We are pleased to publish this guest post from Mark Scalese, S.J. Fr. Scalese is an associate professor in the Department of Visual & Performing Arts at Fairfield University. His documentary short, Greetings from Havre de Grace, is a winner of the CINE Golden Eagle Award and has aired on Maryland Public Television's "Chesapeake Bay Week." It can be viewed online at www.markscalese.com.
Downtown Cochabamba, Bolivia, hosts the largest open-air market in the country, and quite possibly, the world. Known as La Cancha, it can best be described as a cross between a farmers' market and Walmart—on steroids. If you can think of it, you can find it at The Cancha: clothes, shoes, produce, canned goods, freshly-butchered meat, live animals, cleaning supplies, electronics, household appliances, indigenous handicrafts. Nothing has a price tag; everything is subject to haggling. About the only things you can't buy at The Cancha are cars or coffins—and I bet even they can be found for the right price.
I had the opportunity to experience The Cancha in all it's chaotic, capitalistic glory last summer while studying Spanish at the Maryknoll Language Institute. One Saturday, while walking through it with a Bolivian Jesuit named César Maldonado, he told me a great story. A particular section of The Cancha features used clothing from the United States, and a friend of his who wanted to buy a winter coat there was trying one on for size when he asked how much it cost. The shopkeeper quoted a price that was more than he wanted to spend, and as César's friend was figuring out his haggling strategy he happened to feel some paper in one of the coat's pockets. Covertly taking it out, he discovered a handful of American currency worth considerably more than the price of the coat. Without skipping a beat, he paid the merchant's asking price on the spot and walked away with not only a new winter coat, but a small windfall to boot!
When I heard that story, it immediately reminded me of two classic parables of Jesus which are part of this summer's Sunday lectionary, "The Treasure in the Field," and "The Pearl of Great Price." In the first, a man digging in a field—quite possibly a day-laborer—discovers buried treasure. Re-burying it, he sells everything he owns and uses the proceeds to buy the field. In the second parable, a gem merchant sells everything he owns in order to purchase a particularly valuable pearl.
The extravagant and even foolhardy behavior of the protagonists in these stories can be puzzling to affluent North Americans like us. Why not just run off with the treasure? Why sell everything for a single pearl? On the other hand, César's story instantly opens up new possibilities for understanding what Jesus was going for in these parables because it dramatizes the perspective of the poor, whose exigencies often foster a quick-witted resourcefulness that more wealthy people can lack. (Indeed, such a perspective can encourage us to ask how it is possible for someone to give away a coat without first checking its pockets for valuables!)
Scripture scholars have traditionally seen "The Treasure" and "The Pearl" as hyperbolic illustrations of how important the Kingdom of God is supposed to be in our lives, of how it should be worth everything to us. While that interpretation is certainly a good and important one, it has always fallen flat for me somehow. The actions of both the field-hand and the pearl merchant seem so unexpected that I've always felt that Jesus intended these parables to have more intellectual or emotional wallop—or surprise.
But "The Coat in The Cancha" sheds light on Jesus' stories in ways that are both emotionally and intellectually satisfying, as well as surprising. Suddenly, they are no longer just about the lengths we should go in order to obtain The Kingdom; they become about how worthless The Kingdom appears to be to those without "ears to hear."
Let's look more closely at the parable about the hidden treasure. As with the merchant who sold the coat to César's friend, the field has only a limited value to its present owner. But the digger knows that it is actually worth far more than the owner thinks. We probably need to simply accept as a given that the laborer needs to buy the land in order to lay claim to the treasure. Even without it, he still would need to sell all his belongings in order to buy the property. But he knows that the hidden treasure is worth more than all his possessions. What looks like shear foolishness to the landowner is actually a savvy strategy on the part of the field-digger. He knows that once he owns that patch of earth, he will get everything back and more—just like César's friend with his new coat. (Let's not forget, too, that in the ancient world—as in many countries of the world today—relatively few people owned the land upon which everyone else earned their livings. The perspective of the poor enables us to cheer for the laborer in the story because at the end of the day he not only owns the treasure, he owns the land!)
The corresponding structure of the two parables encourages us to look at the one about the pearl in a similar way. Even though Jesus never says so, the merchant may well know that the gem he desires is worth far more than its current owner thinks, more even, than all of his possessions—so selling everything is actually a clever business move. (Astute readers may note, though, that we can only take the parallelism of the two stories so far. Unlike the field-digger who still owns the land even after he liquidates the treasure for cash to live on, the gem merchant will have to sell the pearl in order to recoup his investment!)
As with the original owners of the field or the pearl, most of us don't think the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about is really worth very much in our regular lives. After all, what would the standards of The Kingdom demand of us? Sharing what we have with the poor. Forgiving our enemies instead of retaliating against them. Striving for the common good and peace among nations. Actually trying to do God's will on earth as it is in heaven. Let's be honest: in the "real world," people who try to live like that don't seem to get very far.
But the great surprise of "The Coat in The Cancha" is that it invites us to consider that God's Kingdom is not only worth more than everything we own, it's worth more than we can imagine. If that's what the parables about The Treasure and The Pearl are about, then giving our all for the sake of The Kingdom holds the promise of getting everything back and more--not just in some future heaven, but here and now. To the uninitiated, things like unconditional love, self-sacrifice, trust in God, or forgiveness can seem like the stuff of fools. But for those with "ears to hear," trying to live like that is actually an investment in love, one that is not only inherently more valuable than most people think, but that promises to give back to us everything we expend and more. And that is Good News indeed.
Mark Scalese, S.J.