And both a poor laborer and a rich merchant are able to get his message.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,
which a person finds and hides again,
and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”–Matthew 13:44
In the marketing world, there are two ways of determining the financial value of a product or, in some cases, even an idea. The first is the actual value of the product. This is gauged by the cost of materials and labor in production. But the second measure is considered much more important for companies with something to sell. This is the perceived value.
The perceived value of an item is the worth that a product has in the mind of a consumer. As one marketing website observed, “For the most part, consumers are unaware of the true cost of production for the products they buy; instead they simply have an internal feeling for how much certain products are worth to them. To obtain higher price for products, producers may pursue marketing strategies to create a higher perceived value for their products.”
As unlikely as it might seem, this idea of “perceived value” is at the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel which brings together three short parables about the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the first parable, Jesus uses the image of a treasure buried in a field. As the laborer is digging—we might think of planting a fencepost or digging a well—they find hidden wealth buried in the ground. Recognizing the value of what they’ve found, and in order to avoid any dispute about their right to own the treasure, they go and buy the entire field.
A detail that might get lost in this short parable is that the person working in the field is not the field’s owner. This would mean that they are most likely a laborer and not a person of wealth. To buy the field would demand both a sacrifice and commitment. And yet, they’re willing to take on that burden to obtain what they know is of greater value.
The character in the second parable is from the opposite end of the social spectrum. Instead of a humble laborer, Jesus mentions a wealthy merchant who discovers a pearl “of great price.” Scripture scholar Barbara Reid, O.P., observes: “A merchant in search of fine pearls would have been a rich man, most likely making his money on the backs of the poor divers in his employ. Merchants are generally depicted negatively in the Scriptures, as avaricious and corrupt. The surprise is that even such a person as this could come upon the reign of God and be moved to sell all they have for this pearl of great price.”
Both the laborer and the merchant recognize the value of what they have discovered and they are willing to make great sacrifices in order to obtain the treasure and pearl. By using these colorful images, Jesus is helping the disciples understand the value of the Kingdom of Heaven; he’s helping them move beyond their limited expectations of a new Kingdom of Israel to see that the value of the Kingdom of Heaven is worth even more than the riches enjoyed by the laborer and the merchant. He’s also reminding them that sacrifices have to be made to obtain what is of greater value.
The third parable in this set uses imagery similar to what we find in the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds proclaimed this past Sunday. As the net pulls all kinds of fish out the water, Jesus is asking his followers to refrain from judging who is righteous or worthy of the kingdom. Judgment will come in the end, but it is not our responsibility or right to judge others. Even Jesus’ use of the examples of the hardworking laborer and an avaricious merchant who are both willing to make great sacrifices for a greater good confronts that tendency to judge.
In the end, the parables we hear this Sunday are really only metaphors. After all, the “product” Jesus is “selling” can’t be bought or sold. Instead, the parables are reminding us that if we want to be part of the mission and work of Jesus—the Kingdom of Heaven—then we have to be willing to sacrifice. The joy of the Kingdom is free gift which nevertheless asks something of us—we are being asked to give ourselves over to God’s grace and mercy. We are being asked to take up the cross of discipleship.
But isn’t the value of what Jesus offers worth the price?
What are you being asked to sacrifice for the greater joy of the Kingdom of Heaven?
How does the “treasure” offered by Jesus help guide your day-to-day decisions?
How are you like the laborer or the merchant? How are you different?
Words of Wisdom: “The Lord looks at your heart, not your fortune; he considers the love that prompts your offerings, not its amount. If we’re going to weigh material goods, our holy traders gave their nets and boats to purchase the eternal life of the angels. The real value of that is beyond price, but for you its price is just what you possess. For Zacchaeus it was worth half his fortune… For Peter and Andrew it was worth the value of their nets and boat; for the widow it cost two small coins; another may buy it with a cup of cold water. As I said, the kingdom of God costs whatever you have.”—Saint Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies