Of course all of you are too young to remember, but there was once a wonderful comedian by the name of Jack Benny. He made several films, including “The Importance of Being Earnest” (the Wilde play), had a regular radio show, and was able to make the leap to television. Jack Benny’s character was known for two things, playing the violin badly, and being cheap. One of the most famous of his radio bits involved Jack leaving the studio one night after the show. As he leaves the studio, a robber points a gun at him and says, “Your money or your life!” There was a long pause. The robber repeats, “Your money or your life!” And again, there is a long silence. One of the beautiful things about radio plays is that you must use your imagination to visualize the scene in your mind. So I can just imagine Jack Benny standing there, silent, while this would-be robber is pointing a gun at him. The robber once more says, “Hey buddy, I said your money or your life!” And Jack Benny finally answers, “I’m thinking…I’m thinking!”
That joke got an incredible laugh. Now I’m too young to actually remember the original show, myself. But I’ve heard it from recordings of old radio shows. So I’m not quite THAT old. Anyway, that joke got an incredible laugh. The timing was perfect. And according to Jack Benny, that joke was totally by accident. The reason there was silence was because he had forgotten his line, and when the robber/actor kept repeating the line, it was because Benny didn’t answer with the appropriate joke. When Jack said he was thinking, he meant he was trying to remember the line. That’s a funny story, but I doubt it’s true. Most radio actors read directly from the script while doing the show. They didn’t need to memorize their lines. Still, it’s a funny story. It makes you laugh and that’s what it’s supposed to do.
That’s why I always say that it doesn’t really matter if everything in the bible is true or not. It does what it’s supposed to do. It gives us insight into the relationship between humankind and the divine. The bible is an instruction manual on how to find the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, beyond 42 (that’s a Douglas Adams joke). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The bible is a book of truth, not a book of facts.
It is quite likely that some of what Jesus says was added by early church writers to instruct the faithful, and that Jesus never actually said those things in that way, although he may have taught the same ideas. Much of what is written in all four gospels is the same, which leads us to believe that all the gospel writers used the same source, called the Q document, which has been lost to time. The quotes contained in the Q document are most likely pretty close to what Jesus may have said. But it is fairly certain that some of what is written in the gospels was added by early church fathers or translators.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. “Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes.” And he replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Matthew, Chapter 13, verses 44-52)
It is widely accepted that that last bit about the net and the fish was added by early church fathers in order to affirm and repeat the same idea as the parable about the weeds and the wheat, that idea that God’s gonna punish the wicked. Moreover, that last bit about the head of the household affirms the idea that Jesus was also bringing his good news to the gentiles as well as to the children of Israel, which was a controversial idea in the first century. There were some sects of the new faith that held that the gospel was meant for the Jews. But in this parable, the head of the household, AKA God, will bring both the old and the new from his storeroom (the world).
The standard interpretation of the parable of the treasure buried in the field and the pearl of great price would claim that we should value our relationship with the divine as the people in the story value those valuable things they find. In ancient Palestine, a place that was frequently conquered, people often buried their money in the ground to keep it safe, lacking a local Bank of America. Besides, as we can see from our current economy, banks are none too safe anyway. So, had you lived then, you could well stumble upon a hoard of money and valuables buried in the ground. And had you done so, you might well, as well you might, take that treasure and bury it somewhere else to keep it safe until you could come back for it later. But then, it seems to me it would make more sense to just take the stuff back to your own land and bury it instead of going off and selling everything you had to buy another field in order to bury it there.
Nevertheless, there is something in that interpretation. Certainly, it seems to me, that if one does truly believe that God, being God, is the Lord and Master of the universe, your creator and basically the only game in town, one would value one’s relationship with that creator above everything else. I mean, anything else, any other attachment would pale in comparison. What could possibly be more important? So it is understandable to assert that this story is meant to tell us how we should value faith in the Supreme Being. The teachings of Jesus are that great treasure, that pearl of great price. But there is another way of viewing that story.
Consider that Jesus tells us that treasure is like the Kingdom of God. Thus, the person who finds the Kingdom of God does so with great joy, and is willing to sell all that s/he has to attain it. But Jesus also tells us in his other teachings that the Kingdom of God is within each one of us. So, with that in mind, and with the understanding that the bible is meant to be taken as a whole, as a complete tapestry and not just a collection of threads, we, the people, are not the person finding the treasure. We are the field. The person finding the treasure is God. The merchant who finds the pearl is God. And when we check out the original Greek translation, we see that the word used in this sentence, “When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it,” for “goes”, “aperchomai” means not only to go, but also to die.
We are that pearl. We are the treasure. Jesus is telling us that God so values each one of us that S/He is willing to sell everything, is even willing to die, in order to have us. This was a totally new idea. The ancient Jews saw God as the king of the universe. It is Jesus who changes our view of God to that of a loving parent. Those of you who are parents, would you not sell all you have with pleasure in order to save your child? Jesus is trying to tell the people just how much we are loved by God. As he says in the gospel of John, he was not sent into the world to condemn us, but to affirm God’s love for us. For God so loved the world that He gave is only begotten son, John says. By traditional Christian belief, Jesus is God, part of the trinity, God become man. God loved us so much that S/He died (aperchomai) to purchase us.
I cannot say for sure, having never been kidnapped and ransomed, but I would suspect that a person that was would not feel guilt and sorrow that his or her parents sold everything they had to pay the ransom. I should think that person would feel incredible joy at being released. I know that after I was robbed at gunpoint, I was just happy to still be alive. I was not angry at the robber, or worried about being fired. I was just happy to be breathing. Some Christian churches spend so much time trying to make us feel guilty and sorrowful for the sufferings of Christ. But as the parable says, the person that finds that treasure is filled with joy. All that Jesus did, he did willingly, even as he asked his father to take the cup away from him.
And, as the early church fathers understood, God values all of us, not only the Jews, but the gentiles as well, all the children of God. Through this parable, Jesus affirms all of us. You are important. You are the spark of the divine. You are the hands of God on earth. No one is more important than you are. You are a part of the divine creation. You are sacred and holy. You are so valuable that God was willing to become human and die in order to claim you. That is the message of Christianity. And the things you do and say are more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
And as God values you, you value God in the form of God’s creation, the earth, the dogs, the fish, the horses, the trees, the butterflies, the sand, the sea, the hamsters, and everything. Yes, even the Republicans and Democrats. Each one of us is that treasure, that pearl of great price. We need to recognize that. We need to treat each other that way. More importantly, we need to treat ourselves that way. We often don’t think we make much of a difference in the world, but we do. Each loving touch, each kind word changes the world. God places much more value on your life than Jack Benny placed on his. Jack had to think about it. God was willing to give it all to purchase yours.