“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.”
Matthew 13:44 (NRSV)
We are now in a section of rapid-fire parables. While these may all have been delivered in one shot, keep in mind that Matthew is explaining that Jesus taught the crowds regularly in parables. We may be seeing a compilation of parables delivered on multiple occasions. At the very least, it seems likely that Jesus would use the same parable on more than one occasion.
Unlike some of the other parables in Matthew 13, this one does not have a clear Old Testament origin. There are other “hidden treasure” stories in the ancient Jewish tradition, generally pointing out how easy it was for the treasure-finder to forget God with their newfound wealth or commending landowners and buyers for good compromises.
There may be an allusion here to Proverbs 2.
My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
Proverbs 2:1-4 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
The rest of Proverbs 2 talks about how wisdom and commandments will protect the faithful as opposed to the wicked who are destined for destruction. This is pretty central to Jesus’ message, so it’s not unlikely he’s thinking of this proverb when he tells his parable.
The particulars of this tiny parable describe a situation that the poor in Israel would know well.
The Roman Empire is known for a lot of things, some of them being dramatic buildings and statues. As people came to power in the Empire, they wanted to leave a legacy of their rule – secure a certain kind of immortality, if you will. Often, they were motivated to outdo the accomplishments of their predecessors. Huge building projects, ornate statues, all of these things had civic benefit but also served as a sort of memorial to the rule of a governor or Caesar, himself.
These projects did not come free, however. Materials, labor, and imports cost a great deal of money, and this money did not come from the personal coffers of these officials. Rather, they came from taxes. If you were wealthy, you could probably get by all right. Not only did you have the money to pay, you had the money to bribe the tax collectors.
If you were poor, however, these taxes were like a gigantic press grinding you down with every turn of the screw. It was only a matter of time before you had to sell your land or the government seized it from you to pay your debts. A rather large amount of Judean peasants became sharecroppers, some of whom worked land that used to belong to them and had been in their family for generations.
In this story, we have someone working someone else’s land (or randomly digging in someone else’s land, which seems unlikely), and they uncover a treasure. This treasure is worth more than their land, more than their possessions. This person hides the treasure, again, and is filled with joy contemplating the future that waits for them when they obtain this treasure.
In the story, however, the person doesn’t just run off with the treasure. To get the treasure free and clear, they have to sell everything they own. They have to lose all their possessions. What meager security they have in life, they have to give it up, but they give it up joyfully because of the life to come that is held out before them. It’s a no-brainer, as we say. The treasure they will receive is worth many times over what they will have to give up to obtain it. The man in the story then buys the field, and that’s the end of the story.
We aren’t told about him gaining the treasure. We aren’t told what his life looked like after that. None of that is important to Jesus’ point, because his point is all about giving up what you have so that you might obtain a better future – in this case, entrance into the kingdom of God and life in the age(s) to come.
This is a timely message. We have already seen Jesus at this point in Matthew preparing his disciples for the persecution that will surely come if they follow Jesus’ path and take his message, warnings, and deeds to the rest of Israel. They will certainly give up their lives as they know them and may even in the process lose everyone dear to them and their own literal lives as well.
But it is by following this dangerous, faithful path that Jesus’ followers will obtain life in the age to come, either by surviving into it or being resurrected into it. This is, in fact, the very path that Jesus walked, himself.
Observing this, the author of Hebrews encourages those early Christians who followed after Jesus in their own persecution:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
In a tiny, bite-sized parable, Jesus has captured a key dynamic of the kingdom of God: you can endure the loss of everything now with joy because of the treasure you are about to obtain. This drove him down his own path, and he was very up front with all would-be followers that they would all walk similar roads.
But, it should be noted, the emphasis of the parable is not on the hardship. The hardship passes in a blink, hardly worth mentioning. The emphasis is on the obtaining of the treasure. For Jesus, the coming kingdom was as inevitable as getting the hidden treasure out of a field you bought.
Paul captures this well in his letter to the church in Rome:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
Romans 8:15b-18 (NRSV)
For Paul and those first century sufferers and martyrs, they had taken on this dynamic of the kingdom, enduring their hardships with joy because of the coming revelation of the kingdom of God with Jesus on the throne.
It is important, too, that this is not a parable about heaven. This is a parable about the kingdom of God. The great treasure in the parable is not a spiritual afterlife; it is God’s kingdom made manifest in history, when the kingdoms that ruled Israel would give way to the rule of God over the nations in Jesus Christ. It is life in that world that motivated those early followers. They looked forward to the present situation giving way to that future situation. They looked forward to being free of oppressors, having their land back, weaponized taxes being a thing of the past, and their religion restored to something beautiful and helpful that would save the world, not as a tool for grinding it down.
The kingdom of God coming would be a game changer, and it was life in the world under that rule that they purchased with faithfulness, sacrifice, tears, and blood. It was a concrete reality they wanted, hoped for, and received (although perhaps not in the manner nor the timing they expected). They didn’t want to escape the world; they wanted it radically changed.
To us on this side of Jesus’ resurrection, it seems like a no-brainer. But to them, it was a gamble, and to walk that road was to walk in faith.
- What is the nature of our future hope? What do we long for when we long for new creation? What are we willing to give up to enter into that world?
- The imagery of the Scriptures describing the coming kingdom of God is often grandiose, even cosmic. The historical progress of that kingdom, however, rarely played out the way those grand images implied. It was progressive and had plenty of setbacks and struggles, and the kingdom of God was not free from abuses. How might this affect our understanding of new creation? Might we be missing the progressive transformation of the power of God in seed form right under our noses?