Hearing the parables of Jesus is very much like listening to a Zen koan. You know how they go: “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” or “What did your face look like before you were conceived?’ A koan invites us to encounter something outside of human experience. In today’s gospel passage, Saint Matthew presents us with three of these illustrations taken from Jesus’s teachings: first, an experience of the cost and value of the kingdom; then, a look at the universality of the kingdom…and a warning; and finally, an opportunity to open ourselves to new perspectives. All three of these insights are addressed to you, the individual, rather than to some anonymous and amorphous Christian community.
The first parable (or koan) begins with a happy discovery: treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of enormous value. Keep in mind that, at that time, pearls were considered to be the most valuable of all gems, more precious than diamonds. What might strike you at first may be the expense. In both cases, the finders sell everything they have to purchase the prize. It’s certainly not an exaggeration to consider that the price for entrance into the kingdom—that is, the acceptance of God’s will—is the unconditional surrender of our own selfish plans and schemes. Yet, the expense is not the focus of this parable. What ought to come through to us is that entering the kingdom and becoming part of the Reign of God is worth any cost. And, for Jesus, this is not some kingdom in the “great by and by,” but the Reign of God—heaven—in the here and now. The price of admission is simply surrender.
The second illustration chosen for our consideration today imagines the Reign of God as a dragnet in the sea. If you understand how a dragnet operates, you’ll realize that it’s indiscriminate. It picks up everything in its path. It “collects fish of every kind.” It seems that Jesus’s original purpose in choosing this image was to provide his listeners with a certain consolation, assuring them that no one is excluded from the Reign of God. God doesn’t discriminate. Access to the treasure isn’t limited by any pre-existing condition—race, color, creed, or national origin. Not even sin. No one is to be excluded a priori. Membership in God’s chosen people is unlimited.
Then, as often happens in our Scriptures, Matthew and the Christian community expanded on this simple koan to remind everyone that entering the Reign of God is not to be taken for granted. We mustn’t imagine that, when the gospel speaks of the “good” and the “bad,” the “wicked” and the “righteous,” it’s referring to “sinners” versus “saints.” After all, Jesus came precisely to call sinners. In fact, anyone who has experienced profound forgiveness now lives in equally great gratitude. No, those who end by weeping and gnashing their teeth are those who’ve taken inclusion into the Reign of God for granted and thus devalued it. These are they who couldn’t be bothered to pay the price of admission because they didn’t see any point in surrendering their will to the will of God…that is until they descended into futility and frustration. Yet, even then, for God, it’s never too late to enter the kingdom.
The final koan from today’s gospel is that of the scribe. Jesus was well-known for his frequent criticisms of the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes were the Scripture scholars of their day. They dedicated their lives to the study and interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. The Pharisees served as a sort of morality police. They determined for the Jewish population how the Law and the Prophets—as interpreted by the scribes—should be applied to daily living to keep on the “right side” of God. Were there scribes who followed Jesus? Evidently so, but in our Christian Scriptures, they’re only hinted at. Here’s where Jesus, instead of condemning the scribes, exhorts them not to let their scholarship make them closed-minded. After all, what most creates dissension among us is our inability to step outside our own perspectives, prejudices, and expectations.
One of the reasons why eyewitness accounts are so unreliable is that we often see what we expect to see rather than what’s really there. Skilled magicians can manipulate our expectations so that we not only miss seeing what’s happening right in front of us but also think we’re seeing what isn’t there. It works with hearing, as well. In one famous experiment, researchers recorded a portion of a public lecture on audio tape. They then selected one word from the segment and physically cut the tape to remove the word. They then spliced in a pre-recorded cough. Every person who was asked to transcribe the passage insisted that they had “heard” the missing word. When it comes to our perception and understanding, we would do well to follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice and “doubt a little of [our] own infallibility.”
Naturally, there is a life lesson in today’s gospel. The kingdom of heaven—the Reign of God—is, as our Scriptures tell us—“in you,” in Greek, ἐν ὑμιν (en humin), meaning at the same time “within you” and “among you.” No one is excluded and all are summoned to join it. The peace and joy of living at one with God and one another is beyond value. Accepting it and surrendering to it is a ridiculously small price to pay for a life beyond our wildest imaginings. Yet, our skewed perspectives and our unreasonable expectations may keep us locked into old, fearful ways of thinking. Still, the Spirit of God keeps calling us to metanoia—to a change of mind and heart. That too-narrow vision and those too-limited expectations keep us from appreciating the value of all that’s in store for us if we would but let go and let God.
It’s fear of losing out that keeps us from paying the price for the limitless treasure or the pearl of great value. It’s fear that drives us out of the net of God’s love and into the realm of the weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s fear that keeps us stuck in old ways of thinking and believing and prevents us from fully rejoicing in the wildness of God’s Spirit. So, the gospel reading today calls us out of fear and summons us to embrace the joyful freedom of God’s children and the joy of being heirs to the kingdom of heaven.