The Glad Exchange
The Glad Exchange Matthew 13:44-46 Steve Hollaway First and Franklin Presbyterian Church July 26, 2020
Like some of you, I am a bargain hunter. Outside of this preaching robe, which I’ve had for thirty-five years, you’ve probably never seen me in an item of clothing I bought for less than 70% off. Even this green Trinity stole I recently found on clearance. I check my Safeway receipt to see how much I’ve saved on my groceries with my club card and the Safeway app. It’s a game to try to hit 50%.
Some of you are garage sale junkies who sort through countless carcasses of vacuum cleaners and waffle irons, funky hats and dusty paintings – because you are looking for that one item of real value, that underpriced collector’s item you can take to Antiques Roadshow. Today’s stories from Jesus are about people who come upon incredible bargains and are so thrilled by what they have found that they sell everything they own in order to buy these treasures. These stories are about a couple of very happy shoppers.
Jesus is not saying that the kingdom of heaven is the ultimate blue-light special now available in aisle one of your nearest church, not in the sense that it is available at very little cost. On the contrary, the bargain involved here costs a lot, but it’s worth it. And of course, Jesus doesn’t mean that the kingdom of heaven is for sale. He means that the discovery of God’s reign in your life is the most wonderful discovery you will ever make, and it’s worth everything that you have.
Jesus’ first story is about buried treasure. In ancient Palestine it was not uncommon for people to bury things for safekeeping; you remember that later in Matthew’s gospel he tells of a servant who hides his one coin in the ground. They didn’t have banks like ours where you could put your silver or gold. Legally the ground was considered a safe and responsible place to store someone’s property, whether you were worried about thieves or about occupying armies. Sometimes people buried things and never came back, so there were folk stories about the lucky souls who stumbled upon treasure like Aladdin. It did happen, but it was an incredible stroke of luck.
Once a common day-laborer was working in a field. He was a man without land of his own, without great expectations, and let’s say he was plowing the ground. Suddenly his plow hit something hard. He leaned down to see what it was, and he saw an earthenware jar, cracked by the plow to reveal a stash of gold and silver coins, more than he had seen in his entire life. If he took the jar home with him it would be stealing, because it belonged to the owner of the field according to the law, but he had another plan. He quickly covered the jar over with dirt again so that no one would find it. Then he went and bought the field itself so that the treasure would now be his. He had to sell everything he had to raise enough money to buy the field, but everything he had was nothing in comparison to the treasure he had found. There is no question here of the ethics of buying something for less than you know it is worth. The focus is on the joy of the poor man making this discovery and his eagerness to exchange what he had for what he had found.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is such a deal. It is far more valuable than what God asks in exchange for it. When we discover the secret of this incredible limited-time offer, we are overwhelmed with joy and gladly abandon everything else in order to accept God’s offer.
We need to talk about what Jesus means by “the kingdom of heaven.” First off, he doesn’t mean “heaven” the way we think of it—someplace far away where dead people live. Matthew makes the typically Jewish move of avoiding the word “God” in his writing and substitutes the term “the heavens” in Greek. Matthew means exactly the same thing that Mark and Luke mean when they say, “the kingdom of God.” But the more important word here is “kingdom—basileia in Greek—which doesn’t mean a place or a government, but God’s reign, r-e-i-g-n.
In the gospels, the heart of Jesus’ message is proclaiming the arrival of God’s reign in the world, something Jews had been looking forward to for centuries, followed by a call to repentance—turning your life around in order to be a part of God’s reign with its new values. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus mentions the kingdom 53 times. The early Christians’ understanding of the kingdom was that through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection Israel’s God had become king of the whole world. This was the fulfillment of the ancient Jewish dream and a story that stood in opposition to the Roman story that Augustus had been made king of the whole world.
There is a personal aspect to welcoming the kingdom, to be sure. God’s reign comes into our individual lives as we repent (change direction) and welcome God’s authority over our consciences and behavior. We commit ourselves to Jesus’ values of humility, compassion, justice, and peace. We shift our loyalty from the kingdom of the world to the kingdom of God.
But we understand that we are joining a movement that is changing the world. God is changing the world through what Jesus did and now through what his people do. The kingdom is coming into the world through the creation of one new humanity and through changed systems that reflect care for the poor and weak. In that sense, the kingdom has not come yet. We witness its growth as its seeds germinate, but it is not yet fully here. That is why Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come,” which he then conveniently defines for us as “God’s will being done on earth.” When people do what God wants, the kingdom in that moment has come. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that, making the world what it is intended to be?
Jesus seems to have told the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 in the context of calling people to become his disciples. They are wondering “Is it worth it?” And Jesus’ answer is an emphatic “Yes! It’s worth your life! It’s worth far more than that! At that price, it’s a steal.” This is not a heroic call to sacrifice for the sake of toughness or manhood; this is a call to joy, to an experience of God’s reality which is the one thing our deepest selves want more than anything in the world. Notice that the man who finds the treasure goes and sells everything he has in his joy. There is no grieving here about the treasure he is giving up, only rejoicing about the treasure he is gaining.
The discovery of the kingdom—God’s reign in my life, God’s love and power made real to me in Jesus Christ, and my participation in God’s long term project to make the world right—is not experienced as loss but as gain. Is that the way we talk about the gospel? I’m afraid that too often we give people the impression that the Christian life means giving up so much that they enjoy that the good news sounds like bad news. I wonder if for many of us the Christian life hasn’t become more a matter of duty than of joy, more a matter of having found the right rules than an experience of being constantly thunderstruck by our incredible good fortune at having experienced God’s grace. If we are asked to give our lives to Christ, it is not a terrible price to pay but a happy swap — my life for Christ’s life, a glad exchange. Whatever we give up is nothing compared to what we gain. The apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:8 (NLT), “Everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I may have Christ.” Augustine said of his conversion, “What I feared to be parted from was now a joy to surrender. For Thou didst cast them forth, and in their place didst enter in Thyself, sweeter than all pleasure” [Confessions, ix, I].
When Jesus called people to follow him, he called them the way the treasure called and the way the pearl called: “Here is the most joyful discovery of your life, but you must give up everything to have me.” Matthew’s gospel reflects this in the way he tells the story of Jesus calling his disciples. Simon and Andrew were casting their nets into the lake when Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” “At once they left their nets and followed him” [4:20]. James and John were with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets for the next day, when Jesus called them. “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” [4:22]. As for Matthew himself, he was sitting in his office behind his taxcollector’s desk when Jesus said “Follow me,” and Matthew got up from his desk and followed him [9:9]. Those who met Jesus were moved to leave work and family and investments behind simply to be with him.
The second story Jesus tells is about a merchant in search of fine pearls. This time we have a rich man. He is a pearl merchant. Pearls were highly valued in the ancient world. There were no cultivated or artificial pearls, so they were more rare. Records tell of large pearls priced as we would price diamonds. Cleopatra was said to have owned a pearl worth millions of dollars. So this man buys and sells pearls; it’s his job; it’s routine. But he’s always had a dream of the perfect pearl, the one which would be the end of his searching. One day in an obscure market, he finds it, and he knows that this pearl is the one, worth more than his business, his home, all his assets combined. He sidles up to the dealer:
-How much do you want for it?
-What’s it worth to you?
-I asked you.
-Well, that’s a very expensive pearl. It’s the most expensive thing in the place.-Oh, I was hoping you didn’t know that.-But I will tell you this: You can afford it.-How’s that?-I said, it’s very costly, but you can afford it.
-How do you know that? What does it cost?
-Everything you have.
-How much is that supposed to be? What’s the price?
-The price is: everything you have. Do you want it?
-Yes, it’s the one thing I really want.
-OK, it’s yours. Just give me everything you have.
-I only brought $300 in my wallet.
-I’ll take it. $300. What else do you have?
-I can see you have a wallet. I’ll take it.
-But let me keep the picture of my wife and kids!
-Aha. One wife. Two children. What else do you have? Where do you live?
-Well, in a condo on St. Paul.
-One condo. And how do you pay for it?
-I have a small pension, and Social Security.
-Yes. Retirement income. Anything else?
-I think that’s about all! What do you want, the clothes off my back?
-Oh, yes. One shirt . . . -Wait a minute! I’m not going to have anything left!
-I thought you understood that was the price. Do you want the pearl?
-Yes. . . I do want it. I want it more than anything else in the world. Here, you can have my stuff . . .
-Wait, you can keep your clothes on! Let me explain how this works. I’m going to let you use all these things, but from now on you will understand that they belong to me. When you’re with your wife and children you’ll treat them the way I want you to. You’ll never have any problem opening your house to strangers, because from now on it belongs to me. You’ll use your retirement for my benefit because I’m the one who gave you that job and that pension. Everything that you have is mine. So now – here: here is the pearl: enjoy it forever.
Near the end of the play A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More, standing fast for his Christian convictions, is about to be beheaded by Henry VIII. On the way to his execution he encounters the man who had given false testimony against him to the authorities in order to advance his own career. More asks, “So, what is Richard’s position now?” “Attorney general for Wales.” “Richard, our Lord said it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world – but Richard, all you got was Wales?” What did you get? Those who have found the kingdom of heaven in the person of Jesus Christ exchange the whole world to gain our souls. We give up our claims on this world to experience God’s reign in our lives, and it’s the best bargain we’ve ever found