Imagine yourself to be a Jew at the time of Jesus. Imagine that you are sitting outside your simple house, thinking about what God had promised in the Bible. (Now we call it the Old Testament, but then it was the only Bible you had.) You are one of the children of Abraham, to whom God had promised great blessings. But look around: right now you do not feel very blessed. God promised that He would give you peace from your enemies forever, but your enemies, the Romans, have won. God promised to eliminate evil, death, and sorrow, but everywhere life goes on as it has always gone on; suffering, hunger, evil, and death have never been defeated. The Romans rule; evil rules; suffering and death rule. And yet God had promised that ultimately He would rule, He would conquer all evil and death.
You have often heard rabbis speak of “the kingdom of God,” that time when all the earth would come under the righteous, peaceful rule of God through His anointed King, His Messiah. When the Messiah comes, everything will be made right. When the Messiah comes, he will wipe the tears from your eyes. When the Messiah comes, he will drive the cursed Romans out of this land that God promised to you. When the Messiah comes, the kingdom of God will finally have arrived, and God Himself will rule over all and bless His chosen people.
As you sit in front of your house, you look out across the field and imagine that the Messiah were coming right now. He would be riding on a white horse, waving a huge sword. He would be accompanied by legions of angels. All around, the glad shout of your fellow Jews would be heard as they welcome the arrival of their savior. “At last, the kingdom of God has arrived.”
Then you look at your little house, your possessions. If the Messiah and his angels were coming across that field, would any of this stuff mean anything to you anymore? Of course not. You would gladly leave all of it behind and run off to follow in the victorious wake of your conquering King.
While you sit in front of your house, daydreaming about the Messiah, you see that a small group of people actually are coming across the field. It seems to be a rabbi and his students. Soon they stop near you, and the rabbi begins to teach. He is telling stories, parables, which he says are about the kingdom of God. But his stories do not seem to fit your expectations.
The kingdom he is describing is not anything like the kingdom you have been expecting—no conquering hero sweeping you up in his great victory march. He talks about the kingdom as if it were something hidden, nearly invisible, which only those who are discerning and wise may enter. He talks about the kingdom as if each individual must make a hard choice about whether to believe in it and pursue it.
In a couple of stories, he talks about a person giving up all he has to enter this kingdom. That’s funny; you were just thinking about how gladly you would give up your possessions if the Messiah and his armies came galloping across your field. But this rabbi has no horses, no armies, no legions of angels. Look around: the Romans are still in control, people still suffer and die. And yet this rabbi is calling for you to “give up all you have.” For what? How can you be willing to lose everything for a kingdom you cannot even see?
In my imaginary scene the rabbi, of course, is Jesus, and the parables He tells are sometimes called the “kingdom parables.” Found in Matthew, chapter thirteen, these parables spell out the surprising nature of God’s coming kingdom. I asked you to imagine yourself as a first-century Jew, hearing those parables for the first time, because this helps us to see how truly radical these parables were. Jesus did not picture the kingdom of God as a conquering army that would sweep everyone up and carry them along. Although Jesus is not denying that ultimately the Messiah will indeed conquer and rule over His kingdom, the issue in these parables is something else—namely, what kind of people we need to be to enter into that kingdom. Before the conquering armies, before the legions of angels, we have to decide whether His kingdom is valuable to us, valuable enough to persevere and even suffer loss in order to enter it. Here, for example, is one of Jesus’ kingdom parables that might have puzzled his hearers:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)
To understand Jesus’ point, we must start by trying to understand the story itself. A man finds a great treasure in a field. Why not just take it? Well, when people ask, “Where did you get that treasure?” the owner of the field might find out and say, “‘That’s my field. That treasure belongs to me.” So the man hides the treasure in the field. Now, when anyone looks, all he sees is a field. Then the man goes and buys the field from the one who owns it, buying the treasure along with it.
The key phrase in the parable is “from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has.” Think how this would look to an observer, to his friends and family: “You are selling everything you have to get a field? What are you going to do when all you have in the world is a field? Are you just going to lie around in your field all day? We are too shrewd to make such a stupid deal. You would never catch us selling everything we have for a field.” But this man gives up everything he has joyfully. And given the way Jesus has told the story, we understand the man’s joy. He knows that he is not really losing. No one else knows what he knows: there is a great treasure in that field. When he owns the field, he owns the treasure, and he would gladly lose everything else to gain that treasure. He does not love the field; to him, the field is just the big dirty wrapping paper around a wonderful present. And to give up everything he has to gain it will in fact make him rich.
A similar theme shows up in the next parable Jesus tells:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
Once again, we start by trying to understand the story itself. A pearl merchant is in the business of buying and selling pearls. He is very experienced with pearls; no one understands pearls better than he does. Furthermore, he is a shrewd businessman. He is only going to make deals which benefit him; he is not interested in losing money. One day he comes across a pearl unlike any pearl he has ever seen. This is the pearl of pearls—large, lustrous, without flaw. No other pearl has even come close to comparing with this pearl.
Again, the key to the story is the way the merchant willingly sells everything he has to get this pearl. People will not often gladly surrender everything they have, but this merchant is glad to do it because of two things that are true about him: he knows a good pearl when he sees one; and he is only interested in making a profit. Others may balk at the high price for this pearl, but they do not know pearls the way the pearl merchant does. Even if he loses all the rest of his stock, every other pearl he has, the merchant knows that he will still be a winner if he buys this pearl.
Several important elements are common to these stories:
- In both cases, a man is willing to commit the very unusual and seemingly self-destructive act of giving up everything he has.
- In both cases, the man gladly gives up everything he has because he believes that in fact he is not losing but gaining: this treasure, this pearl, will make him rich.
- In both cases, the man knows something that is not obvious to others: that field is hiding a treasure; that pearl is valuable beyond imagining.
These three elements are what Jesus has in mind when He says that the kingdom of heaven is “like” these stories. Let’s examine each of these elements, starting with the last.
(1) Hidden. Jesus’ contemporaries might wonder why He says the kingdom of heaven is like a “hidden” treasure. After all, the coming kingdom of God was the great hope of the Jews, and its value was obvious. That the value of the kingdom was hidden to many, however, can be seen easily from the reaction of those same people to Jesus Himself. The King, God’s Messiah, was standing right before them, and yet most of them rejected Him and wanted Him dead.
Sure, the people were ready for the Romans to be defeated and for peace and prosperity to overflow. But Jesus put the focus of His message elsewhere. The coming kingdom involved a moral revolution even more than a political one. He told them, in essence: “You are guilty and condemned, and you need the forgiveness of God. You are morally broken, and you need God to restore your soul. This world is passing away, and you need to fix your hope on the next one, the coming (and currently invisible) kingdom of God. And unless you repent, you will not enter the kingdom at all.” Jesus put the spotlight on the worldliness and rebellion of the human heart: what good is it going to do to kick the Romans out if you stand condemned before God and your soul is being destroyed by sin?
This message cannot be attractive to anyone who is not willing to repent, to admit his or her own bankruptcy. The child of God, the one who is willing to repent and embrace the truth, obviously understands something that the rest of the world does not. Thus in chapter thirteen of Matthew, the teaching on the kingdom parables, Jesus praises those who “have eyes to see and ears to hear.”
(2) Valuable. We human beings assign value to things that solve real problems and provide real benefits. If we do not agree with Jesus about the nature of our problems, we will not agree with Him about the value of the coming kingdom as a solution to those problems. But by the grace of God some of us get it. We have seen the devastation caused by our own sin and the sins of others, and so we can begin to taste the sweetness of a world where sin is defeated. We have seen decay and impermanence, we have felt the cold winds of death, and so we are eager for life everlasting, a life filled with blessings that cannot be taken away. Most of all, we know that we are guilty before God, and so we are truly grateful that He promises mercy. Forgiveness, the restoration of our souls, and eternal joy—to those who understand their real problem, that sounds pretty good.
(3) Costly. Gaining treasure sounds great, but the part about giving up all we have sounds less attractive. Why does Jesus include that idea in both parables? We cannot buy our way into the kingdom of God, can we? No, there is no way to earn God’s favor. That does not mean, however, that a place in God’s kingdom does not cost us: Jesus calls us to repent—that is, to abandon the foolish way we think and live. He tells us that those who follow Him must be willing to lose the approval of the world, even to the point of death. He warns that the riches and pleasures of this world can seduce us away from the kingdom. We must be willing to forgive, to lose our right to demand retribution and condemnation. The list goes on. Jesus seems to think that following Him is not like adding a new hobby to our lives; following Him is a choice between mutually exclusive alternatives. If Jesus is right, then the way we have been thinking and living is wrong, and we are called to give it up.
We started by imagining ourselves to be a first-century Jew, struggling with the difference between our own conception of God’s kingdom and the very different picture Jesus portrayed. Only when we embrace Jesus’ mission and message will the logic of the kingdom parables be clear. That certainly is true of the parables concerning hidden treasure and a fabulous pearl. These parables are about people who eagerly pay the price to gain a treasure. Onlookers may think they are foolish, but we who hear the stories do not because we understand their joy. Of course those people are eager to give up what they have: they are gaining a treasure. We would think it strange if a man clung to his garbage while refusing a mansion.
In these parables, Jesus is urging us to see the objective, incontrovertible value of the kingdom He has come to establish. To Jesus, the promise of the kingdom is not abstract and intangible; it is the solution to our very real problems: our guilt, moral brokenness, and mortality. The challenge is to believe Him, to feel the weight of our true condition, so that the promised rescue delights our hearts as it should.