The stadium in Mexico City was packed for the conclusion of the 1968 Olympic Games marathon. The winner was an Ethiopian runner. Back in the pack of other runners was an athlete named John Akwari from Tanzania. He was having a bad day and the heat and altitude were getting to him. Falling far behind the other runners he was fatigued.
About half way through the race there was a collision with some of the other runners. John fell and was injured. The race officials wanted him to stop running but he refused to quit. He continued moving ahead — “running” would not be an apt description at this point. He finally entered the now near-empty stadium an hour after the first runner had completed the race. Stumbling around the track he crossed the finish line and collapsed.
Later he was asked by a reporter: “Why did you not drop out of the race?” He replied: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish.” The story gives witness to commitment. In this case John Akwari finished the race despite the great physiological and mental barriers, tremendous pain and fatigue. He committed himself to running the race to its end and he did just that.
Today we are invited to reflect on our commitment to being disciples of Christ and members of his church. Jesus uses the parable of the “hidden treasure” and the “pearl of great price” to emphasize the commitment required of his followers. Although short in length the parables are powerful images.
The treasure hidden in the field is an image or concept that would have been readily accessible to Jesus’ listeners. In those days there were no banks to deposit accumulated wealth. Persons with such wealth were known to “bury” their treasures as a means of security especially in times of invasion or troubles.
As Jesus tells the parable people realize this could really happen, they could reasonably see themselves in the situation of stumbling upon a treasure buried by a former occupant or owner of the land. A poor laborer finding the hidden treasure would be overcome with joy. He would immediately take all the steps necessary to secure that land for himself so he could have the “hidden treasure.”
Similarly, the person finding the pearl of great price. Pearls were considered highly valuable in the ancient world, even more valuable than gold is considered today. A merchant, or in today’s situation a “buyer,” would regularly seek to find the finest of pearls. When he comes across this “pearl of great price” he immediately realizes its value. He will go and sell all that he has so as to possess it. Nothing in his life could be more valuable to him than this pearl.
In both parables Jesus likens the “hidden treasure” and the “pearl of great price” to the Kingdom of God. He invites us to consider this in the context of discipleship. The Kingdom of God, God’s way of life, is more valuable than anything else we have. It is more valuable than any and all possessions, it is more valuable than relationships, it is more valuable than careers and it is more valuable than our talents and gifts. Simply put, nothing is more valuable.
Jesus offers us the parable inviting us to reflect and ponder the meaning of it as applied to our lives. So the kingdom is of greatest value; the question now proposes itself, Does my way of living reflect this understanding? How committed am I to living in the Kingdom of God? Am I willing to go “all the way” in Christian discipleship?
The images of the “hidden treasure” and “pearl of great price” have an added significance when we consider that in the cultural milieu of the day they would have been symbols for wisdom. The first reading for Sunday’s liturgy comes from the First Book of Kings. The passage describes Solomon’s desire for an “understanding heart,” in other words “wisdom.” Having become king after his father David, the Lord offers him anything for which he would ask. Solomon does not ask for riches or wealth, long life or health, power or greatness. Rather he asks for an “understanding heart.”
The Lord is impressed with his request and his desire to judge fairly and lead his people with compassion. So he grants Solomon’s request saying: “I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one equal to you.”
And so it comes down to us that no figure of the Old Testament was known for their wisdom such as Solomon. Yet with the advent of Christ and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God something new is happening. As Jesus himself says elsewhere, “you have a wisdom greater than Solomon here” (Matthew 12:42).
Hence at the conclusion of Sunday’s Gospel passage Jesus says: “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
The “old” represents the teachings of the covenant with Israel, the law and the prophets. The “new” represents Jesus: who he is, what he did and all he taught. The riches of the kingdom include the old and the new. At the same time the new supersedes the old in that Jesus fulfills the old and all that came before is seen as preparation.
The final parable in the Gospel passage harkens back to an earlier one with the separation of the wheat and chaff. The large net represents the Kingdom of God. The fish represent people gathered into the kingdom. The timing of the haul (“when it is full”) represents the end of time.
Many people are gathered into the kingdom for all are invited. Some enter as a matter of course, some enter fully engaged and committed. Some will choose to do evil things while others choose the good. While in the net they were all mixed together, but at the harvest there will be a separation. So too “at the end of the age” when the “wicked” will be separated from the “righteous.”
Jesus inaugurates and establishes the Kingdom of God. He invites everyone to citizenship in the kingdom. This type of citizenship is not one that occurs through birth in a certain location (such as American citizenship) or being born of parents of a certain lineage or citizenship (such as in the Roman empire) rather it comes through following Jesus and becoming one with him.
Surely this happens with baptism and the initiation sacraments as Jesus says: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).
Discipleship or citizenship in the kingdom also involves an ongoing dynamic relationship with Christ and his church. It involves a great commitment to live as Christ lived. There are costs involved but the reward is so much greater. This is the wisdom of the “hidden treasure” or “pearl of great price.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.