The parables of the Treasure, the Pearl and the Net

Matthew 13:44-50 by Judith Smith

Today we reach the third in our series thinking about the parables Jesus told to explain what he had come to establish. Each begins with the same phrase, which gives the clue to what this was – “The kingdom of God” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and then he goes on to explain an aspect of what it is like.

Zandra helped us to think through the story of the man who sowed good seed in his field, only to find that when it sprouted and grew the plants were mixed with weeds.

Colin talked about the tiny mustard seed which in time grew into a large tree, and the yeast which was able, given time, to show its influence throughout a large amount of dough.

Today we come to three short parables – the stories of treasure hidden in a field, of an amazing pearl, and of fishermen sorting their catch. Again they each begin with that same phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

 If you were to look at Mark or Luke’s gospel you would find “The kingdom of God is like…” Matthew uses ‘heaven’ rather than ‘God’ because his audience was Jewish. To say ‘heaven’ was a way of referring to God without actually using his name, because Jews felt it was too holy to say or even to write. The two phrases mean exactly the same thing.

So what exactly was, or is, this “kingdom of heaven”?

Jesus’ audience looked forward to the time when their God would rule with justice over all the nations. Psalm 99 for instance pictures this time – “The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble… Great is the Lord in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations…” 

The Old Testament prophets also foresaw the time when their God would set the world to rights and rescue Israel from all her enemies.

In Jesus’ day there was a feeling that the time for this must be coming very soon. It was no wonder that John the Baptist’s announcement, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” brought crowds running “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (Matthew 3:5).

The Jews longed for an immediate change to their circumstances – no more Romans, and all nations recognising their God, who would of course severely judge the way they were being oppressed by their enemies. It was a change in their earthly circumstances that they were after.

John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the longed for Messiah, who would fulfil their dreams – but Jesus’ own announcement about God’s kingdom was quite different from the expectations of his contemporaries. He completely redefined the meaning of the ‘Kingdom of God’, and his teaching explained how it would be. These parables that we are looking at, and there are more to come, provide his explanations.

As we have already heard from Colin, the coming of the kingdom was going to take time. The Jews expected some kind of call to arms, a fight to rid them of their oppressive overlords. They hoped for some kind of military uprising, that would immediately make everything different, and they would be able to get on with life as they wanted to.

 But for Jesus the kingdom would not come in a single move like that, but rather by stages. Jesus’ call to all who would come and follow him was the way in which God’s kingdom would come into existence and would grow. It could not happen over night. When a farmer planted seed in his field it took a long time before it grew and was ready to harvest. 

Then there was the problem of all the weeds that grew up too, or as in our reading today, the “bad fish” which came out of the lake along with “good fish”, all in the same net. The fish had all been swimming about together, and it is not until the end that they were sorted into two types. One kind was put into baskets, and the others, described as “bad”, had to be thrown away because they had not turned out as they should. 

Of course this is not a case of catching the ‘wrong kind of fish’, or wastefully ditching all that oversteps a quota.  Nor is it anything to do with the impossibility of piranhas somehow turning into trout as they grow. This story simply illustrates God’s final separation 

of those who are citizens of his kingdom and who accept his kingship, from those who do not.

 When Jesus explained his illustration of the wheat and weeds growing together, he said that at the end “Everything that causes sin and all who do evil” will be weeded out of his kingdom (Matthew 13:41).

 Before the end it may not be so easy to tell which is wheat and which weeds, which are good fish and which are bad fish. It is definitely not the job of the plants or the fish to decide by judging their neighbour – it will be God who does the sorting, and he will know which will really prefer not to have a part in his kingdom. 

On what basis does he decide which are ‘good fish’ and which are ‘bad’? In the world there is plenty of obvious and large scale wickedness, which God will certainly judge, but at times we are all guilty of misdemeanours. What counts as a ‘good fish’ in this mixed catch?

 The Jews of Jesus’ day saw themselves as the ‘good fish’ who were being oppressed and harassed by the ‘bad fish’, and this ‘black and white’ outlook is still around today – we like to see wrongs as being someone else’s fault. Hearing Jesus’ parables could have the effect of lulling us into feeling that such nice stories do not really apply to us. We see ourselves as part of the shoal of ‘good fish’ without accepting our part in the overall situation. We are just onlookers, and we don’t give much consideration to our ‘minor’ contributions to the pile of wrong. 

However parables are intended as a means of challenging our individual thinking and actions. They are not simply nice stories, but are to make us think and to puzzle out their meaning as it applies to each one of us.

Jesus told this group of parables so that people through the ages could share in his vision of the kingdom. He was issuing the challenge to become involved as his followers - to become active in a new way of living, being and thinking. And he provided the means by which we no longer need to be encumbered with the weight of wrong doing. Taking advantage of this is an important part of living as citizens of God’s kingdom.

 The excitement and urgency of this new way of life comes over in the other two parables we heard read – the parables of the hidden treasure and of the pearl. 

The way Tom Wright puts it in his commentary is like this: “The gospel of the kingdom isn’t a pleasant religious idea that you might like to explore some time when you’ve got an hour or two to spare… It’s like a fabulous hoard of treasure, yours for the taking – if you’ll sell everything else to buy the field where it’s hidden. It’s like the biggest, finest, purest pearl that any jeweller ever imagined, and it’s yours for the taking – if you’ll sell everything else, including all the other pearls you’ve ever owned, in order to purchase it” (Matthew for Everyone p. 176-77).

There is an urgency to this. It’s not because you need to get there before everyone else – there are enough pearls and hoards of treasure for everyone to find. It’s urgent because there is a limit to the time before God will remake the world in justice, before he sets the world to rights and makes it the way he always intended it to be. There is a limited length of time before his kingdom will finally come in all its glory, and by then it will be too late for us to change.

It may be that some will come across the treasure almost by accident, or it may be that others will find the best pearl after much patient searching. But when each person finds their treasure – when they understand what the kingdom of God is, it is for each to actively start living under God’s rule. 

Inevitably we shall experience a few hiccups, but by remaining learners of the greatest teacher ever and by following him we shall not risk being found to be like the weeds or ‘bad fish’ – only fit to be thrown away in the end. What a waste that would be. And how very sad for those who have been so complacent that they have never developed or matured in their relationship with God, nor bothered to find out more about living as a part of his kingdom.

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011