The Progress Paradox

The Progress Paradox

Matthew 13:44-46

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.

What it means

What are we to learn from these parables of the kingdom? How can they lead us into a more intimate, dynamic, empowering experience with God today? Every parable is intended to teach a significant single point. With today’s text, the point is clear: living in the Kingdom, making God your king, is an investment worth all it costs and more. Whatever you must give up to serve God unconditionally is the wisest sacrifice you can make.

What does it cost us to make God our King? In a word, everything. We Americans don’t know much about kings and kingdoms. We elect our leaders and turn them out of office if we don’t like them. But in kingdoms, the king owns everything. He runs everything. If this were a kingdom, you’d be sitting on the king’s chairs and wearing the king’s clothes. Everything you do would be in his service, for the sake of his kingdom. You wouldn’t serve him only by coming to church or reading the Bible or praying, but with everything you did, every moment you did it.

This is the consistent call of Scripture on our lives:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

“I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

The process begins first thing in the day, when we sell ourselves to purchase God’s treasure for this day. Then, all day long, we face the same decision. Will I choose this temptation over God’s best for me? Will I repeat this gossip, consider that illicit thought, choose this untrue word, do that selfish thing, or will I sell that to experience God? Will I serve him or myself? Will he be my king, or will I?

I grant you, this is not the way most people see spirituality today.

I grew up in a world which separated the spiritual from the physical, Sunday from Monday, religion from the “real world.” Go to church so God will bless you. Pray so he will help you. You’re the king and he’s the servant. Measure this sermon by whether or not you liked it; measure worship by how it makes you feel. Make God a means to your end.

These days it’s even worse. Now popular spirituality says that you can be your own god, that salvation depends on your own inner enlightenment; no sin, confession, repentance, forgiveness required. These are outdated, antiquated traditions.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the on-line class being taught each Monday night by Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle. More than a million people have signed up. I’ve read Tolle’s two bestsellers, and am frightened. In The Power of Now, Tolle teaches that “Christ is your God-essence or the Self,” “your indwelling divinity.” Here we learn that “the man Jesus became Christ, a vehicle for pure consciousness” (p. 104). We are told that “the ‘second coming’ of Christ is a transformation of human consciousness. . . not the arrival of some man or woman.” Tolle warns us, “Never personalize Christ” (p. 105). Sin and guilt are outdated. Salvation comes when you live in the Now.

In A New Earth, Tolle’s newest bestseller, he claims, “you are the Truth. If you look for it elsewhere, you will be deceived every time. The very Being that you are is Truth. Jesus tried to convey that when he said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’…Jesus speaks of the innermost I Am, the essential identity of every man and woman, every life-form, in fact. He speaks of the very life that you are” (p. 71, emphasis his).

What about our need for salvation and eternal life? Tolle tells us, “there is no such thing as ‘my life,’ and I don’t have a life. I am life. I and life are one. It cannot be otherwise” (p. 128, emphasis his).

Tolle’s books have sold millions of copies because they speak to the need inside every human heart for completeness, healing, hope, joy. They offer us a choice which began in the Garden of Eden: you can be as god (Genesis 3:5).

Tolle and Oprah call us to live in the Now, seeking salvation from within ourselves. There are many other ways to do this as well. Your life will be complete if you can just get into the college you dream of attending, or buy the car you really want, or move into the home you’ve long aspired to own, or get the job you’re aiming for.

The Home Depot slogan defines the role of the church today: “You Can Do It. We Can Help.” It’s all on you. It’s all about you.

Or you can sell all of that and buy what Jesus alone can give. Here’s the progress paradox: when you make God your King, he can do far more with your life than you can.

The omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the universe has a “good, pleasing, and perfect” will for your life (Romans 12:2). He has plans to prosper you and not harm you, to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). But he can lead only those who will follow. He can heal only what you’ll put into his hands. He can use only those who will be used.

Let’s say Tiger Woods is available to give you a golf lesson this afternoon, but I’m ready to help you as well. Steve Jobs wants to help you program your new iPhone, but you could ask my advice. Warren Buffett wants to manage your money, but so do I. Which makes sense?

You can seek salvation and enlightenment from within yourself, or from the Father who sent his Son to die on your cross to purchase your salvation. You can look within for help with your greatest problem today, or turn to him. You can try to heal your broken relationships by focusing on the Now or by turning to the Lord. You can make your decisions based on your wisdom or the omniscient God.

The progress paradox is simple: the more of self you give, the more of God you have.


Now the choice is yours. What is your greatest decision, problem, struggle, challenge today? Self-dependence is spiritual suicide. Eckhart Tolle and all who tell you to look within are lying to you.

Don’t look in–look up. Make God the King of this problem, this issue, this challenge. Put it into his hands and do whatever he says. Search his word; seek him in prayer; listen for his voice. Do whatever would most glorify him. Make yourself the servant of the King. And the more of self you give, the more of God you’ll have.

Many years ago I learned this lesson in a way which has changed forever my ministry. I had been pastor of First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas for a year or so. The church scheduled Dr. Sam Cannata to speak at a Sunday night missions emphasis.

Dr. Cannata was a doctor who gave up a lucrative medical practice to become a medical missionary in Africa. Shortly after arriving, he was treating a sick child who coughed in his face and cost him his eye. One was perfect; the other was cloudy and useless. But that setback did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for the Lord and his call to service.

Dr. Cannata and I were praying in my study before the service when he said something I’ll never forget. With his Bible and sermon notes in his hand, he prayed, “Lord, take away any word I’ve prepared in this sermon if it is not your word, and add any word you wish. I will say whatever you want me to say. This sermon is yours.”

I know that sounds like a simple thing, but for a preacher who has labored all week over a message to let God change it any way he wants, it was a profound lesson. I have prayed it every week since, just as I am stepping up to speak. On the weeks I mean it, God shows up. On the weeks I don’t, not so much.

Why do you need Dr. Cannata’s prayer for your soul today?