This sermon was given by our priest-in-training, Sue, on Sunday 16 July 2017.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Who doesn’t love a story? Maybe you are getting excited about the new season of Game of Thrones, or like to take a good novel on holiday with you. Even babies get excited by Spot the Dog and children will repeatedly request a story even when they know it by heart. Jesus – and other rabbis of his time told stories called parables. They are stories about characters from everyday life and are not meant to be taken literally. Today’s gospel reading is only two verses long, but the shorter the story, the more room there is for interpretation and imagination. In both stories people sold everything to gain what they most desired. So the fundamental question they pose is: what matters that much to you? We will look at the traditional interpretations of these parables, and then a more modern twist.
First of all we’ll have a look at the parable of the treasure in the field. At the time of Jesus Israel was occupied by the Romans. This was nothing new – they had been conquered by one empire or another for centuries. In unsettled times people often buried coins or other valuables – even today archaeologists sometimes find treasure that has been buried for centuries. So treasure stories have always been popular – you know, the ones with the map where x marks the spot, or tales of what the lucky finder did with his newfound wealth. So Jesus’ audience would have thought they knew what to expect. But this is a bit different. A farm labourer finds the treasure and quickly buries it again, goes home and sells everything he owns for money to buy the field. The person who buried the treasure doesn’t seem to be around, and the owner of the field doesn’t know it’s there – let’s not get sidetracked by wondering whether the labourer should have offered him a share – Jesus isn’t holding up the man as a model citizen. The point of Jesus’ story is that the treasure could only be gained by doing something very radical – selling absolutely everything. Jesus’ audience would have been surprised by the twist.
The other parable in the pair is about a merchant. He by contrast is a professional. He has been looking for the best pearls around to buy and sell, and then he finds one which he recognises as so extraordinary it is worth all his merchandise and possessions put together. So he sells everything to buy it. I wonder what he does next? If he keeps it, he’s no longer a merchant, as he’s nothing else to sell. He has got the most beautiful pearl in the world – but unless he sells it again he has no occupation, home or possessions. We leave him admiring its beauty, not having yet faced up to the choice he must make. I think Jesus’ audience would have seen the humour there.
The traditional interpretation of both parables is that the treasure or pearl is the kingdom of heaven. To gain the kingdom we must give up all that we have for the sake of Jesus. The trouble is, that if we believe that the story is telling us that if we follow Jesus we must sell our houses and give away all our money, we are likely to stop listening there. We simply can’t do it. Now the disciples had left their jobs and families to be with Jesus, and it’s a romantic ideal for people like St Francis, perhaps, but it’s not for us. But read the gospels carefully. Not all Jesus’ disciples were poor. Zacchaeus, for example, the dishonest tax collector gave half his possessions to the poor and made restitution to those he had swindled, but Jesus doesn’t tell him to give up everything. All Christians are called to give generously and to regard our possessions as held in trust to God, but only a few are called to live in absolute poverty.
In fact the parables are about more than money. TS Eliot is best known for his poems, but he also wrote plays. At the start of the play the “the cocktail party” Lavinia has left her husband Edward and he has to host a cocktail party by himself. It becomes evident that Henry is having an affair with a young woman, Celia. A mysterious guest offers help and advice. He is later revealed to be a psychiatrist and invites all three of them to examine their own motivations. Edward and Lavinia patch things up. They do not fully understand each other, but they begin to learn to be tolerant of themselves and others, to give and take, and to be satisfied with domestic routine. Celia is given a choice between settling down to domesticity and devoting herself to missionary work. She is told that neither way is better, both are good. She chooses to go to Africa as a nurse. When insurgents attack she refuses to run away and leave her patients and she is found dead – crucified near an anthill. The dramatic sacrifice shocks Edward and Lavinia. But Eliot makes it clear that their much more mundane life is heroic, too, in its way. Sometimes just getting on with the next thing, day after day, without complaining or being selfish, is as difficult and as impressive as more dramatic ways to live.
Amy-Jill Levine is a practicing Jew who teaches New Testament studies in a Baptist college in the American Bible belt. As you can imagine she often has a novel way of looking at things. If you like your Bible study with a good dose of humour I recommend her book on parables. This is what she has to say about the parable of the pearl:
The story starts there was a man, a merchant. By the end of the parable he has the pearl he values above everything, but he is no longer a merchant, unless he sells the pearl. He has given up a part of his core identity. So Amy-Jill poses the question: What do you value so much that you will give up everything for it? In our society many people are always looking for more – a better lifestyle, more money, a truly satisfying relationship or to acquire status. We can be stuck in a cycle of dissatisfaction. If achieve our goal, it is never enough. Amy-Jill ran a Bible study group in a maximum security prison. She took in 12 theological students to study alongside 12 prisoners. She asked them all “What is your pearl of supreme value? What is more important than everything else put together”. One student was studying for a PhD. She had been married to a minister, and when she had gone back to college her marriage had ended, and she had gone back to her maiden name. She had to take out loans to fund herself. She had redefined herself, and was happy in what she was doing. One of the prisoners answered “Freedom”. He would do whatever it took – anger management courses, good behaviour, confession of his crime, if he could get out of prison and stay out. He wanted to redefine himself from criminal to free man. The Greek for pearl is margarita. Another student saw an irony, because it is also the name of a cocktail. She was a recovering alcoholic and had given up everything – home, food and family for alcohol. None of these are quoted as examples of good discipleship, but they are honest answers to the question: “What would you give up everything for?” What is the quest of your life? An interesting spiritual exercise is to write your own obituary. No need to stick to the facts – what would you really like to be remembered for? I remember doing that myself many years ago, and it was one of the milestones in the journey that has brought me to this pulpit today.
Lastly, what sort of church would we like St Margaret’s to be? What is our vision for the church, and what would we give up to achieve it? One thing that struck me when I had to do a parish survey was how high are the levels of deprivation in some parts of the parish. Perhaps we would like to see St Margaret’s serving all parts of our community, welcoming the poor and the marginalised. During the time in Rome when Christians were persecuted St Lawrence was asked to surrender the treasures of his church. But there were none left, because he had sold them all and given the money to the poor. So he gathered the poor people together and presented them to the authorities, saying “these are our treasures”. Unsurprisingly he was martyred, and he is remembered to this day for his wit as the patron saint of comedians. Commitment to the poor always has a price – what would we be prepared to give up to make it happen?
We’ve looked at 2 short verses and found a wealth of interpretations for both our church and for our own lives. Parables pose questions but give no answers – they do not give us a treasure map, or tell us what to do with our pearl once we have it, but they ask a very fundamental question. What really matters to you? And what would you have to do to obtain it?