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The Priceless Kingdom

Sermon - 7/24/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 13:44-46

We've been looking at the parables of Jesus in the 13th chapter of Matthew's gospel. There are seven parables just in that one chapter, and a couple weeks ago we looked at the sower of the field, last week the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

And so this morning, two very short parables on a common theme -- a found treasure, one by accident and the other by intention, verses 44 through 46 of Chapter 13. Jesus says:

‘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.

45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.'

So, they're short parables, it should be a short sermon, right?

Once again to correct a common misconception about this phrase used by Jesus "the kingdom of heaven" -- it's often assumed that heaven refers to a place other than earth or to a time other than the present -- and neither is the case in this example.

That 'The Kingdom of Heaven' means exactly the same thing as 'The Kingdom of God' is especially clear in Chapter 19, in the story at that rich, young ruler who goes away very sad because he can't divest himself of his wealth, and Jesus says: "Truly I tell you, it would be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God".

So Jesus uses them here interchangeably. John Dominic Crossan notes in the book that we are studying in our prayer triads on the Lord's Prayer that "dwelling" is simply another way of naming the dwell-er. So, for instance, when you hear on the news a reporter say "today, the White House said", you know that what is meant is that the President has issued some statement.

The kingdom of heaven is simply another name for that same reality, the kingdom of God. That is, the ideal vision for our world, if God were on the throne of Caesar, so to speak. And further, as Crossan repeatedly emphasizes in that book we are studying, God's kingdom is not about future heaven but present earth. Which is why Jesus taught us how to pray, in the Lord's Prayer, "thy will be done on earth as in heaven".

Only in Greek, that phrase is actually reversed -- "in heaven, so too on earth". It's a bit awkward, and so we reverse it in English. But Crossan makes the point that heaven is where the eternal model exists for our earth, not where future destiny of our earth awaits.

Now, 'kingdom' itself is a term that is a bit outmoded, isn't it? And problematic in our democratic age, with our focus on equality. So, look for instance at Saudi Arabia today, that is a kingdom. And in the news this week, if you're following along, new laws were unveiled in Saudi Arabia whereby any dissent could be punished by 10 years in prison. Any dissent. It's a way of illustrating the absolute power of the King.

Well, who wants to use that as a model for God's world? It's hardly ideal for anyone, other than perhaps the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia (and I hope, by the way, that the King does not hear about this sermon :).

Great Britain, of course, is a Monarchy as well, but a Parliamentary Monarchy today, but there the monarch is little more than a figurehead over the ritual functions of the government. Well, is that the model that we want for a world ruled by God? In many ways, I think religion functions in that way for many people, as simply the place where rituals are held, and so religion is reduced to this performance of ritual in God's world.

And then there is that whole male-dominant theme of 'King', right? I don't why that's a problem for some people, it's never been a problem for me :).

So, Crossan proposes a different metaphor for understanding the vision that Jesus offers of God and God's world in the Lord's Prayer. If we think of our world as the household of God, then God is the householder. The one who creates the household. Who protects the household. Who provides for the household. The model for other members of the household on how to live and be as a member of that household.

To hallow God's name (as we say in the Lord's Prayer) is to honor the way of God as the divine householder. To learn from God's ways, and so to order our house on earth as it is in heaven.

And that brings us, then, to these parables of Jesus. This household of God, says Jesus, is like that treasure in the field. Like that priceless pearl. So valuable, you sell everything you have in order to obtain it. It really is that simple.

Only it isn't :). The parables of Jesus always carry a little surprise, a certain punch which makes you stop and say "Wait a second, did he say what I think he just said?".

So here's punch number one: in this first parable, we see this person, you know, walking along in a field, stumbles across a rock and a uncovers this treasure. Now, I know many of you here are old enough to remember the Beverly Hillbillies. Jed Clampett -- he uncovers oil (shooting at rabbits or something), and oil bubbles up, they become millionaires and so they buy a mansion in Beverly Hills. And then all the humorous incidents that happen thereafter.

Only here's the rub in the story Jesus tells: when we get to the end of this story (and note it's precisely at the end of the story -- follow your text), Jesus reveals that he doesn't own this field. Oops. We have here an ethical dilemma.

A man and a wife own a convenience store. The husband is teaching the son how to run the store. The son asks his dad to explain ethics to him. And Dad says, hmm, ethics. You know Mrs. Jones who lives down the street, how she lives on her Social Security check? And she comes in to cash her check and buy a few things. Now, if you one day give her one dollar instead of 20, this is where ethics come in. Do you split the extra money with your father? Or, do we tell your mother and split it three ways? :)

So, you see, the finder of the treasure here has a dilemma -- does he have an obligation to reveal what he has discovered?

It turns out there is a whole body of Rabbinical literature precisely on this issue. And that the ancient Rabbis had worked out a legal principle that said that if there is a 'mark of ownership' on the treasure, then you have an obligation to reveal it.

What if you find scattered coins? Well, they said if the coins are stacked, then obviously they were put there by someone, that is a mark of ownership. If they're scattered, well, finders-keepers.

We see the same kind of thing in the news -- a treasure hunter discovers a sunken ship filled with gold. Who becomes rich? The lawyers! They're going to be fighting over who owns that gold for the next 10 years.

In a different book, Crossan sums up the ethical problem of this parable, he says: "If the treasure belongs to the finder, buying the land is unnecessary. But he hides it, doesn't he? If the treasure does not belong to the finder, buying the land is unjust".

So is Jesus here justifying ill-gotten wealth? The ends justifies the means? This is right out of the Rupert Murdoch school of journalism -- whatever it takes, get the story, or get the treasure as the case may be. Now, if you're the one whose phones have been hacked, or the one who actually owns that treasure (or did before it was 'stolen'), or how 'bout the one who sold the field, you might feel a little differently about this story.

And then there is the whole issue of what the new landowner is going to do with this treasure. If he reveals it, he risks exposing that he made the purchase under false pretenses and may even lose his legal claim to the treasure which is the reason why he purchased the field in the first place. It's kind of like those Road-Runner cartoons, where the Coyote sets the trap for the Road Runner and the trap always backfires.

So all is not as easy as it seems in this story. So what, then, is the point that Jesus is making?

The punch of the second parable is easier to see, and I think it helps explain both. A pearl merchant finds a pearl so valuable he sells everything to obtain it. Nothing unethical here, everything is above board. The only problem is, what if he has a wife and kids that depend upon him, and he's just sold everything? Let's say this pearl is worth, by today's standards, $250,000. And his home is worth $200,000. So he sells his home, he still needs more. He's got a car worth $50,000 -- well, I guess he wouldn't have a car, let's say he has a mule worth $50,000. OK, maybe a herd of mules worth $50,000 :). He sells them all to get the $250,000 dollars.

So now what does he have? He's got a pearl. . . .and he's homeless. And he doesn't have an ass to sit on :)

Does that make any sense? You can't eat a pearl. So does that help explain anything? Wouldn't you just say that merchant's an idiot? So is Jesus is saying the kingdom of heaven is full of idiots and unethical land developers?

Or, is Jesus lampooning the whole system of buying and selling, of consumerism and wealth acquisition, that we think is the way to happiness and success? Is this not yet another way of Jesus turning the world upside down, as we know it. The last shall become first, the first shall become last. Blessed are the poor. You must lose your life in order to save it.

Here, to describe the priceless quality of the kingdom of heaven, of God's household, Jesus uses the very worldly values that can be bought and sold on the open market as a way of showing that in truth, they are worthless. In comparison, you see, to this household of God.

It's the story of St. Francis, who left all his inherited wealth on the floor of an Italian court room, down to his last stitch of clothing, to start a new way of life that became the Franciscan order. It's the story of Millard Fuller, who literally walked away from millions of dollars worth of wealth, in order to find a new way of life that eventually became Habitat for Humanity.

It's the story of a thousand public servants, who could have been successful in other careers that would have paid much better, but chose instead to teach our children. To manage our libraries. To put out or fires. To protect public safety.

The message of Jesus in these parables may be simple, but it's not simplistic. It's a message about commitment and dedication, about sacrifice and courage. It's a message about something so priceless, so precious, we are willing to give our whole selves to it.

The kingdom of heaven, the household of God, which I would describe as the grace of God's love and the justice of God's world, is the life we are called to live as the whole community of God, in and for God's vision for our world on earth as it is in heaven.

Such is so valuable, so priceless, that when we see it, when we even get but a glimpse of it, we are willing to do what it takes to make it be. Even by worldly standards to do what appears to be absurd.

Go and sell all you have, give it to the poor, Jesus tells that rich man. That's absurd.

Take up the cross, come and follow me. That's absurd.

Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Absurd.

To say the household of God is like a treasure so valuable you sell everything you have to be a part of it is just crazy.

Unless, of course, Jesus is right. And if so, "crazy" is to do anything less.

 


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