Many Things in Parables
Extravagant Stories of New Community


If multiplicity of interpretations is the measure, many of the Gospels' parbles have been and are extraordinarily successful. A number of these stories are found in more than one version in the Gospels, and almost all of the stories have been given a variety of emphases and readings through the Christian centuries. Although this openness to different hearings is unsettling for some people, it was evidently characteristic of the parables from their early tellings and may have been part of their original purpose. This study is concerned not only with the reasons that Jesus is said to have taught in parables, nor just with the uses of the parables by the early Christian communities, but also with the hearings that may be given to these stories in a variety of settings and circumstances today. The capacity of the parables to help shape the interpretation of contemporary life and to encourage the telling of new stories is an additional interest of these researches and reflections.

The book is in several ways a companion volume to my study of the healing stories in the Gospels (Power in Weakness: New Hearing for Gospel Stories of Healing and Discipleship), which also sought to bring historical, literary, psychological, and theological insights to bear on significant biblical narratives. Both studies reflect the concern in stories of and about Jesus to engender a new sense of community in conjunction with the advent of the kingdom of God. Many of the parables and stories of healing convey through their extravagant terms a passion for the inclusion of those whom others have been willing to set outside the sphere of God's care.

These observations have been developed and honed over a number of years in teaching undergraduates and graduate students at several universities and seminaries. Versions of the chapters have been presented at conferences and institutes for clergy and for laity in many parts of the United States, in Great Britain and Panama, and in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Special thanks are due to responsive audiences at Ursinus College and the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia, and to the sponsors of the Brennan Lectures in the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky and the Cheney Lectures at the Berkeley Divinity School of Yale Divinity School.

The questions and responses of many friends and participants have helped me to think more closely about the stories and to develop my understanding. I am particularly grateful to Gary Commins, John Koenig, Mary Boys, Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, and Dan Via for reading through the entire manuscript and giving me their criticisms and suggestions. John Hollar and Barry Blose of Fortress Press offered numerous improvements. Susan Buck carefully prepared the manuscript and gave me good advice. Barbara Borsch, as always, helped me in too many ways to count. The final responsibility of what now appears in print can, of course, only be mine, but I do want these many good people to know how much their listening and responding has helped me discover with them "many things in parables" (Mark 4:2; Matt. 13:3). Princeton University
February 1987


The Hidden Treasure

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Matt. 13:44

Stories about buried treasure are found in the folklore of every culture -- thousands of them altogether, many of them variations on basic plots. Part of the enjoyment of these stories is no doubt the imaginative opportunity they provide to put oneself in such circumstances and to ask. What would I do if I found such treasure? How would I feel? How would my life be changed?

This is one of the things that is maddening about this all-too-brief parable. Hearers want to know more. Were the evangelist a newspaper reporter, he would not find that he had a job for long.

Perhaps the comparable story in today's newspapers has become almost a stock item: the article about the sixty-three-year-old truck driver with emphysema, or the cleaning woman who is a mother of six, or the young, single clerk at the grocery store, who suddenly wins three and a half million dollars in the lottery. The story goes on to tell us why the person took a chance on the lottery. It answers our questions: Where did the winner buy the ticket? How many did the winner buy? Did the winner have some special reason for picking these numbers? Does the winner play the lottery every week? Did the person have some feeling of being likely to win?

Maybe there is a picture of the elated winner holding the winning ticket. What is the person going to do now? Will the winner quit work or stay on working? Will the person pay off debts, buy a new car, go on a vacation, help friends, give some away, invest it? Perhaps there are some brief comments from the neighbors. What kind of a person is the winner? Will this change him or her?

Sometimes, after a few months or even years, a follow-up article can be found in the Sunday paper. Sam Brown, who won the giant lottery two years ago, says he is really the same fellow he always was, though he did quit working and now spends half of each year in his condominium in Florida. Or Irene Peters has somehow managed to run through almost all her winnings and now has large debts her income cannot cover. She does not know where it all went. A lot had to go for taxes; some she gave away. She probably could not really afford the new house and car. The car was in a bad accident anyway.

The saddest story of all is that of Mildred Tomlin, who says the money was the major factor in causing the breakup with her husband and, later, divorce. The only time the children ever come by anymore is to ask for money, and she does not seem to have friends as she used to. Probably all of this has contributed to her bad health. She wishes she had never bought that lottery ticket.

The theme of discovered treasure leading to tragedy is one of the basic plots of treasure stories. Especially is this so if the finder did not seem to be a very deserving person to begin with or if the treasure was illegally or immorally gained. In a number of tales there is an implicit warning about having anything to do with treasure that is buried. The act of digging it up and handling it puts one in touch with deep and mysterious forces of the earth--that unseen arena where precious metals are sometimes found and from which food appears. There in the ground are the secrets of growth, but there is also death, for to the earth all things living return.

Psychologically there is probably some sense that the finder has come into relationship with deep-seated powers within the self--of greed and a lust for power. These in the end turn upon the owner and bring about death. Or it may be that the treasure awakens greed in others (often family members or friends), replacing kinship and good will with devious scheming. In the end there is tragedy for all. Gold in the final scene is recognized to be a kind of root of evil that never should have been dug up. The once-shining metal is at last seen as the "filthy lucre" it always was. In a number of treasure tales the trove is eventually found to be worthless.

Probably this kind of ending actually makes hearers feel better. Maybe they feel better for not having won the prize or found the treasure themselves. See what it leads to anyway! It may satisfy a suspicion that life finally must turn out tragically for everyone, even those who seem to have been very lucky. Fortune is, at best, always two-faced, and eventually all are leveled. The more significant satisfaction, however, probably comes from feeling morally instructed about the dangers of treasure that one has not worked for or otherwise deserved. The imparting of that lesson appears to be one of the important functions of such tales.

There are, on the other hand, many treasure stories that are instructive in other ways. Sometimes, although the finding of the treasure still can be seen as fortunate, the hearer also recognizes it to be a kind of reward for goodness or a lifetime of searching or otherwise preparing oneself for this great stroke of luck. Or the narratives may teach by telling of the wise or charitable things that were done with the treasure. In some traditions it is seen that the treasure is really a figure for wisdom that, whether the finder has looked for it or it has been discovered only by chance, is now cherished and used acording to the ways of wisdom.

One can recognize the tendency to make a treasure story instructive in these terms in the Gospel of Thomas's versions of the parable of the treasure (saying 109) and of the allied story of the pearl (saying 76):

The kingdom is like a man who had a [hidden] treasure in his field without knowing it. And [after] he died, he left it to his son. The son did not know [about the treasure]. He inherited the field and sold [it]. And the one who bought it, went plowing and found the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.

The kingdom of the Father is like a merchant, who had a consignment of merchandise and who discovered a pearl. That merchant was shrewd. He sold the merchandise and bought the pearl alone for himself. You, too, seek unfailing and enduring treasure where no moth comes near to devour and no worm destroys.

Whether the author of this gospel knew the parables from Matthew's Gospel or another source, it would seem that he has reshaped them from a perspective influenced by Gnosticism and with that interest in mercantile activity found at a number of points in his collection of sayings. Hearers are to learn from the father and son who did not recognize the treasure of life in their midst. The lesson is that "unless you look for the treasure in your own field it will pass to others who will profit from it." The lucky one who here legitimately acquires the field and then discovers the treasure does, however, then recognize it for what it is. His lending of it may indicate a wise use of the treasure and/or a sharing of genuine knowledge with others. True to the folklore pattern of such stories, the finder demonstrates his new wealth.

In the story of the pearl the prudence of the merchant is stressed. The pearl evidently represents wisdom, and Thomas adds his version of another saying from the tradition to emphasize wisdom's unfailing character.

Because the two parables are separated in Thomas, some scholars believe Matthew first brought them together in his Gospel. One can imagine, how- ever, that their similarities caused them to be linked at an earlier point in the tradition. Some critics suggest that Jesus may have used them in tandem to reinforce a similar basic concern. In any event, Matthew would appear to have seen them in this light, and the two short narratives do have much in common.

Although they begin a bit differently, they are both intended to say that the kingdom of heaven is like this situation. One may or may not regard the significance of the two stories as self-evident, but they are also similar in that neither offers hearers a lot to go on. Those who probe them are left with a number of unanswered questions. Both move quickly to their conclusions focused by the parallel structure of finding and then goes/went, sells/sold all, and buys/bought. The manner in which the treasure parable shifts to verbs in the present tense as it ends seems to make the action even more dramatic.

Neither story tells what was done with the great find. Some interpreters believe that it is implied that the treasure and highly valuable pearl were sold for great wealth, but that understanding may in fact run counter to the concentrated effect of the narratives. In an important sense one does not do anything with this treasure. One just has it. It is the kingdom--not valuable for what one can sell or trade it for--but wholly for itself. It is treasure of surpassing value.

To his mixed community (consisting of many who were lax and inconsistent in discipleship as well as the more dedicated) Matthew has directed these stories with their examples of "total commitment." They tell of a single-mindedness and an alacrity in willingness to give up all else in life for what is of worth beyond measure. The one who discovers the treasure and the merchant respond with everything they have. They are in some ways il- lustrations of the saying that follows the warning not to have earthly treas- ures that rust and can be stolen but to have treasures in heaven: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:19-21; Luke 12:33- 34). Hearers can contrast the story of the man who asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life and was told to sell what he owned and give to the poor and so have treasure in heaven but was unable to do so because he had great pos- sessions (Matt. 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23).

It is, however, rightly pointed out that what is described in these stories is not giving away everything but using all else to purchase what is regarded as of still more worth. In this sense the two parables are not concerned with sacrificial living for the sake of those in need, and that would be the wrong sermon to preach using these stories as texts. Nevertheless, there is a kind of willingness to surrender all other things that is involved in their actions, comparable, for example, to the athlete who goes into strict training in order to win the gold medal. Matthew's audience was probably meant also to re- member sayings of Jesus such as "The one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and the one who does not take up a cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37-38). The kingdom must be given a priority that is absolute.

The twinned parables of the treasure and pearl are together used by the evangelist to stress this theme, but it is worth recognizing that there are also differences in the narratives. Fortune suddenly presents both individuals with a unique opportunity, but in the case of the pearl merchant hearers are able to reflect on the virtue of the "prepared mind." Lucky he may be, but without the skill he has developed in discerning pearls through preparation and searching, he would presumably never have been able to perceive the true nature of the opportunity. It is not suggested, on the other hand, that the one who finds the treasure is either prepared or searching for anything. This individual is just plain lucky.

There are also aspects of the treasure story that are, as it were, more murky. This is true not only because of those connotations that go along with treasure buried in the ground but because hearers cannot be certain of the morality of the treasure finder's actions. Looking back through sermons and scholarly interpretation of the parable, one can find a fair amount of concern in this regard. It seems probable, however, that the early hearers of the parable would have understood that what the individual did was legal. In a sense ancient treasure belonged to no one by right, and, if the person was a day laborer and not a servant who would have borne more responsibility to the owner, he was within his legal rights in concealing the find and then buying the field. What is not illegal is, however, not always considered morally right, and it is at least difficult to get very excited about the ethics of the treasure finder. It has been suggested that Matthew might not have included the parable in his Gospel were it not already linked with the more aboveboard story of the merchant who had been searching for fine pearls and purchased the one of great value in the open market.

Yet it is in part because the parable does not seem very concerned with advertising practical morality or common-sense prudence, and because the narrative does not fulfill expectations based on similar stories, that it reminds of other of Jesus' parables in their challenge to usual ways of thinking and expecting. The treasure finder "is as unscrupulous in his way as the Unjust Steward himself" who did what he had to do without much apparent regard for the niceties of the situation, in order, in his circumstances, to make the calamity of losing his job into an opportunity for a new life.

Heard in this perspective, the parable is also at least as much a question as advice: What would you do--or what will you do in similar circumstances--in the story of your life? Even more than the story of the pearl, the treasure tale intimates how much luck or, if you will, grace is involved in coming across the kingdom of God--God's presence which in many ways is hidden below the appearances and surface interpretations of life. Coming into contact with that presence puts one in touch with mystery and risk. The one who stumbled across the treasure found without seeking; in a sense he was as much found as finding. But now if one is to seize this opportunity one cannot play it safe. If the individual realizes that the opportunity of this treasure is worth more than all else possessed, present life and the future are utterly changed.

The parable now seems to allude to stories about marriage feasts and dinner parties, and perhaps to still others about finding the unexpected--what one has neither sought nor earned--and thus having everything disrupted. When what counts more than all else in life is suddenly come across, what happens to planning, investment schedules--even concerns about prudential morality and deserving? Whose future is it then?

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COPYRIGHT 1988-2006 BY FREDERICK HOUK BORSCH All rights reserved.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Fortress Press for permission to reprint previously published material by the author.