Tripping Over Treasure, Knowing Your Pearls

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Ordinary Time 17 July 26, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The queasy feeling we may have that a new reality is about to break through is justified. Jesus unabashedly announced that he was the forerunner of a new age. These three parables give us hints as to how this new reality will break through, and how we can prepare ourselves for it.

Recent social and political developments lead people of all political persuasions, as well as people of no political persuasion whatsoever, to the uneasy conclusion that we are approaching the end of an era, the end of an age. Indeed, such a conclusion seems part of the human condition, in whatever era.

Such changes come at us in our churches, too, with the velocity of on-coming trains. No one really can put a finger on what, precisely, this change entails, or what it portends. It is just a feeling, a knowledge perhaps just shy of certitude but greater than suspicion that something has come to a close, that we are moving into new, uncharted territory, vaguely forbidding, as all new land usually is when approached for the first time.

Jesus tells us there will be times like this. He also tells us - he, or someone else who is directly announcing his coming, tells us, about 50 times - Don't be afraid!

Don't be afraid. Jesus tells anyone willing to listen, right from the start, that he is bringing in a new era, a new world, a new way of living and being in and beyond the world. He insists that, for those committed to loving God and loving their neighbors as themselves, this is a change we need not fear.

Three ways of looking at an era's end

What we have in our reading for today are three views of this coming kingdom that offer hints as to what it will look like when it initially arrives. From these hints, we can draw clues as to how to prepare ourselves for this new era Jesus is bringing in. It will come when it will come; all we can do, all we need to do, is to recognize it and be ready to receive it. This kingdom will both come, Jesus says, and it's already here. It is a kingdom both familiar and utterly beyond our comprehension. It is a kingdom that will arrive, we know not when, we know not how.

The kingdom, these parables say, is like a "treasure," like a "pearl," like a fisherman's "dragnet." All of these are images from the day-to-day life of the people of that time, images perhaps vaguely familiar to us today, but very familiar to people back then. Two of these images are very ordinary and mundane; the third one, while also grounded in everyday life, starts to venture into the apocalyptic. What shall we make of these today?

Extraordinary treasure, ordinary field

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is "like treasure hidden in a field." What can we say about a treasure hidden in a field? Well, for one thing, we are talking about a treasure that is already right under our noses. It's not out in space somewhere, not somewhere over the rainbow or on the other side of the sky or in a foreign country; not cleverly hidden on a high mountain we have to climb, not off in a foreign country where we don't know the language and don't know if we can trust the maps. It's right here under our feet. It is part of our day-to-day scenery. We walk by or over it every day. It's already right here among us, we just haven't been able to see it.

What might it take for us to be able to see it? What must happen for us to know it, to know that it's there - to know that it is treasure , that it is valuable, that it is something well worth going out of our way to obtain? All we have to do, in this case, is look - be aware of our surroundings, perhaps have some idea of what to look for.

When somebody discovers this particular treasure, they recognize it as treasure, and not just an old chest or box that got tossed aside and overgrown. They immediately recognize it. They hide it carefully, and then go running to the real estate office or wherever and buy the entire field. So, this treasure may be part of our day-to-day scenery, but on the other hand it's not part of property that we "own." The treasure is in a "field" that we don't own. But it is in a "field" to which we have ready access, a field we shortcut through all the time.

Know your pearls

The "pearl of great value" offers a similar image: it's something that somebody discovers during her everyday business. But there is an added dimension here: this pearl of great value is recognized as such by its finder. What is implied here is something not so much the case with a treasure in a field. The implication here is that the finder is one who is very familiar with pearls, and who is able to distinguish fine pearls from run-of-the-mill pearls, or even fake ones.

A recent Primetime broadcast tells us that this is no easy feat. To test a pearl for authenticity, it has to be held up to a bright light. It must be rolled around on a flat surface, to see if it's perfectly round. It needs to be rubbed against the front of the teeth. 1 And in this case, all of these various tests have to be carried out, needless to say, in a somewhat clandestine fashion, so someone else doesn't see you and scarf it up as you run off to sell everything you have to buy it - only to return and find it already sold!

Well, not to stretch a point too far, but suffice it to say that here we have a pearl that is different from all the other pearls one might come across every day. But to recognize this, the merchant needs to know her pearls. Such knowledge requires study, preparation and experience. One can't expect to just stumble across one of such value. Finding that pearl of great value requires work, study, preparation - one must be prepared to recognize that pearl for what it is. And one needs a confidence and an attitude, a sense of value, that results in thinking nothing of selling all that one owns in order to get it.

From the deep blue sea to the furnace of fire

Now with the dragnet, the imagery shifts rather significantly. This adventure of the dragnet full of fish bears little resemblance to finding a jewel or a treasure of great price in a field. There are some similarities, though. Again, we are talking about ordinary people - fisherfolk, in this case - going about their everyday business, plying their trade on the same sea they sail every day. And in the midst of this day-to-day grind, something highly unusual happens. Something awe-inspiring and wonderful. And this something that happens - as was the case with the pearl of great price, and the treasure hidden in the field - requires a significant amount of unexpected effort in the immediate aftermath. These fisherfolk have hauled in an incredible load of fish. Now, it's time to do some serious sorting.

Still, there has been a significant shift, here, in this last picture of what the kingdom of heaven will be like. We depart from the realm in which the kingdom of heaven is something you stumble across amid your day-to-day life. Suddenly, there are supernatural beings - angels - entering the mundane picture, sorting around for the good and the bad, and throwing the bad into a furnace of fire. This scenario is way beyond something that you stumble across or over unexpectedly. This is something over which we have no control. Again, we don't know when this is going to happen, and we don't really know how it's going to happen. It is beyond our control; all we can do is prepare ourselves for it.

And how shall we prepare ourselves? The first item of preparation is the realization that we can't perfectly prepare ourselves. We don't know when or how it will happen. But the feeling of queasy dread is something we can look past, grow beyond. God's kingdom is coming - and it will be good : a treasure, a pearl of great price.

We can be aware of our surroundings, mindful of how we live, know what we are looking for, so we will see it when we stumble across it. We can know our pearls, so we'll recognize the priceless one immediately when we find it - and then be ready to take that big leap, sell everything and bank the proceeds on this final, greatest treasure. We can work to be one of the good fish, so that when the sorting comes, we'll be carried beyond the sea to the place of new life, new beginnings.