfilment, for meaning, for purpose, for being valued and appreciated or respected. Jesus would tell us to drop all of those things as motivators, as drivers for our lives. And seek instead his kingdom and his justice: and then all of those things are likely to emerge along the way.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness – and all these things shall be added unto you! It is the logic of the Gospel. Nothing to do with being totally committed! Getting rid of Muslims and Somalian refugees in Norway – has led one man to commit atrocities for the sake of the justice he sought. And of course, being a Christian rather than a muslim, we will take the trouble to analyse the psychological causes behind this brand of terrorism, rather than simply stick a label on him. And doubtless there are major psychological problems that drive someone to commit the atrocity this man did.
But equally, there are minor psychological disorders that affect most people, although obviously to a far lesser degree. What is it that clouds your judgment – that mis-shapes your conception of justice, of what needs to be done for divine justice to be achieved on earth? Is it the Kingdom of God taking root in your life? Are we deluded enough to think that we care only for justice, and long only for the kingdom of God. Or are we sufficiently rooted in the body of Christ to be able to hear other people question our own infallibility?
However we disguise our other, selfish, hidden motives – however we disguise our lust for the land, however we refuse to acknowledge the forces that really drive us – honestly. Are we in the kind of relationships with one another, where those things are spelt out to us? Or do we retreat into our own little virtual reality, where we listen only to those who agree with us?
Is there room then, for us to hear the voice of God that speaks to us, that pulls the rug from under our feet, that transforms our view of the world, our priorities, our motives? Are we able, amidst our great causes, and our good Christian desire for justice, to allow the voice of God himself to penetrate our defences.