When I was in middle school, I got into a collecting phase. I loved collecting stuff. I had a pennant collection on my wall, with pennants from different sports teams and places I had been. I had a little toy cannon collection, which I collected every time we visited a historic battlefield. I had Star Wars figures that I would keep organized in special Star Wars Figure cases. Whenever I got a new one, I would mark it off on the picture catalogue of all of the characters that you could buy.
And I had baseball cards…Boy, did I have baseball cards!
I was a Cubs fan, and so I tried to collect all of the Cubs’ cards. Early on, I would save up and buy those little packs that had that nasty gum that looked and tasted like cardboard, but would leave a little greasy stain the back of whatever card was in the back of the pack. So gross. Eventually, I got tired of sifting through packs that usually had players that no one wanted, and dealing with the grease stains, so I became a serious baseball card collector. I would go to baseball card stores, where I would look through the glass cases and pick out my favorite players and buy their cards directly. I made it my mission to get every card ever made that had Mark Grace – the Cubs first baseman – on it, all the way back to his rookie year. I started getting Beckett Monthly baseball card collectors magazines. They would publish these magazines which had lists of all of the baseball cards ever made and how much they were worth. My dad had given me some of the cards that he collected when he was a kid, and I would look up each month how much the cards were worth. I would look up how much my Mark Grace cards were worth. I would even take the magazines themselves and collect them – putting them in protective cases.
I loved to collect baseball cards!
Today, all of those cards and all of these magazines are carefully placed in books with specially-made pages, preserved and cared for…and collecting dust underneath my bed at my parents’ house in Kentucky. I haven’t looked at these things for years! All of these cards were so meaningful to me at that point, but have since become rather meaningless. I’m not quite ready to rid of them. But I also have moved onto a point where they just aren’t very important to me in my life.
Is there something like that in your life? Something that at one point seemed to important? So necessary? So critical that you were willing to give up time and energy and money to preserve, that in the end became meaningless? How many of us have fallen into the trap of thinking stuff will make us happy? How many of us have found ourselves at the back end of acquisition, of achievement, of collection, finding them wanting?
We thought that that promotion was what we wanted, but it just kept us away from our families more.
We thought that bigger house would make us happy, but it just meant more rooms to clean.
We thought that we needed to protect our investments, but that just made us more paranoid, checking the stock market every day in the fear that we might lose a dime of it.
In the end, acquisition often leaves us wanting.
Last year, Melissa Chan of Time Magazine did a story titled “Here’s How Winning the Lottery Makes You Miserable.” In it, she highlighted the stories of several big money winners and how each of them resented their winnings and wished that they had never won:
- Jack Whittaker, after winning big, eventually said, “I don’t like what I’ve become.”
- Adam Shakespeare: “I’d have been better off broke.”
- Donna Mikkin: “My life was hijacked by the lottery.”
Each of them – and several others – claim that the joy and peace and hope that they had imagined that they would receive never came. Before long, the thing that they thought would make their life perfect became meaningless.
Most of us here today have never won the big payoff. But here we are in one of the richest countries in the world and all we do is worry about losing our stuff. We worry about making sure that we get the right tax breaks, so that we keep all of our money. We worry about making sure that other people don’t get too many government dollars for healthcare, lest it impact our bank account. We worry that truly affordable housing in our community will mean that our property values are effected. We worry that someone is going to get something for less than we paid for it, instead of being genuinely happy that they have something they need.
We are overwhelmed with the need to possess and acquire and protect. We spend a whole lot of time and money and worry on stuff that we think will make us happy, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t. We live lives that are just as meaningless as they were before we got the big break or pulled the trigger on that big purchase. And sometimes even more meaningless!
“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.
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.”
What on earth is THE Gospel writer trying to do here? He and his Church already know about Mark’s Gospel and the Rich Young Ruler who Jesus told to give everything away. That message has already been delivered a generation before. But Matthew doesn’t seem to be saying the same thing, at least not in the same way. He gives us these two weird parables…metaphors, really. I don’t know about you, but on first glance, I really don’t get either one.
In the first case, the guy in the field is, well, a jerk. I mean, it sounds like he is a hired hand, working in someone else’s field, and finds a treasure that someone else hid there. What does he do? Tell the owner? Put an ad in the paper to find who buried it there? No, he goes and buys the field without telling anyone. He cheats the owner of the field and the owner of the treasure all at once. The guy is clearly a jerk.
In the second case, we have someone who is apparently crazy about pearls. Loves collecting pearls. Makes sense – pearls were the gold or diamond of the First Century. But then he finds The Pearl. The Honus Wagner card of pearls. The first edition Boba Fett of pearls. So he sells everything he has, and buys this pearl. This isn’t an investment, but just a crazy, over-the-top, irrational action. Now he has a pearl, but nowhere to sleep, no food to eat, no clothes to wear. Enjoy your pearl. The guy is clearly a little crazy.
So, here is Jesus, holding up a jerk and a crazy guy as these models for what the Kingdom is supposed to look like!
I don’t know about you, but I don’t get it! This doesn’t make any sense. This is what the Kingdom is supposed to look like? This is Matthew’s pitch for the Church? This is supposed to make us want to follow Jesus:
“Come on down! A life of following Jesus means that you get to sell all your stuff, become destitute, and go off your rocker! But wait, there’s more! You can become a jerk, too, and cheat people out of their stuff! Quantities limited! Sign up, now!”
I just don’t get it. But maybe that’s the point. We aren’t supposed to “get it.” It isn’t supposed to make rational sense. It is just supposed to be a picture of what people do, when they really, REAALLLY want something.
And not just “want,” like in the middle school, rookie card sense. But want in some deeper, fuller, eternal sense. The want that made us take that promotion in the first place, or get the bigger house. A deep yearning for something of value. Now, I actually don’t think that the only way to be a person of faith is to sell all of our stuff. I think that there is some stuff that we need to live. And there is some stuff that is indeed quite meaningful. But if I were to play the old game where I ask what five things we would take with us if we were stranded on a desert island, most of us wouldn’t say “my TV!” or “my 1988 Donruss Mark Grace Rookie Card” or “the mint condition, still-in-package Rancor Keeper action figure”. It’s more likely to be “grandma’s photo album” or “the family Bible” or “my wedding ring” or “that box of letters that Granddaddy sent Grandma during the war.” It is more likely to be about relationship. Memory. People you love. People who love you.
And maybe that is what Matthew was trying to get across in these metaphors. He is the only Gospel writer that uses these parables. I can imagine the old preacher, struggling alongside of his Church to make sense of the Jesus life, in the face of persecution and struggle. Every day, they look at their neighbors and their apparently easy, acquisition-based life and wonder if the whole Jesus thing is worth it. Every day, more and more leave the fold, tired of the commitment and the sacrifice. Every day, there is a handful more who say that they aren’t quite sure about the whole Resurrection thing anyway. Finally, Matthew sighs and just lays it on the line for them. Gets down to the heart of what they are really thinking, but don’t have the guts to say out loud:
- “What if I told you,” says Matthew, “that I had something that was worth more than all the stuff that you own?”
- “What if I offered you a way of life that doesn’t force you to give up your stuff, but instead gives you something that honestly makes you want to voluntarily give it away?
- “What if I told you that I had a ‘pearl’ worth so much, that all of the rest of the stuff that you have would be worth dumping into the pawn shop just to receive? Just to hold in your hands and treasure forever?”
- “What if that ‘pearl’ was not another thing, but a love? A relationship. A person. A love that was more meaningful to you than any of that other stuff that you thought would give you happiness.”
- “What if I told you that this treasure – this relationship – wasn’t just for the choir boys and the Sunday school teachers and those who have always lived in the shade of the Church, but everyone – the crazy people and the jerks and the ones who have a history that they would rather not discuss on Sunday morning?”
- “What if I told you that this relationship is there, right in front of you, like a rock you stumble over while you are mowing the lawn?”
“But, wait, there’s more.”
“What if I told you that the Kingdom of Heaven is about Someone who loves you so much that He is willing to give up everything he has to keep you close? To give up His freedom? His security? His place in Heaven? His life on earth? To sell it all for a chance to hold you in His hands, and treasure you forever?”
“What if this person, filled with love and grace and joy, were to say that if he were stranded on a desert island, he would want to take…you?”
“What if you were the Pearl of Great Price? The treasure in the field?”
Sisters and brothers, to Jesus, you are. I want you to understand today that you are loved beyond imagination. Beyond comprehension. Beyond expectation.
Deep down, in that place where we don’t like to talk about, or maybe even have the words to express, I think that we want to be loved like that. It is at the heart of our attempts to achieve and acquire…the yearning to be worthy. To be connected. To be loved. To be collected in the arms of one who loves us more than we can imagine.
The good news of Jesus today is that you don’t need to do a thing to be treasured in that way. You are loved.
You are treasured.
You are valued.
May you know that promise today.