It would seem, and is often interpreted, as one of the simplest, clearest of Jesus’ teachings: The Parable of the Hidden Treasure. It’s only one verse long and I can print it here without fear of it screwing up my word count.
This parable is usually extolled as an example story of how precious is the Kingdom of God and how we should want to give up everything for it. This interpretation is further bolstered by the fact that just following is the terse and pithy parable about a merchant who sells everything he has in order to purchase The Pearl of Great Price.
But, if you read this short verse carefully, all sorts of weirdnesses and unanswered questions begin to emerge.
Here’s my list:
For one thing (1), this story is about a guy who finds himself on someone else’s property. What is he doing there? Sounds like he’s trespassing, one of those things we ask forgiveness for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer (unless we’re Presbyterians). Is the hero of our story doing something sinful?
For another thing (2), once he discovers this treasure (I am imagining gold, diamonds, or, more actively, “bubbling crude” like Jed Clampett happens upon at the beginning of The Beverly Hillbillies), he promptly proceeds to hide it. Why? Because he doesn’t want the owner of the field to see the treasure that’s been discovered and thus refuse to sell his land because now he knows it’s of great great worth? Sounds like the hero of our story is not only sinful, he’s sneaky.
Then (3), why doesn’t our hero just take the treasure he found and call it a day? Why does he have to finagle things in order to purchase the whole field? Clearly the guy is ambitious on top of everything else.
And (4) wealthy. Peasants of Jesus' day couldn’t begin to imagine purchasing someone else’s field, nor would they want to. Land was the most important and honorable thing an otherwise poor family could own, and pass along to descendants. Only wealthy landowners living in splendor somewhere else in the Roman Empire were so insensitive and greedy as to grab land from local Palestinian peasants (usually after the latter went into debt paying exorbitant Roman taxes). In addition, only wealthy landowners would have the kind and amount of stuff that, when sold, would bring enough to pay for another’s field….
If this is indeed a wealthy man, perhaps not even Jewish, would this be at all a person to which the Galilean peasant audience Jesus typically addressed could relate? (5) Why is Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God in terms of a rich, voracious and sneaky thief? Might Jesus be talking about someone we're not supposed to assume is us?
Maybe the main character of this parable is God! (6)
Oftentimes Jesus will in his parables characterize God as a wealthy landowner even though his hearers would have found this a noxious suggestion. Maybe one of the reasons Jesus made the comparison was for shock value. Parables are intended to confuse everyone in order to make room for a new understanding of grace.
What if the world Jesus is operating in in this parable is the same as the one I discussed earlier when I talked about how the ancients first understood Jesus’ death and resurrection to be a clever trick God pulls on the Devil and the powers of Evil? (7) (See The Heavenly Hustle from 1/22/14.) What if this parable is another example of the then-popular belief, delightful to embrace and regale, that God defeats Evil and redeems the world through skullduggery and wit? What if this little story is one way Jesus is reminding His hearers of this good news?
From the comic perspective, then, “The Parable of the Hidden Treasure” tells how God sneaks into the Devil’s domain when he’s not looking, finds the beginnings of the treasured Kingdom (us) and slyly keeps it under wraps until He “purchases” us with Jesus’ life, which the Devil (wanting control over God, too) hungrily agrees is a fair price. Of course, the Devil is duped because once God wins back the world He has all the clout He needs to get Jesus back as well, three days after His death. Hallelujah and Ha Ha Ha!
What a crazy, surprising, and, in the end, fun journey this little parable has taken me on! It has filled me not only with hope but also with rejuvenating laughter. Hope it’s been the same for you! How scandalous to feel this way, in the midst of so much sadness, suffering and stress with which the present world seems so inundated.
I’m guessing that the audience of Jesus’ time found life to be no different, and the process of letting Jesus’ parables scramble their minds, fill them with questions, confront their assumptions and from it all emerge a whole new, zesty love for God, life and neighbor – in spite of everything – was the kind of loony tonic that made them want to once more call him their Lord. And re-commit themselves to being and nurturing His treasure.