The ecstasy and the agony

by Scott Grant

Matthew 13:44-50

"You've got a package!"

In Solzhenitsyn's "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich," Shukhov, a prisoner in the gulags, wrote to his wife early on and told her not to send any packages so as to use their skimpy resources for their children. Solzhenitsyn writes of Shukhov, "All the same every time anybody in his gang or in his part of the barracks got a package - and this was nearly every day - he felt a kind of pang inside because it wasn't him. And though he told his wife she must never send him anything, even for Easter, and he never went to that post with the list on it - unless it was to take a look for some other guy who was well off - still he sometimes had the crazy idea somebody might run up to him one day and say: "Shukhov, what are you waiting for? You've got a package!"

Imagine how Shukhov would have reacted if a package was placed in his hands that he never dreamed he could receive. He would have been delirious with joy. In the two parables Jesus tells in Matthew 13:45-46, the characters discover something they'd never dreamed of discovering. In one case, it's a hidden treasure. In another case, it's a pearl of great value. Upon discovery, they are delirious with joy and sell all their possessions to acquire their discoveries. The treasure and the pearl represent the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is a source of such joy that we gladly part with everything in order to gain it. Life in the kingdom of heaven is worth giving up everything else of value.

Jesus tells three parables in Matthew 33:44-50, and the way Matthew presents them, it is clear that he intends us to understand them as a series. The first two are obviously related to each other. The third is related to the first two, though less obviously.

Amazing discoveries (13:44-46)

Matthew 13:44-46:

(44) "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. (45) Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, (46) and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it."

Valuables would be hidden in jars in Palestine, much like pirates buried their treasure (Matthew 25:25). The land was so often ravaged that burying valuables was a safe way to protect them from marauders. Peasants dreamed of stumbling upon one of these jars.

The man in this story finds a treasure, then immediately hides it. The background for this may be that of a peasant working in the field of a landowner. If the treasure is removed, it belongs to the landowner. If it remains in the ground, it also belongs to the landowner, but leaves open the possibility that it could be acquired by a new landowner, if a new landowner should come along. This man intends on being the new landowner.

If this is the background for the parable, the man is not looking for the treasure. In the course of his work, he stumbles upon it. For some of us, in the course of our lives, we stumble upon the kingdom without even looking for it.

The discovery of the treasure prompts an outlandish response. It has changed his world view. His values change. He now has to have that treasure. In order to get the treasure, he has to buy the field. In order to buy the field, he has to sell all his possessions. His possessions are now seen in light of the treasure. What he valued before is dispensed with in order to acquire something more valuable.

If you are reading this, you are getting a look at the treasure, so to speak. Perhaps you may be stumbling upon it today. So, is the discovery worth selling all your possessions?
What is it that makes the kingdom valuable? The kingdom is valuable because of the King. John Piper: "The kingdom of heaven is the abode of the King. The longing to be there is not the longing for heavenly real estate, but for camaraderie with the King. The treasure in the field is the fellowship of God in Christ." But that leaves the question, "What does camaraderie with the king do for us?"

Note what motivates the man in the story to sell his possessions and acquire the treasure. It is "joy." Literally, the text reads that "from his joy" he sells his possessions in order to acquire the treasure. The source of joy for us is camaraderie with the King. In John 16:22, Jesus connects "joy" with relationship with him. Seeing him produces joy. Why is camaraderie with the King such a source of joy? Our source of joy is the joy the King takes in us, his love for us, his delight in us - the joy that beams from his face as we enter his presence.

This is the joy of getting something. Make no mistake: This is the joy of getting something for ourselves. Only one man is involved in this story, and he acts completely in his own self-interest, and Jesus the teller and Matthew the author would both have us believe that he acted commendably. The man is motivated to sell all his possessions by nothing other than his own joy.
The merchant in the second parable is a different sort of person than the man depicted in the first parable. The first man stumbled upon the treasure without even looking for it; this man is looking for something. He is a merchant looking for fine pearls. He's in the pearl-buying business.
He represents a seeker - someone who understands that there is something more than himself out there. Moreover, he wants to do something about it. He wants to search. He asks questions in legitimate search of answers, not as a smoke screen to defend his position. Some people find the kingdom by stumbling upon it; others find the kingdom by searching for it. Perhaps some of you are searching for that missing something. Perhaps some of you who have already found the kingdom are searching still because you're convinced that there's more to the kingdom than what you've seen.

The kingdom welcomes, even encourages, inquiry. In fact, there seems to be a guarantee that those who seek God will find him. The Lord told Israel: "And you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13). Jesus said, "Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7). Paul said that God made the nations "that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27).

When his disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, Jesus said, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted" (Matthew 13:11). The parables tended to identify those who assigned enough value to the kingdom to look for it. Those who wanted the kingdom sought to understand the mysteries revealed in the parables; those who didn't want the kingdom couldn't be bothered with investigating such mysteries. So it is with the kingdom of heaven: It is waiting to be found by those who search for it. The question then becomes, "Are we in the pearl business?" Are we seeking, or are we satisfied with pat, trite answers that only serve to justify our safe but boring lifestyles?

In the course of his looking for fine pearls, the merchant makes an amazing discovery. He's looking for pearls (plural), but he finds "one" pearl. This pearl is "of great value." By his subsequent actions, it is shown that he believes the pearl to be more valuable than he ever dreamed a pearl could be.

However valuable we think the kingdom of heaven is, it is probably a lot more valuable than we ever dreamed it could be. But in the course of our seeking and agonizing and wondering what it is we're missing, perhaps we, like the merchant, see something we've never seen before. Perhaps we see the kingdom of heaven as that one pearl of great value.

Upon making his discovery, the merchant does the same thing that the man in the first parable did: He goes, he sells everything he has and he makes a purchase. He sells everything he has in order to buy the pearl. He is not buying the pearl in order to make a profit; he's buying it in order to possess it. Once making his purchase, he evidently gets out of the business. He's not buying and selling anymore. What's he doing? He's appreciating!

Once we find the kingdom, and find it to be that pearl of great value, what should we do? Appreciate it! On the one hand, we should be in the pearl business, seeking for the kingdom and seeking to understand its greatness; on the other hand, we should be in the appreciation business, marveling at the greatness of the king and his love for us when we find him.

Although these two stories come at things from slightly different angles, they both make the same point: The superlative value of the kingdom is worth giving up everything else one values. In each story, the character is blown away by his discovery - so much so that he responds in a startling way. The first character is motivated by joy. And though it is not specifically stated that the second character was motivated by joy, his reactions indicate that joy, or something like it, motivated him to part with everything in order to make the purchase of a lifetime.

Now that casts things in a different light, doesn't it? Giving up one's possessions in this story does not equate to self-sacrifice. So often our involvement with the kingdom of heaven is characterized by a grim compulsion to do the right thing. If there are sacrifices to be made, possessions to be released, dreams to be relinquished, perhaps we'll muster up the discipline to do what must be done, but we won't enjoy it. We'll do our best to beat our other desires out of us so that we can desire the kingdom more. What a different picture these parables paint. They paint a picture of someone who is so hilarious with joy at the prospect of camaraderie with the king that possessions slip easily from his hand without so much as a blink of the eye. It is nothing other than joy that loosens our grip on the things of this world.

Perhaps we have it the other way around. Perhaps we want to give up things, or discipline ourselves to do the right things, in order to get joy. In this story, it is joy that motivates the man to give up things. That tells us that if we really understood what we have in the kingdom of heaven, if we really understood the joy the king finds in us, joy would fill our hearts, and then giving up all those things, whatever they are, becomes easy.

I am afraid that at this time, place and pace, we've lost the joy. We've lost the pure, simple, hilarious joy of enjoying the king's enjoyment of us and have mucked up the life of faith will all sorts of other junk. These parables are an invitation to enjoy the king's enjoyment of you. So, enjoy the king's enjoyment of you! And watch what happens in your life. In time, you won't recognize yourself. Possessions and even once-cherished values and dreams will slip easily from your fingers.

When Isaiah predicted Israel's return from exile, which is ultimately fulfilled in Christ, he said, "And the ransomed of the Lord will return, and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isaiah 35:10). We are the ransomed of the Lord, released from exile and purchased by the Lord by the blood of Christ. That's cause for joy and gladness.

C.S. Lewis' classic words from his essay "The weight of glory" are apropos: "The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

These parables are an invitation to take a holiday at the sea, and to let the king's love for us lap up onto the shores of our heart.

Crushing agony (13:47-50)

Matthew 13:47-50:

(47) "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; (48) and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away. (49) "So it will be at the end of the age; the angels shall come forth, and take out the wicked from among the righteous, (50) and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

In the previous two parables, people were seeking the kingdom. In this parable, the kingdom seeks people. As it turns out, the kingdom is seeking people who value it. The third parable shows that when people find the kingdom, it's not an accident. They didn't just get lucky. Behind the scenes, the Lord sets the stage for us to find him.

The dragnet, a large net that is pulled through the sea, is indiscriminate. It gathers fish "of every kind," both "good" and "bad." The story does not qualify what distinguishes a good fish from a bad fish. Evidently, one is good for eating and the other is not. Perhaps the bad ones were rotten or considered unclean (Leviticus 11:10-12). The purpose of a dragnet is not to gather bad fish; the purpose is to gather good fish. The bad fish simply get in the way.

This parable clearly parallels the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). The Son of Man sows the good seed, the sons of the kingdom, but the devil is responsible for the tares, the sons of the evil one. But until the harvest, the end of the age, the wheat is indistinguishable from the tares. So in this parable, the good fish are indistinguishable from the bad as they are gathered. Sometimes, people who look like followers of Christ aren't followers of Christ.

The "good" fish, then, represent the sons of the kingdom. These are the people who, like the characters in the first two stories, value the kingdom. The word "good" in verse 48 is the same word that is translated "fine" in verse 45. It can also be translated "beautiful." As the merchant seeks something "beautiful," which turns out to be the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of heaven is seeking things beautiful, which turn out to be the sons of the kingdom. They are beautiful in that they see the kingdom as beautiful, in that they see the King as beautiful.

We are, in fact, transformed into the image of Christ as we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). Valuing the King, then, not only marks us off as one who belongs to him but also transforms us into people who reflect his splendor. Thus they will "shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13:43). Their true beauty will be brought forth.
What, then, characterizes the "bad" fish? Presumably, the same things that characterized the tares. They are "stumbling blocks and those who commit lawlessness." They hinder others' attempts to find the kingdom and follow the king, and they don't value the laws of the kingdom.

What is the end of the age? Jesus is a prophet. In a fashion typical of a prophet, he excoriated the Israelite leadership and predicted its dethronement. For Jesus, the end of the age would be 70 A.D., when God's wrath would be executed against the evil of Jerusalem, which would be destroyed by Rome (Matthew 23:29-39).

At that time there would be a separation of the wicked from the righteous, the bad fish from the good fish. Thus, Jesus warns his followers to flee Judea when the time comes (Matthew 24:16). The wicked will stay and fight for Jerusalem and its corrupt ways, but Jesus wants his followers to have no part in a war that God has ordained Israel to lose.

The good and bad fish are now seen to represent wicked and righteous people. The wicked are those who oppose the king and his kingdom; the righteous are those who love the king and his kingdom.

The separation of the wicked from the righteous means judgment for the wicked. Fire is used as a metaphor for judgment, and the experience of judgment is illustrated by "weeping and gnashing of teeth." When pagan Israel is judged in 70 AD, there will be the anguish of knowing that Jesus and his followers had been vindicated. What he said would happen really happened. This is not a fate that befalls the wicked, but one they choose. They were invited to the kingdom feast, but they declined (Matthew 22:1-13).

The judgment upon Jerusalem is just a portend of a greater judgment to come, a final separation of the wicked from the righteous, of those who despise the kingdom from those who love it (2 Thessalonians 1:9, Revelation 20:11-15). For the wicked, there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth," which would no doubt include the knowledge that Jesus and his followers have been vindicated as the true people of God.

The separation of the wicked from the righteous is carried out by angels. That means it's not up to us to separate. The sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one often are indistinguishable to the human eye. The bad fish look like good fish when they're in the net. That means it's not up to us to decide who's in and who's out. That's one less thing we have to worry about.

The parable is much more concerned with the fate of the wicked than of the righteous. The parable of the tares included the destiny of the righteous, but the parable of the dragnet does not. The first two parables in this series demonstrated what the righteous gain: joy. Thus, this parable serves to contrast the joy of the righteous, as depicted in the first two parables, with the agony of the wicked, as depicted in this one.

If the wicked only knew what they were missing out on, their weeping and gnashing of teeth would no doubt be infinitely louder and harder. Their ultimate tragedy is not the judgment they endure but the joy they forfeit. The ultimate tragedy is that they will be "away from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thessalonians 1:9). As seen in the first two parables, the presence of the Lord means infinite joy, but these have no idea. They are spared the crushing agony of understanding the joy they have forfeited. But in the parables, we can see the crushing agony, which makes the offer of joy all the more irresistible.

For the wicked, the Lord is an enemy, and they will be happiest, if it's possible for them to be happy at all, if he keeps as far away from them as possible. They'll be "happier" making mud pies in a slum forever. George MacDonald said, "The one principle of hell is, 'I am my own.'" And thus is one who rejects God's offer of joy. God will mess with him no more.

Joy enough for a lifetime

But until then, thank God he messes with us. Thank God that one way or another, he shows us the kingdom and offers to take us away from our mud pies in a slum for a holiday at the sea. Some of us stumble upon it; some of us search for it. We all get a look at it. It's joy. It's the joy of knowing that the king takes joy in us. That's joy enough for a lifetime - and eternity. So, what are you waiting for? You've got a package!

- SCG, 3-8-98