The Progress Paradox
James C. Denison
Inspirational posters are all the fashion these days. You’ve probably seen them in a doctor’s waiting room or bank lobby or business office. This one, titled Winners, says, “While most are dreaming of success, winners wake-up and work hard to achieve it.” Another is titled Imagination, quoting Theodore Roosevelt: “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”
A friend recently sent me some inspirational sayings which didn’t make the cut:
Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.
Doing the job right the first time gets the job done. Doing the job wrong 14 times gives you job security.
Rome did not create a great empire by having meetings–they did it by killing all those who opposed them.
Teamwork means never having to take all the blame yourself.
A snooze button is a poor substitute for no alarm clock at all.
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
And my favorite: If at first you don’t succeed, try management.
Today we begin a summer series in the parables, the short sayings and stories of Jesus. Some would fit on a poster; all are suitable for framing and living. Each one will show us how to find and follow Jesus, to live in his will, to experience his abundant life and purpose and joy.
My suspicion is that most of us want more of God in our lives than we experience today. I’m the same way. As I was praying about this message last Thursday morning, the thought gripped my soul that I need God to be more real to me than he is. More than the object of my Bible study and recipient of my prayers and Savior of my soul, I need him to be real in my life.
I need to interact with him, to listen to him, to feel him, to experience his direction and help and power. Are you like me?
I’m convinced that Jesus’ parables are the keys which will lead us to a more intimate, passionate, dynamic experience with God this summer. We will take each one as it comes and see where it leads us.
We begin today with two of the most misunderstood of all Jesus’ parables. We will contrast their truth with the most popular spirituality writer in America today. And we’ll choose which to follow this morning.
What Jesus said
Our first parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matthew. 13:44). This situation sounds strange to us, but reflected completely the culture of Jesus’ day and hearers.
“The kingdom of heaven” is another expression for the Kingdom of God, the place where God is King, where his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). What is it like? Jesus says that it is like “treasure hidden in a field.” How could treasure be “hidden in a field” for someone to find?
“Field” in the Greek points to cultivated land in the country, not property in the city. It wasn’t unusual for people to bury treasure in such a place. In Jesus’ day, only the very wealthy could afford banks. Most hid their money or valuables in the ground. In fact, the rabbis taught that the only safe depository on earth was the earth.
The most common reason why people hid their treasure in a field was that war was coming and they would have to flee. If they brought their money, jewelry, or heirlooms with them, they could be seized by the enemy or stolen by thieves. So they would bury their possessions, looking forward to the day when they could return and reclaim them.
But the owner of this particular treasure has not done so. He may have died, or been exiled or enslaved. One commentary I read told of a man in South Carolina during the Civil War who buried $500 in gold coins in a field before the Yankee soldiers could take his farm. He died before he could disclose its location to his family, so it’s been lost ever since. Some day a person may find that treasure in a field.
That’s what happened for this lucky fellow. He was likely a migrant farm worker cultivating the field when he found the buried treasure. The rabbis taught that if he removed it from the ground he had to give it to the owner of the field. But if he left it in the earth, then bought the field, the treasure could be his. That’s just what he did.
Our second parable concerns a treasure found as well: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (vs. 45-46)
The Greek word translated “merchant” is emporos, a wholesaler who traveled the world looking for goods he could buy and then resell. In this case, a pearl trader. In Jesus’ time, inferior pearls were found on the shores of the Red Sea; better ones came from the Persian Gulf, the costs of Ceylon and India, and from Britain. This merchant traveled to such places, or traded with pearl exporters from around the world.
Pearls were the most valued gems in that time, like diamonds today. They were worn as a show of a person’s wealth (cf. 1 Timothy 2:9). The Bible says that heaven will possess gates made of pearl (Revelation 21:21).
Pearls could be enormously valuable. According to the ancient Roman historian Pliny, Cleopatra owned two very valuable pearls, each of which was valued at 25 million denarii (a denarius was a day’s wages for a laborer). If discovered today, they would be worth several million dollars.
This particular trader has found such a pearl. Being a merchant, he knew how to buy and sell goods. So before someone else could get it, “he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” According to Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven is like” such a person.