Matthew 13 is a collection of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God, the central theme of his preaching and other activities. The third and final part of this discourse contains two short parables, about buried treasure and an especially valuable pearl, and one longer parable with an allegorical interpretation, about a fishing net. Each parable is introduced by the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and purports to tell us something about God’s kingdom and our relationship to it.
Palestine has always been a dangerous place to live, with foreign armies periodically attacking from both north and south. In the face of such danger, it was not unusual for ordinary people to gather their valuable belongings and bury them in the ground. The parable of the buried treasure presupposes such a situation. Suppose someone came across such a treasure in an abandoned field. He might do everything in his power to purchase that field in order to get the buried treasure for himself. Without going into the ethical problems involved, this short parable makes two points about God’s kingdom: it is something of extraordinary value, and it calls for total commitment.
Palestine has long been a place for commercial activity, with merchants from all over the Near East going through what had become its international trade routes. Suppose a shrewd merchant came across a particular pearl, and he alone recognized how valuable it was. He might sell all he had in order to get that pearl because of its great value. This second short parable makes the same two points: God’s kingdom is something of extraordinary value, and it calls for total commitment.
The longer parable compares the kingdom of God to a net thrown into the sea. Recall that the home base of Jesus’ ministry was the fishing village of Capernaum, and that his first disciples were fishermen there. When the fishermen reach shore, they sort out which fish they want to keep and which fish are to be thrown away. As the allegorical interpretation attached to the parable makes clear (“Thus it will be at the end of the age”), the full coming of God’s kingdom will involve a final judgment in which the righteous will be vindicated and the wicked will be condemned.
Today’s fourth excerpt from Paul’s instruction on life in the Spirit in Romans 8 reminds us that the principal agent in Christian spirituality is God. Two features have given exegetes and theologians headaches for centuries. Paul first asserts that “all things work for good for those who love God.” But as we know, there is no guarantee of uninterrupted happiness and success even for those who love God very much. Rather, “all things” surely includes our sufferings. The point is that God can and does often draw good results from negative events. Then Paul speaks about divine foreknowledge and what seems like predestination. His positive point is that God’s grace is with us through the whole process of salvation. It is all grace from beginning to end.
• What characteristics of God’s kingdom emerge from these three parables?
• What place does the theme of the kingdom of God have in your spirituality?
• Do you find any tension between the total commitment demanded by Jesus and Paul’s emphasis on divine grace? How do you put them together?