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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Where Your Heart Is--A Sermon

Where Your Heart Is...
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 19th, 2010
International Day of Peace

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:45-46


Jesus said, "The Father's kingdom is like a merchant who had a supply of merchandise and found a pearl. That merchant was prudent; he sold the merchandise and bought the single pearl for himself.

Thomas 76


The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Matthew 13:44


Jesus said, "The (Father's) kingdom is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it. And [when] he died he left it to his [son]. The son [did] not know about it either. He took over the field and sold it. The buyer went plowing, [discovered] the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished."

Thomas 109



This is the final Sunday of summer. This is the final Sunday of the via positiva, the spiritual path of awe and wonder. Next week begins the via negativa or the path letting go. At some point this week I will post the worship themes for the next quarter. As always, as you look them over, you find that you have a creative element that fits, a poem, a song, something original or something you have found, let me know and I will include in the service.

We are spending time with the parables of Jesus. The two parables for today are about the joy of finding the kingdom. The parable of the pearl and the parable of the treasure. The parables are likely familiar to us. What might not be familiar is how weird they are.

The parables of the pearl and the treasure are found in two texts, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Thomas. We have known since Christianity began about Matthew's parables. We have only known recently the versions in Thomas. But even though the Thomas version of each parable is less familiar, in the cases of the treasure and the pearl, the Matthew version of each is more weird, hence, I think, more original.

The pearl.

We all know this parable. It is famous. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a collection of scriptures that are believed to be revelations to Joseph Smith that is called, "The Pearl of Great Price."

We all know the traditional meaning of the parable. The spiritual life, the kingdom of God, is so valuable that we should value and pursue it above all else with single-minded devotion. It is worth more than everything you have.

Yep. OK. We have heard that before.

Well…wait a second. I think it is a little weirder than that.

Pearls are exotic things. They would not have been a part of a first century Jewish peasant's life except as a symbol of wealth. Some interpreters have suggested that merchants (especially those who deal in pearls) would have been of a higher class than the typical peasant audience of Jesus. Pearls are of the world of the rich and famous. Jesus may have been setting his audience up for a spoof. As in...
"See what the silly rich do."
You never quite know with the parables of Jesus.
Do we take him at face value or is he spoofing standard ideas and setting us up to see things differently?
Keep that in mind.

Here is the version in Thomas:
Jesus said, "The Father's kingdom is like a merchant who had a supply of merchandise and found a pearl. That merchant was prudent; he sold the merchandise and bought the single pearl for himself.
The guy makes a good business deal. He has some merchandise, finds a pearl. He is prudent because he sells the merchandise and buys the pearl. We might assume that he will sell the pearl someday when he gets a good price for it. We are told he is prudent. He is wise. He has made a good deal.

Here is the version in Matthew:
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
It is very close.
Practically the same.
Except that the editorial insertion that the merchant is "prudent" is missing.
The other difference is that we are told he "sold all that he had."

Thomas
, on the other hand, makes sure we know that he sold only his merchandise or his inventory.

Matthew doesn't say that. In Matthew's version, he sold everything he had. It is the difference between being prudent and being a fool. I think Thomas is an elaboration and Matthew's version is closer to the original.

The weird version is the one most familiar to us.
We just didn't know it was weird.
Why is it weird, you ask?

If the merchant sells everything he has, not just his merchandise as Thomas says, but everything--merchandise, house, belongings, everything, and buys a pearl, then his only possession is this pearl.

What does he do for an encore?


What does he do the next day?

Where does he sleep?
What does he eat?
What does he buy and sell with?
He has nothing except a pearl.
It is a pearl of great value, but what is it worth if it is all you have?
You can't eat it. You can't sleep under it.
All you can do is pull it out of your pocket and admire it while you slowly starve to death.

The merchant is not prudent. He is a fool. His only options are to sell it again or to live as a homeless beggar who happens to have a pearl.

The kingdom of God?
Chew on that one, says Jesus.

Brandon Scott, who will be with us in October for the Jesus Seminar on the Road, writes this regarding the pearl:



…the thing of value, the pearl, has no ultimate value….The kingdom cannot be possessed as a value in itself…and that is the kingdom's corrupting power--the desire to possess it. P. 319



We will come back to the pearl. But let's go to the treasure.

We know this parable as well. It is the same message as the other one. A guy finds treasure in a field. Buries it, sells what he has and buys the field. The traditional meaning is that the spiritual life, Jesus, God, whatever is your treasure. It is worth more than everything we have.

Well…wait a second. I think it is a little weirder than that.

Finding hidden treasure is the first century version of winning the lottery. Burying treasure was not that unusual before widespread use of banks. When Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans, many people before leaving hid their valuables by burying them, hoping to come back and find them one day. The first century historian, Josephus, writes about this:
Yet was there no small quantity of the riches that had been in that city still found among its ruins, a great deal of which the Romans dug up; but the greatest part was discovered by those who were captives, and so they carried it away; I mean the gold and the silver, and the rest of that most precious furniture which the Jews had, and which the owners had treasured up under ground, against the uncertain fortunes of war. --Josephus, Jewish War, 7.5.2, Scott, Re-Imagine the World, p. 48.
Here is the Thomas version of the parable:
Jesus said, "The (Father's) kingdom is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it. And [when] he died he left it to his [son]. The son [did] not know about it either. He took over the field and sold it. The buyer went plowing, [discovered] the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished."
The owner of the field didn't know he had treasure in it and leaves it to his son.
Neither does his son know about the treasure.
He sells it.
The new owner who also didn't know only finds it after he buys the field and goes plowing one day. He finds the treasure in his own field that he has purchased.
He gets wealthy and lends money at interest.

That version is quite a bit different than the one we have in Matthew:
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.'
This is one we are familiar with but we might not know how weird it is.
In Thomas the finder of the treasurer owns the field.
In Matthew the finder of the treasure does not own the field.
That is a big difference.

If you went poking around in your neighbor's yard and found a stash of cash that your neighbor didn't know about, then re-buried it, and went and bought your neighbor's yard from her, what would that be?

That would be fraudulent.
That is insider trading.
It is stealing.
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
You are in a peasant village.
Everybody knows everybody else's business.
You sold everything you have.
You have this treasure.
But if you start spending it, do you think no one will raise an eyebrow?
Here is a guy with a field and treasure that he secured by fraudulent means that he can't spend or he will be found out. Foolish.

Even if you were able to find some way of laundering your new found treasure, we have an ethical problem.

How is the kingdom of God like this?

Maybe we will find out in October when Brandon Scott and Art Dewey of the Jesus Seminar visit with us for a Jesus Seminar on the Road. They will be talking about Jesus' parables.

Scott, by the way, in his book, Re-Imagine the World has this to say about this parable:
Treasure is normally a metaphor for God's blessing as a reward for a righteous life. This parable is a brilliant image of seduction. The hidden treasure, which should be a reward for good deeds, seduces the man without his thinking into a course of action that has an immoral outcome….the parable provides a warning: finding treasure can create a joy that seduces us into an action that is heedless of its consequences. P. 54
So we are left with two parables in which the characters are not admirable. They are foolish at best, and in one case, unethical.

A man has a pearl of great value. But he has nothing else. The pearl of great value has no value unless he sells it again and then he's back to where he was.

Another has treasure that he secured by unethical means and now he sits in his field with his guilty conscience trying to figure out how he will spend his ill-gotten treasure without being found out.

Thus we have two fools who tried to possess the kingdom.

Maybe that is the spoof.

Maybe the kingdom of God is not treasure in a field or a pearl of great price.
It is not something we must single-mindedly and doggedly pursue forsaking life, forsaking ethics.

Jesus said elsewhere and the Gospel of Luke recorded it:
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ --Luke 17:20-21
The Gospel of Thomas records Jesus saying something similar:
Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you. --Saying 3

Split a piece of wood, I am there. Lift up a stone, you will find me there. --Saying 77
In other words, you are already there.
It
is already here. You don't need to switch religions.
You don't need to follow someone else's plan for happiness.
You don't need to wear a hairshirt.
You don't need to single-mindedly pursue an abstraction.
You don't need to sell all your possessions and join the church.
You certainly don't need to take from another.


The realm of God or Life or Happiness or whatever it is you think you need to find is not out there to be found.

It cannot be possessed or claimed even if or when you think you have found it.
It can only be noticed and shared.

Life is.
Life is here.
Life is now.
Life is change.
Enjoy and share the ride.

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