“What is the kingdom of God like?” Jesus often said. “To what shall we compare it?” And whenever Jesus began to speak like this to his disciples, he spoke to them about the kingdom in parables.
“It is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then, in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all he had to buy it.”
Imagine that farmer. How many years had he plowed that field? How many times had he trod across that soil? Yet suddenly and without explanation, there it was–a treasure. A treasure so compelling that there really was no choice or decision. He just had to reach down and pick it up. Without even thinking, he realized that his life was changed. He knew he’d give anything to buy that field, to own that treasure.
Imagine the pearl merchant. He’s made a good living buying and selling pearls. He’s seen some very nice pearls. But in the back of his head, he has visualized “the pearl,” thinking in all likelihood it was more fantasy than reality. Then one day, a very ordinary day in the market, he turns around and there it is. “The pearl,” the pearl of a lifetime. He sells all that he has to buy that pearl. What joy he finds in rolling it in hand, holding it up to the light. He finds himself thinking, “I’ve been in much bigger markets, why did I find it here? What if I had stopped for coffee this morning and been five minutes later? Would I have ever found this pearl?”
Pursue the kingdom of God at any price, with all your heart and all your energy, for there is nothing more important than it. Isn’t that really what these parables communicate? The reign of God–in your lives, among you, in the world–is worth everything to you. St. Benedict, when he wrote his famous “Rule” for monasteries said, “the love of Christ must come before all else.” Our desire for God should be the primary motivation in our lives–it is the echo of God’s longing for us.
Yet, you cannot separate quest from gift. Sometimes you pursue something all your life, like in medical research, and when the puzzle is solved or the cure is found, it still feels like a prize, a gift!
You’ve heard that expression, “Work like it all depends on you. Pray like it all depends on God.” That somehow expresses the paradox that is expressed in these parables–the paradox between seeking and discovery, between quest and gift, discipleship and grace. The kingdom of God is like that–it is something we should seek with all our energy; yet when it is revealed to us, we are overwhelmed by the gift.
Growing up as a young Catholic girl going to church and to Catholic school, I had attended mass countless times. It was a field I knew well. Then, as a 13-year old I went away for a weekend confirmation retreat that ended with the celebration of the mass. It was familiar territory. Yet as the worship progressed that afternoon somehow I felt different. I was deeply engrossed in the liturgy, hearing each word that I had heard so many times before. So, I was startled when a classmate elbowed me and whispered, “What are you doing, Sophie?” It was only at that moment that I realized that I was saying the words of consecration out loud along with the priest. A 13-year old girl saying the words only the priest should say! I was mortified. I blushed and became very quiet. Yet in some ways, I also knew that in that well-known field I had stumbled upon a treasure. I tried to deny it, to say it was just a very warm afternoon in that small chapel, perhaps we kids were just packed in too tight and there hadn’t been enough oxygen! But no, that experience was a treasure. Looking back now, many years later, I believe that it was one of the first signs of my call to ministry. The small seed of a call had been planted in my heart and mind. The power of God had broken through to my world.
Quest and gift. Familiar, yet eye-opening. Costly, yet free. Pursued and surprising. Such is the in-breaking of the power of God. Such is the Kingdom. You go the same way to work everyday. You’ve had literally thousands of conversations with that person. You’ve come to worship every Sunday for years. You’ve sung that hymn at least fifty times. But then inexplicably, suddenly there is treasure. God’s power breaks in your midst. The Kingdom is among you. And when you see that treasure, hold that pearl, you’ll have no choice, you’ll do anything to make it yours.