Ah, parables! Merriam-Webster defines a parable as follows, “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” To me, biblically at least, parables are often riddles. Riddles, for the record, are defined as, “a mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed.” For instance, consider Matthew 13:44.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (ESV)
It would seem to the casual reader this was a reasonably straightforward parable. A guy finds something of value in a field. He conceals it so no one else can see it. Then, he sells everything he has to buy the land. Wow! How much clearer could it be? That depends upon whom you ask.
In this case, it seems there are at least three questions one might have or lessons one might learn from this verse. First of course is the question of the treasure. What is it? Second, who is the man? Third, are the man’s actions ethical or righteous?
Wait! You say. The treasure is the kingdom of heaven. It says so right there in the first few words. At least, it implies the treasure and the kingdom are similar. As for the man, who cares? Someone just scored a fortune, and Jesus wants to use the story to teach us something. What difference does it make who he is?
I am not sure how much difference it makes. Still, there is disagreement over the meaning of the terms in this verse. Some argue the man is a believer who discovers the kingdom and realizes how valuable it is. Others believe the man is Jesus, and the term kingdom is used to represent believers or the church. Be that as it may, it is the third question that caught my attention during a recent Bible study.
I was blissfully unaware of any controversy over the man’s actions. It was a parable after all, and they are supposed to be somewhat mysterious. On this day, the leader of the class made one of his off-hand semi-sarcastic comments to the effect we were not going to discuss the ethics of the man’s behavior in hiding the treasure.
This piece is a testimony to the fact he piqued my curiosity with his witty little aside. My first thought was how I would have taken his comment in my younger days. I was quite the skeptic, and I am confident I would have pounced on the question of the man’s honesty.
I would have crowed that Jesus, God’s own son, used the unethical, possibly illegal act, of a man to make a point about the value of the Kingdom or Salvation. Then I would have driven home the point that I found it odd no one seemed to question the man’s behavior when teaching about this verse.
The question of righteousness or moral behavior on the part of the finder would seem to matter. That is if the person is a believer or seeker. It might matter even more if the person reading the parable is an unbeliever doubting his atheism.
Thankfully, I am no longer a skeptic. God gave me a wake-up call several decades ago, and I am writing today as a believer and lover of God and His word. That does not mean, I do not ask questions, and the comment by the Bible class leader led me to ponder one. Are we overlooking or misunderstanding part of this parable?
The short answer to my question seems to be yes. People who gloss over the fact the man in verse 44 acts surreptitiously to obtain the treasure in the field may be missing one point in the parable. Please note, I am not assuming the man did anything wrong. Instead, I am saying most biblical scholars seem to gloss over any question of motive or ethical behavior. I could only find a handful of sources that acknowledged the matter, much less discussed it.
One claimed the man’s actions were allowed under Jewish law. The pastor making that point stated it was not an issue because it was clear the owner of the land did not know of the treasure. If the owner did not know of the treasure, he did not own it under Jewish law. Since he did not own it, the buyer did not need to disclose it or compensate him for it.
I am not confident that argument would carry much weight today. The battle over mineral rights has made it almost impossible to buy land in some areas without at least some haggling over the possible value of as yet untapped, possibly even unknown, minerals. Legal technicalities aside, the idea that the person finding the treasure failed to disclose it should be of concern in other ways.
The New Testament makes it clear believers are not supposed to live as others live. If someone demands our shirt or tunic, we are to let him have our cloak as well. (Matt 5:40) If someone strikes us on one cheek, we offer him the other. (Matt 5:39) If someone treats us poorly, we are to show him kindness. (Romans 12:20) Finding something of value on someone else’s property, then hiding it so you can buy the land for a bargain does not seem to mesh well with those concepts. That sort of behavior seems to be more twenty-first century than first-century.
It is difficult to believe Jesus the Christ would use an example of immoral behavior to make His point. Nor does it seem likely he would use a legal technicality to make the actions of the man in verse 44 acceptable. So, if Jesus is not resorting to some form of verbal legerdemain to make His point, what is He doing? Maybe the following will help shed some light on the matter.
In verses 45-46 Jesus shifts from some unknown treasure to something clearly valuable. Specifically, He says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Today, pearls are everywhere, natural, cultured, and fake. That was not the case in biblical times. In those days, pearls were more precious. Here, it is clear both the seller and the buyer knew the pearl was valuable. Also, this was a transaction in the marketplace. There was little possibility of wrongdoing by either party. That is not the case with the man in the field.
The buyer of the field found something of immense value to him. Something he then hid so he could keep others from knowing about it, including the owner of the land. That was important because he had to sell everything he owned to purchase the land. If anyone found out he was trying to buy the property, it is probable he feared the price would go up or others would bid. So, what could make the man’s actions righteous in this situation, and not merely an attempt to gain something of value without anyone else knowing?
Keep in mind, the man stumbled upon the treasure. It was something that could have been found by anyone. Additionally, there is no indication he was the only person with access to this land. In fact, there is nothing said about why he was there. It would seem he was not treasure hunting, though he might have been scavaging for roots, grains, firewood, or other things of moderate value the owner would not care he took.
Yet, when he found the thing of value, he hid it so no one else could see it. That brings up another little problem. I cannot find any place in the Bible that says one is to hide the Kingdom, the Gospel, or the nature of Jesus.* Persecution might have been a concern, but this is a parable. It is not a treatise on evangelism or discipleship. The parable included the hiding of the treasure for a reason, but the message is not necessarily what one might think.
The treasure in the field and the pearl are juxtaposed to drive home a point. Many may see the value of something worldly, while only a few may understand the importance of a heavenly treasure. Perhaps, that made it acceptable for the man to hide the treasure in the field.
The treasure was worthless to many. They could not see its value. They are looking for a pearl. Something they can hold tight and savor in private, or possibly something they could sell for a profit.
The kingdom is something so valuable we should be willing to sacrifice everything to obtain it. Yet, it is something we are to give away to others who can recognize its value, and there is the key. It may have been acceptable for the man to hide the treasure at the moment because the owner could not recognize or accept its true value. Of course, the question then becomes, what did the man do with the treasure after he purchased the field.
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