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The Greatest Stories Ever Told: Priceless
Matthew 13:44 - 13:58
July 23, 2023
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
Jesus' two parables about the hidden treasure and the great pearl show us that the kingdom of heaven is of greater value than anything else we could possess. The invitation and the challenge that Jesus lays before us is not only to delight in the promise of his kingdom but to see that there is no other treasure worth pursuing.
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This summer we've been looking at the parables of Jesus, the stories Jesus told to a variety of audiences. These stories are sometimes strange in their content. They're usually intentionally difficult to understand, but they always have the same objective: to reveal Jesus and to reveal his kingdom. A couple of weeks ago in our order of worship, I put this quote I'm about to read from the late pastor and writer Eugene Peterson. I want to share it with you because he gets at what Jesus is doing with these parables. Peterson says this,
“Jesus’ favorite speech form, the parable, was subversive. Parables sound absolutely ordinary: casual stories about soil and seeds, meals and coins and sheep, bandits and victims, farmers and merchants. And they are wholly secular: of his forty or so parables recorded in the gospels, only one has its setting in church, and only a couple mention the name God. As people heard Jesus tell stories, they saw at once that they weren’t about God, so there was nothing in them threatening their own sovereignty. They relaxed their defenses. They walked away perplexed, wondering what they meant, the stories lodged in their imagination. And then, like a time bomb, they would explode in their unprotected hearts. An abyss opened up at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded!…Parables aren’t illustrations that make things easier; they make things harder by requiring the exercise of our imaginations, which if we aren’t careful becomes the exercise of our faith.”
This is the power of Jesus’ parables. They require a second and third reading. They invite reflection and questions and in the end, they call us to see with eyes of faith, Jesus and his kingdom. But as Peterson points out, Jesus is also strategically subversive in the use of his parables because oftentimes in these parables, Jesus is addressing and revealing and exposing the things that we hold most dearly: our treasures—the things that we have to have, or at least we tell ourselves that we have to have in order to have contentment and joy and happiness in life.
This morning, we're going to look at a few parables that invite us to consider the treasure that Jesus is and his kingdom. We're going to look at Matthew 13:44-58. Let's give our attention to God's word.
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.
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
53And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” 58And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
This is the Word of the Lord. It's absolutely true and it's given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
O God, would you stir our imaginations? Would you open our eyes and our ears that we would see and hear? Would you open our hearts so that we would be able to behold the beauty and the wonder of your treasure, which is the kingdom of God? O God, may we grow more and more into those who seek this treasure and to seek after you, in all that we do and in all that we say and so we pray you would send your Spirit so that we might discern what you would have us learn from this passage today. We pray in Christ's name. Amen.
If you were here last Sunday, you'll remember that our sanctuary was decorated with all sorts of cutouts of treasure chests and gold and jewels. We had just concluded Vacation Bible School where the theme was treasure island. That's a great theme for kids because something about buried treasure and discovering something valuable activates the imagination. It really keeps kids engaged. If you were to relegate the search for treasure to a fun kids activity or to kids imagination, I think you'd be mistaken. Certainly, if you spend any time at the beach, especially the summer, at the very beginning of the day or towards the end of the day, the chances are you'll see someone searching for treasure with a metal detector. But sometimes the search for treasure gets much larger, and it gets more intense.
In fact, earlier this year, in January, a treasure hunt went underway in the East River here in New York for, of all things, mammoth tusks. Here's what happened. In January, someone went on a very popular podcast, and the guest, who was a gold miner and a fossil hunter in Alaska and apparently had credibility on this very topic, said that he knew of a document that described how prehistoric material was found in Alaska and then brought to the American Museum of Natural History around the early part of the 20th century. When it arrived, the museum workers decided that the mammoth tusks were of no value and were unsuitable for display, so they dumped them in the East River. According to the story, they did it right here at East 65th Street. This caused quite a stir because apparently, on today's market, one mammoth task can go for more than $20,000. Within days of the podcast, dozens of treasure hunters and dive teams showed up and started searching the East River right there on East 65th Street in January for mammoth tusks.
I will admit that this is a bit of an extreme example. It kind of sounds crazy. Maybe that price tag is not enough to get you diving in the East River in January. I don't think it's enough for me. The reason Jesus here in this parable starts talking about treasures found and treasures discovered is because he knows something about the human heart. He knows something about the human condition, and it's this: At the end of the day, we're all searching for some sort of treasure. We're all treasure hunters, maybe not buried treasure, maybe not mammoth tusks in the East River, but we're searching for treasure—something to behold, something to be captivated by, something to get out of bed for, something to center our lives around, something to offer security and direction, meaning and purpose. We're searching for the one thing, what's the one thing that's going to guide and direct us? If you only have that one thing, it's our treasure, and we're all after it. If we think we have it, then we'll do whatever we can in order to protect it and to keep it.
Jesus knows about the human heart. He knows we're all treasure hunters or treasure protectors of sorts. When he's describing the kingdom of heaven, he tells us the story of two people who come across this treasure. He tells us a story to speak our language to get us to see that his treasure is far more beautiful, far more lovely than any treasure we could ever discover, any treasure we could ever create or earn on our own. That's the treasure I want us to reflect upon. We're going to look at 1) What is the treasure? 2) What is it worth? 3) And how do we find it?
What Is The Treasure?
First, what is the treasure? According to Jesus, it's the kingdom of heaven. That's why in both parables he says the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure and the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who found the one pearl of great value. Jesus says the treasure is the kingdom of heaven. We talked a lot about this a couple of weeks ago in detail, but it's important to understand that Matthew is the only one of the gospel writers who uses this phrase ‘kingdom of heaven.’ It's synonymous in many ways with kingdom of God, but it also has a little bit of a different influence, a little bit of a particular emphasis. Matthew is emphasizing that Jesus coming means heaven has now invaded Earth. It's like a redemptive invasion. It's important to remember that the story of the Bible is largely a story of the estrangement of heaven and earth, and really, it's the story of earth’s rebellion against heaven that causes this estrangement.
That's not how things get started in the Bible. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it was a sanctuary. It was a place where heaven and earth overlapped and intersected. This is where Adam and Eve were to commune and to dwell with God because that's what humanity was created for—communion with God. But the serpent shows up and they believe his lies about God and about themselves and about the world and soon after they're kicked out of the Garden of Eden, never to return. Now this chasm exists between heaven and earth, between God and humanity between creator and creature. In a few chapters later in Genesis 11, we see humanity's attempt to bridge this gap and establish the connection between heaven and earth with the Tower of Babel. There we see the world searching for the treasure of security and fame and impact, hoping to make their name great as they build a great city and a great tower to heaven. That project is thwarted by God who in the very next chapter calls Abram, and in so doing, he begins his own projects of bringing heaven to earth, once again. With the promise to Abraham all the way to the birth of Jesus, we see the unfolding, unrelenting promise of the gospel, the good news that heaven has not left earth to ruin. And through Jesus, heaven comes to earth, so that God's will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
You see this in the life of Jesus. He spends his life and his ministry overturning powers, the power of sin and power of death and evil, bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. Jesus in these parables is saying the treasure that Adam and Eve were looking for in the garden, the treasure that the nations were looking for at the Tower of Babel, that Israel was looking for as they wandered the desert that all of humanity is looking for, the treasure that you are looking for, is here. It's the kingdom of heaven. It's the promise that this world will be made new again.
You might be thinking to yourself, “That's not the treasure I'm searching for. That's not the treasure I'm really interested in.” Maybe that's not your highest value. Maybe you're not a religious person. Spiritual? Yes. Curious? Yes. Open to new possibilities? Yes. Religious? No. All this sounds a little too religious. Maybe your highest value is happiness or tolerance. Maybe your highest value is just to have enough money to live a comfortable life or to get by. Maybe your treasure is finding someone to love and be loved by. Maybe your treasure is becoming the best version of yourself, and you don't need any god for that. And you certainly don't need the God of the Bible. But this is the radical claim that Christianity makes. It is utterly unique, and it's this: You were made in the image of God and you were made for communion with God. You were made for the kingdom of heaven. This is what you're after when you're searching for anything to give you meaning. It's God that you and I are searching for and looking for, and therefore your highest treasure, and any value and any treasure you seek or any treasure you're protecting, is really just a faint shadow of the treasure that is God. That is God himself. Jesus is telling us this kingdom, the kingdom in the world is ushering in by his life, death, and resurrection, that is the treasure that you're after. That is the treasure you seek.
What Is It Worth?
What is it worth? In this parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a treasure hidden in a field, and really, the other parable of treasure hidden in the sea—that's the second one with the pearl. But he also wants us to see the price tag. He wants us to know, what is this treasure worth? This one is rather easy and kind of obvious. After a long introduction, and a very long first point of a sermon, you might find a bit of relief on the second point to know that this is really a quick answer. What is it worth? It's priceless? It's worth everything. That was easy. After all, this was the response of both the men in the field and the merchant who finds the pearl. The kingdom of heaven is worth everything that they have. It's priceless. Both men do whatever they can to get the treasure. Except it's not that easy and so the second point continues.
Some of you might be familiar with the long running show on PBS, Antiques Roadshow. There's this moment when someone with what they hope is a unique find or a treasure, brings it to the appraiser and they find out just how much it's worth. The second best moments on that show are the ones where they bring their item and then they discover that it's worth far more than they could have ever imagined. Like whatever they brought or whatever they discovered, the appraiser says it's worth thousands of dollars, it’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all of a sudden they realize they've been given this life changing treasure. They're ecstatic.
When we hear this talk of treasure, I think that's what we want. We want to treasure that will add to and enhance our life in whatever direction it's headed. Just make us a bit more successful or happier or give us a little bit more wealth. Perhaps, Jesus can give us a boost on our projects and our hopes and his treasure can add to the other treasures that we are also busy collecting and protecting.
Look carefully at both these parables. The man who finds the treasure goes out and sells everything he has in order to buy the field where the treasure is, so that the treasure is so valuable that he gives up everything else, joyfully, mind you, he gives up everything else with joy in order to obtain it. He's not adding to his net worth when he finds the treasure. He's getting rid of everything else in order to have it. Both parables indicate that the kingdom of heaven inverts and subverts our lives. For both men upon finding this treasure, they act irrationally. They're acting irrationally. It's insane to sell everything to buy one pearl. What are these men going to do about the rest of their lives? What about their kids? What about their retirement? How are they going to support their families? How can they put their kids through school? Their actions make no sense at all? It doesn't make any sense unless the kingdom is of such great value and worth that it overturns all normal economic calculations and considerations. It doesn't make any sense unless the kingdom of heaven is so beautiful and of such value that nothing else can compare. And therefore, it's actually worth giving up everything else in order to have it. It doesn't make any sense unless the kingdom of heaven, and the promises of the kingdom that are embodied in it and fulfilled in Jesus are such that we don't need to cling to any other promises. We actually don't need to cling to any of our other treasures, except for this one thing. Except for the treasure that's offered to us in Jesus.
This is Jesus' point. He's saying that the kingdom of heaven is priceless. It's of infinite value, which is why both the man in the field and the merchant with the pearl will do whatever they can to obtain it. They'll do whatever it takes. The challenge of following Jesus and looking for and searching for the kingdom of heaven, and all this talk of the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, is that even though Jesus says it's of infinite value, and even though Jesus says it's priceless, in the eyes of the world, it's useless. In the eyes of the world, it's completely worthless, or at least the world isn't going to see the treasure that it is. This kind of treasure doesn't ensure an easy life. It doesn't promise economic prosperity. It doesn't promise that your life will follow the direction you've so carefully planned out for yourself. Therefore oftentimes, quite frankly, it's hard to see its value.
Did you notice that in the first parable, the man who finds the hidden treasure is walking in someone else's field. He finds the treasure. He covers it up, and then he sells all he can to buy the field. In other words, someone else owned the field with the treasure in it, and they didn't see its value. It's not only a story about a man who places a high value on the kingdom. It's also about an owner of the field who does not know the value of what he has. He doesn't know what it's worth.
This is the other part of the story of humanity that the Bible tells us. This kingdom that we longed for has come, the treasure that we all seek is here, so oftentimes, we can't see it, even when it's right in front of us. That's what's going on at the end of this passage. That's why I included the passage of Jesus in his own hometown. Jesus at Nazareth. The last part of this passage is a living example of the parable that Jesus has just told them. There's Jesus, the pearl of great price, the treasure before those in his own hometown. They start, in verse 54, astonished at his teaching, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” But then the treasure becomes familiar. By the end, they're offended by him. They're filled with unbelief. They cannot see the treasure because he's worthless. In their eyes, they're like the owner of the field, who doesn't even know the treasure that he has. In the eyes of the world, the kingdom of heaven and the one at the center of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus, they're counted as worthless. John 1 tells us, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” They did not count him as priceless but worthless, so much so that he would be crucified on a cross, cast aside on a pile of trash.
The best moments of the antiques roadshow are? I told you the second best. The best moments are these. The best moments are when someone brings something clearly meaningful to them, and they're hoping it's worth a lot. The appraiser tells them, “Look, I'm sorry. It's just not worth very much, or actually this thing is worthless.” The person rather than being disappointed or disheartened is completely unfazed because they know that whatever object this is, whatever treasure they have has immense value to them. They actually don't need the world to tell them its value. they know it. They can see the value of the treasure, even when others can't. The world is never going to give the value of the kingdom of heaven. It's never going to put a good valuation on the kingdom of heaven because the kingdom of heaven in and through Jesus has come to shatter the priorities of the world in order to rescue it, in order to save it, in order to renew it. The kingdom of heaven shatters our expectations and ideas about the future. The promises of the kingdom are too big. They're too world changing. They're too life changing. The treasure is too beautiful. It’s of such value that nothing else can compare. Nothing else can hold up to it. It's worth giving up everything else for this one thing.
How Do We Find It?
How do we find it? I think the interesting thing about these parables, and this is really important to understand, is that the emphasis is not on the hiddenness of the treasure, but on the response once you find it. In the first parable the man stumbles upon it, and in the second one, the merchant is looking for the fine pearls and lo and behold, he finds it. He finds the one, the pearl of great value. It’s as though Jesus is saying, if you're searching for the kingdom, and if you know what to look for, you will find it. You will find it. The real question is when you stumble across it, what are you going to do? What will you do? Will you see the treasure for what it is? Will you see the treasure for who it is?
If you want to find the kingdom of heaven, if you want to see Jesus, if you want to find him, there are only two places that you need to look. They're both equally important. You need to look at his Word and you need to look at his people.
First, look at his Word. This brings us back to the parables in general and why Jesus uses them at all and that quote that we began with on parables by Eugene Peterson. Parables train our senses to know what to look for. They train our eyes to look beyond what is obvious. They stir our hearts to hope for something more, and they captivate our imaginations, that perhaps the treasure we longed for, might be right in front of us. But it's not just the parables, it's all of Scripture. All Scripture trains us and shows us what we ought to be looking for. All of it from beginning to end is revealing to us the kingdom of heaven. Page after page, it reveals to us what we ought to be looking for, In many ways, it is a treasure map. All the characters, all the genealogies, all the stories, all the songs, all the sorrow, all the history, all the poetry, the prayers, the anguish, and the sorrow, the hope and the expectations, all the joy and longings they all point to Jesus. He is the one. He is the treasure.
When Jesus first encounters his disciples after his resurrection, he's talking with them. He's walking with them. And for a while, they don’t know it's him. They can't see him. They don't see the treasure that is right in front of them. Then Luke 24:27 tells us, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke tells you it's all about him. It's all about Jesus. So read it. Let it open your eyes, as the Scriptures comfort you and challenge you. As you learn to see Jesus in the Scriptures, learn to see the kingdom of heaven in the Scriptures, you will begin to see him in his kingdom, in the world in which God has made, in the world of which God sustains even now.
The second place to look, the second place to find the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, is with his people. We're going to talk a lot more about this in a few weeks, when we look at some other parables, the Parable of Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Sheep. You have to understand that the place where you will find the treasure of the kingdom of heaven is in the church. Peter uses this language to describe the church in 1 Peter 2. He says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
If you want to know where to find Jesus, if you want to know where to find his treasure, it's you. It's the church. You are his treasure. The church is his bride. You are his treasure and not because you've earned it, not because you're worthy, not because you've done church ‘right,’ but because he suffered on your behalf. He's died for you. He rose for you. Now he sits in heaven ruling heaven and earth because you are his treasure. He has promised to make you, he has promised to make his church beautiful. If you want to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, look to his people. People living and captivated by this one thing that the living God would count us—broken, wandering, rebellious people—his treasure, his gaze, his attention, it is always fixed upon his church. If you want to find out what Jesus is about and what his kingdom of heaven is, look no further. Look no further than the people and the place where those in need of redemption gather. To lay down their earthly treasures, and to do it with joy. Look no further than the place, the church, where we reorient our lives, our entire lives, our entire existence, around the treasure that is the kingdom of heaven and the treasure that is our Lord Jesus, and the promises if we seek it. If we seek him, we will certainly find him. May God give us eyes to see.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we thank you that you count us as your great treasure. O God, would you captivate our hearts? Would you stir us such that we would see you as the treasure above all else, that we would delight in the fact that you are our King and our Lord and our Savior, that this kingdom of heaven is the one thing, it is the treasure that we need? May we cast aside all our earthly crowns, all our earthly treasures, just to behold with joy, the one thing that is the kingdom of heaven. As we do that, Lord, may we bear witness as your treasure to a world that is so longing for your kingdom, longing for communion with you, longing to know and to find purpose in their lives. May they find it here among your people as we seek after you. We pray this all in Jesus' name. Amen.