Thought for the day
Our conviction is that God loves us wholly, in the double sense that he loves us fully and completely and his desire is that grace should touch every dimension of our lives. Anyone who has made the discovery of faith, like the merchant in search of fine pearls, will know what is meant: it is so wonderful that it leads to a discipleship costing not less than everything. It can be daunting, of course, but it leads to life in abundance (Jn 10:10).
God of the covenant, faithful and true, you offer us both love and a way of living. As we embrace your love for each of us, help us so to live that we may fully alive with your Good News.
Matt 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field.
Matt 13:45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. 46 When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it.
Matt 13:47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was cast into the sea that caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, they pulled it ashore, sat down, and put the good fish into containers and threw the bad away. 49 It will be this way at the end of the age. Angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matt 13:51 “Have you understood all these things?” They replied, “Yes.” 52 Then he said to them, “Therefore every expert in the law who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and old.”
Matt 13:53 Now when Jesus finished these parables, he moved on from there.
Our passage today gives us a great opportunity to become familiar with the mind and interests of Matthew. This is because all four paragraphs—the three parables and the question at the end—are unique to this Gospel and found elsewhere only in the Gospel of Thomas §76, 109 and 8. As usual, this distinctive material lets us into the particular concerns of the writer at the time of writing. Last Sunday’s parable of the weeds and wheat dealing with perfectionists in the community should be born in mind.
Kind of writing
The selection comes from the second part of Matthew 13.
Inside: teaching the disciples (13:36-43)
Explanation of the weeds (vv. 36-43)
The treasure and the pearl (44-46)
The dragnet (47-50)
Concluding dialogue (51-53)
We have here three parables or comparisons. In their original form, parables are meant to contain something puzzling or disturbing. Whether or not you think these parables go back to Jesus’ own teaching depends on whether you think these are “real” parables or more simply didactic examples with a fairly clear message. The question at the end captures Matthew own description of himself, trying to hold together the novelty of the Gospel and the lasting value of the Old Testament within the Jewish tradition.
Old Testament background
(i) The parable of the treasure: 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. (Prov 2:1-5) Hidden wisdom and unseen treasure, of what value is either? Better are those who hide their folly than those who hide their wisdom. (Sir 20:30-31)
(ii) The parable of the pearl: Job 28, too long to quote, would be a good OT resource on the search for wisdom, meditating especially on the lengths to which people go to find underground treasure—and yet what is real treasure?
New Testament foreground
(i) The parables of the treasure and the pearl: Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21) And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. (Matt 19:29) So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:33)
(ii) The parable of the net goes back to the fishing metaphor used at the call stories in the Gospels: And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matt 4:19) The particular function of the parable of the net resembles that of two other parables in Matthew, that of the weeds and the wheat (Matt 13) and that of the wedding feast (Matt 19). In all three cases the issue is the tendency of religious groups to exclude the imperfect. This was an issue in the Christian movement once it had “settled down” and become “church”. Matthew’s overall teaching on this is both hopeful and theological: hopeful in that now is the time of growth and change and no-one can determine what may happen on the faith journey of another; theological in that he says clearly that we are to leave the assessment firmly in the hands of God.
(iii) The difficult expression “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is found only in Matthew with one exception in Luke (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28).
(iv) On the old and the new: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20) No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matt 9:16)
On leaving judgment up to God:
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Rom 14:1-4) Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God. (Rom 14:10-12)
Verse 44 The finder is like someone who has come across something which is worth everything—to be read in the light of the cost of discipleship.
Verse 45 A metaphor closely related to the previous one.
Verse 46 The one, supreme gem is worth simply everything. Both these parables have the same purpose: the supreme value of what is sought and the extraordinary sacrifice in attaining it.
Verse 47 This seventh parable is a different kind of parable with a different purpose: putting up with the imperfect in the community. It is not unlike the parable of the wheat and the weeds.
Verse 48 “Sorting” is a feature of the allegorical parables in Matthew 13 and 19.
Verse 49 Angels (a euphemism for God) do the sifting at the end. It is assumed that the disciples belong to the righteous and that they will escape judgment on account of their faith in Jesus.
Verse 50 This quotes Dan 3:6 and appends Matthew’s dental metaphor.
Verse 51 Matthew, in contrast to Mark, shows the disciples coming to some understanding. Cf. Matt 13:11, 16, 23. Elsewhere, their grasp of things is less apparent: 14:17, 28–31; 15:16, 33; 16:5–8, 22–23 etc.
Verse 52 He then describes himself, really, as the perfect scribe, combining old and new (see Matt 5:17-20 and 9:16-17). See the portrait of the ideal scribe in Sirach 39. In the rabbinic tradition, we read: “Whosoever studies the Torah and does not revise it is likened unto one who sows without reaping.”
Chapter 13 fits into Matthew’s story in an interesting way. In chs. 5-7, Jesus gave powerful teaching to his followers. In chs. 8-9, we see Jesus powerful in deed. Following on that, chs. 11-12 show a variety of responses to Jesus. In ch. 13, Jesus tries to deconstruct an old world and construct a new one. There are two “audiences”: the crowds (who do not really understand) and the disciples (who begin to understand, albeit falteringly). That is why, in the middle of ch. 13, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs them directly. This division of response will continue in chs. 14-16, where we witness the widening gap between two communities, no doubt reflecting conditions at the time of writing.
With such a context in mind, we are reminded that we cannot take the parables out of their setting and treat them somehow as generic wisdom. The parables packed a punch in the ministry of Jesus and in the life of the early church. It is our task to allow them to speak today, in our communities and contexts.
Pointers for prayer
1. Have you ever found yourself saying “that was worth it” after giving up something (time, pleasure, money, etc.)? What was the treasure that made the sacrifice worthwhile?
2. The “kingdom of heaven” is when God is really the ruler in our life. What treasures have you obtained when you allow God to be at the centre of your life?
3. In life, we gather a lot of things, some good and some bad. The wise person in the kingdom of heaven, knows how to sit down and make decisions on what to keep and what to discard. When have you undertaken that kind of discernment? What have you discarded? What have you retained?
God of eternal wisdom, you alone impart the gift of right judgement. Grant us an understanding ear, that we may value wisely the treasure of your kingdom and gladly forgo all lesser gifts to possess that kingdom’s incomparable joy. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.