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Treasure in a Field: Thoughts on Matthew 13.44

by Stephen Hebert on Sunday - 21 March 2010

in Biblical Studies, New Testament

I thought it would be nice to take a moment to look at two possible interpretations of the parable in Matthew 13.44. I am indebted to Jack Wisdom, elder at Ecclesia and all-around exegetical ninja, whose sermon this morning highlighted two different interpretations of this parable.

Here’s the text:

Nestle-Aland 27
Ὁμοία ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν θησαυρῷ κεκρυμμένῳ ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ, ὃν εὑρὼν ἄνθρωπος ἔκρυψεν, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς χαρᾶς αὐτοῦ ὑπάγει καὶ πωλεῖ πάντα ὅσα ἔχει καὶ ἀγοράζει τὸν ἀγρὸν ἐκεῖνον.

Hebert Translation
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field which a man found and covered back up. Then, in all his joy, he goes and sells as much as he has and buys that field.

Interpretation #1: God = The Man | Humans = The Treasure

In this interpretation, the man who finds the treasure is God. This interpretation might recall to your mind John 3:16 — the pivotal verse that is plastered on the chests of bold young Christian men during American sporting events in the deepest of winter cold in order to show that they truly are suffering with Christ in accordance with the rules of engagement laid out by Paul the ultimate sufferer for Christ. Here we have God finding his treasure, his most valued possession — humanity — and he goes all in, selling out everything in order to purchase that treasure and keep it for himself.

To my ear this interpretation rings true. It reminds me of John 3:16 as well as Philippians 2.5–11. It’s a beautiful, Christian, biblical thought — God completely and utterly empties himself of his god-ness, and becomes a servant. He sells out everything he has for our sake.

Interpretation #2: Humans = The Man | God = The Treasure

The second interpretation is probably more popular and maybe more obvious. Here the man who finds the treasure is you and me — the human who has found God or the Kingdom of Heaven. If we understand that the heavy cost of following Jesus is nothing compared to what we actually gain, then we understand that selling everything in order to hold on to that is a rather winsome proposition.

In some sense, this interpretation calls to mind my recent discussion of parathēkē. The deposit, the treasure, the parathēkē that we are given is of far greater value than anything else. This is supported, of course, by one of today’s lectionary texts, Philippians 3.4b–14. In this passage, Paul considers all of his earthly treasures, advancements, and accolades to be loss, to be rubbish, to be skybala (σκύβαλα),1 when compared to the knowledge of Christ.

Which Interpretation?

So, which interpretation is correct?

Those who know me probably know exactly what my answer will be: BOTH.

While some might like to fix a single meaning to a text, I do not believe that this is impossible. Rather, I take up with the likes of Merold Westphal, and believe that there are a range of interpretations that can be considered good/true/correct for most texts. Matthew 13.44 is one such text.

Additionally, the nature of parables is that they are at least in some sense ambiguous. As allegories, symbolic representations of Jesus’ teaching, they defy definitive interpretation. In fact, I would argue that the more effective parable might be the one which does not have a best interpretation — if this is the case, then the reader/hearer will be forced to really think through the parable and our understanding of the Kingdom may be heightened by the careful attention to the shades of difference in interpretations that fall within the acceptable range of meaning.

Which interpretation of Matthew 13.44 is better? It just depends on your context and what you are trying to understand about the Kingdom.

I will say that the ideas presented in the second interpretation can be a bit troubling for me. Surely, we can’t allegorize this fully and say that we are the man who buys the field. If we were to go down that route, then we’d have to conclude that we should hide the Kingdom of God and buy it out from someone else. Careful! Of course, this defies the purpose of the interpretation which really is to get at the ideas that Paul later presents in Philippians — there is nothing of more value to us than the Kingdom of Heaven.

For me, the first interpretation really has a lot of clout because it is less about me and more about God. There is no way to twist this interpretation into some economics of salvation that claims that I must somehow buy my salvation or even that I must do anything. This is truly a God’s grace kind of thing. His Kingdom is a free gift to all of humanity, and he has sacrificed everything in order to make that happen.

Footnotes

  1. Many NT commenters believe that this particular word is translated a bit too euphemistically most of the time. In his commentary on Philippians, Moises Silva makes the case that even the English word “crap” is not a sufficient gloss. Personally, I have no problem translating this word as “shit” — but, I realize that some readers will take offense to the notion of Paul using such a word in what is now considered the Word of God. However, the point stands — all is worthess, nay less than worthless!, when compared to the treasure that is Christ. For a quick little rundown on the meaning of skybala see this article from Bible.org.

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