Jesus calls us to pursue life in the kingdom of heaven with reckless joy.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the nature of the kingdom of heaven as hidden and valuable.
Be encouraged to pursue the kingdom of heaven with reckless joy.
Recognize the importance of responding with genuine faithfulness to the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, avoiding mere lip service and superficial adherence to its teachings.
Catching up on the Story
Jesus is addressing the crowds, mostly using parables. Using mostly agrarian imagery, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a sower who sows seeds all over his field, a field with varying soil types. The seeds planted on everything but the good soil ultimately fail. From this parable, it’s clear that not everyone will be receptive to the gospel, at least not in a long-term way.
The kingdom of heaven is also like a field planted with good seed, set to produce a harvest of wheat. An enemy, however, sneaks in under the cover of darkness and plants weeds. The hired hands want to head to the field and remove the weeds. The master, however, urges them to wait until the harvest when the plants can be separated without harming the wheat. From this parable, it’s clear that we’ll always have weeds in the church, but to dedicate ourselves to their removal will do more harm than good to the church.
The kingdom of heaven is also like a mustard seed and a dose of yeast. The kingdom begins small, seems insignificant, but grows large enough to provide shade and shelter for God’s good creation. The yeast works through the dough, infiltrating every nook and cranny, bringing flavor and richness. From these parables, we learn that the kingdom of heaven is quiet, small, and slow in growth but no less significant or effective in its mission.
This week’s passage begins after a short interlude where Jesus explains his use of parables and the parable of the wheat and weeds.
Treasure in a Field
After reading this short parable, the initial question you might have is, Who in the world hides treasure in a field? Besides robbers in the movies, no one hides treasure in the ground. In Jesus’ day, it was not uncommon for people to hide their treasure underground. There were no banks in which a person could deposit their money. Only wealthy people would have needed such services anyway.
Jesus tells us that the kingdom is like a treasure that someone hid in a field. Sparse with the details, Jesus tells us that one day an unsuspecting person happens upon the treasure while working in the field. Take a moment and think about how you would respond to such a discovery. What feelings would you have? What would you do with the treasure? Would you tell anyone you have found treasure in a field that didn’t belong to you?
Joy is the response of the unnamed subject in the parable. I imagine a man dirty and sweaty from the day’s labor, reacting with astonishment as his shovel uncovers a strange container filled with gold or silver. The astonishment quickly turns to joy at the discovery as he imagines how much his life could improve if he possessed the treasure before him. Joy might quickly turn to paranoia as he frantically looks around to see if anyone else noticed what he has discovered. With determination, the man puts the treasure back and covers it once again with dirt. Immediately, the man runs home, again filled with joy at his discovery.
The man collects all his worldly goods and sells them. The small proceeds are enough to cover the cost of the field. In hope, the man approaches the owner of the field with his request to buy the field. We can reasonably assume that the field's owner has no idea what’s buried in it. At this time, when you bought a piece of land, you bought everything above and below it. No provisions existed for owning the ground itself or the mineral rights below. When he buys the field, the man knows that treasure will be his, and no one can rightfully challenge him for it.
We might also question why the owner didn’t know of the treasure in his field. The original owner might have bought the land from the relative of a deceased man who had originally buried the treasure. Or, someone else might have buried the treasure, hoping whoever owned the field would never find it. If that were the case, it’s possible that the man died before coming back for his treasure. Regardless of the situation, driven by joy, the man purchases the field.
The Pearl and the Merchant
The next two little parables begin with “again,” indicating that Jesus is continuing to help the people understand what the kingdom of heaven looks like. This parable is similar to the previous one as it involves joy, sacrifice, and reward. In the world of the parable, a merchant is out to secure the very best pearls. In Jesus’ day, pearls were to people what diamonds are for us (Bruner, 50).
Again, let's put ourselves in the merchant’s shoes. We’ve been all over the place looking for just the right pearl, and to this point, we have been unsuccessful. Sure, we’ve found lots of pearls, but not one of them was exactly what we were looking for until one day, that is. I believe we’ve all been in this man’s shoes; we know what we want but don’t know how to describe it. However, we know that we’ll know it when we see it.
As the merchant meets with whoever is selling the pearl, his eyes go large, and a grin fills his face. Like the man in the previous parable, joy floods the man’s soul. Jesus doesn’t mention this specifically, but the merchant's reaction can be reasonably assumed. How do you feel when you happen upon just the thing you were seeking?
Quickly, the merchant tells his friend that he’ll be back with enough cash to purchase the pearl. Again, the merchant goes and sells all that he owns. He gives it all up just so he can possess that one pearl because it is so valuable to him.
The final parable in this trilogy is a departure from the first two. We’re still in the agrarian world of the first century, but we’ve moved from the field and the market to the sea. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is like a giant net thrown into the sea to catch fish. In all likelihood, the net in question is a dragnet, weighted on the bottom and trailing behind a boat. After a time, the net is gathered and drugged to the shore.
Using this fishing method, fish of all kinds are caught. Some fish are good to eat, and some are not. For the Jews, some fish are clean, and some are ritually unclean, making them unfit for consumption regardless of their tastiness. Sorting the fish is a necessity. The workers sit down and toss the good fish in one container and the bad fish they throw away.
Sorting and discarding what isn’t useful or needed is a normal part of life. According to Jesus, sorting will also be a part of the life to come. In verse 49, Jesus says, “That’s the way it will be at the end of the present age. Evil people will be separated from the righteous. The righteous will enjoy unbroken relation with God while the evil are thrown into a burning furnace.
At first glance, the parable of the net doesn’t seem to go along with the previous two parables about treasure. Matthew would not have put these three parables together as they are without a connection existing between them.
The first two parables deal with the joy of discovery. The thing they have discovered is the kingdom of heaven. Jesus would have us know the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure so valuable that the only appropriate response is to sell all one has to obtain it. The discovery brings great joy, as does the selling and the buying.
There’s a caveat, however. Some might understand these parables as a call for Christians to sell all they have to follow Jesus. Like the rich man who leaves his encounter sad when Jesus tells him to sell all he has so that he can follow Jesus, we, too, would be sad if we had to sell everything. A quick survey of the early church will show that not everyone the bible describes as faithful followers sold everything to do so. While we shouldn’t think that all of us must sell all we have to be faithful, we do need to understand that following Jesus requires sacrifice.
That sacrifice, however, is made with joy because of the insurmountable value of the kingdom. The focus of these parables is joy, but it’s also sacrifice.
If the first two parables are about the joy of discovering the kingdom, how is it connected to the final parable about sorting the fish? This last parable serves to balance the other two. Like the harvesting image at the end of the wheat and the weeds parable, the fishing image represents the end of time when Christ returns to make all things new. Indiscriminately, the net catches all manner of people so that they might be sorted. The good fish are those who encountered the kingdom of heaven and, with great joy, gave all of themselves to acquire such a vast treasure. The bad fish are those who encounter the kingdom but refuse to give themselves completely to it.
Another caveat is in order. We might be prone to tell this story to unbelievers to enlighten them of their fate if they don’t become Christian. While I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, it misses the point. Remember, Jesus is speaking to those who already think they know what God’s kingdom looks like. They’ve come face to face with the kingdom in the person of Jesus. The only question is, how will they respond?
These three parables belong to the church. The church universal is a collection of people who have encountered the vast treasure of the kingdom. Some respond joyfully, giving themselves fully to participation and citizenship in God’s kingdom. Others either fail to see the kingdom's value or don’t think it is worthy of giving themselves fully to it.
The question before us today is, how do we receive and pursue the gospel with joy like the man and the merchant? What do we need to give up in order to faithfully follow?
One final word, the selling that the people in these parables did was not an attempt to buy their way into the kingdom. Rather, their acts demonstrated their faithfulness as a response to the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. We may call ourselves Christian, but if we do not continually respond appropriately, we’ll end up as one of the fish the fishermen toss out.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What are the main themes and imagery used in Jesus' parables to describe the kingdom of heaven, and what do they reveal about its nature and significance?
In the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl, why do you think the individuals in the stories respond with joy and are willing to sacrifice everything to possess the treasure and pearl? How does this relate to our pursuit of spiritual treasures in life?
The parable of the dragnet highlights the idea of sorting and separating the good fish from the bad. How might this story impact the way we interact with others in our communities and churches?
Jesus speaks about the joy and sacrifice associated with discovering the kingdom of heaven. Share personal experiences or reflections on moments when you have experienced this kind of joy and sacrifice in your faith journey.
What lessons can we learn from the parable of the man who encounters the treasure but hides it again before buying the field? How might fear or hesitation hinder us from fully embracing the kingdom's worth?
The parables emphasize the importance of genuine response and commitment to the kingdom of heaven. In what ways can we ensure that our faith is not superficial and that we fully engage with the teachings of Christ?
Discuss the notion of sacrifice in following Jesus. What might be some practical examples of how believers can sacrificially live out their faith in today's world?
The parables suggest that not everyone responds similarly to the kingdom of heaven. How can we better understand and support those who struggle to fully embrace their faith without judgment or condemnation?
Reflect on the connection between joy and faithfulness. How does joy manifest in the lives of devoted believers, and how can we cultivate a deeper sense of joy in our spiritual journey?
The text mentions the sorting of fish at the end of time, representing a time of judgment and discernment. How does this aspect of the parable influence how we approach our daily actions and choices as followers of Christ?