Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52

Risk and Reward

What is the greatest reward the world can offer you? What are you willing to sacrifice so you can own it?

Everyone makes a life choice that leads to a life compromise. When people get married, they forsake all others for matrimony. When people buy housing, they may not be able to afford additional dwellings. When people choose careers, they close the door on other earning options. Every single "yes" leads to many "no's."

Every person makes an ultimate choice about life. This choice reveals and defines the character of the person. The choice clearly tells others what gives this person a sense of purpose. Some people choose possessions, popularity, or power. Others cling to security. Still, a few risk all for a greater prize. In today's passage, Jesus addressed those who gave up all for the Kingdom.

Popular Translation

Jesus told his followers:

44 "The kingdom of heaven is like an expensive treasure buried in a field. A field hand found the treasure and buried it again. He happily went off, sold all he owned, and bought that field from its owner.

45 The kingdom of heaven is also like a merchant who looked for expensive pearls he could buy. 46 When he found a truly prized pearl, he went off, sold all he owned, and bought it.

47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that fishermen threw into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When the net got full, the fishermen would drag it on the shore. Then, they would sit down to put the fish good for eating into containers. But they threw out the worthless ones. 49 It will be like this when this age ends. God's messengers will go out, separate the evil people who live among the good, 50 and throw them into furnace filled with fire. There the evil will cry out and grind their teeth. 51 Do you understand all this?"

"Yes," his followers agreed.

52 Jesus then said, "So, every expert in God's Law who studies the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a house who brings out both new and old things he owns."

In these passages, Matthew presented three parables, two about choice, one about the consequences of choice. In the end, he painted another parable image about the one who presented the choice for God's Kingdom.

Literal Translation

Jesus said to his disciples:

44 "The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, having been hidden in a field, which a (hired) man, having found, hid (again); in his joy, he left, sold everything, as much as he possessed, and bought that field.

45 Again the Kingdom of heaven is like a man, a merchant, seeking fine pearls. 46 But, having found a pearl of great value, having left, he sold everything, as much as he possessed, and bought it.

13:45 "a man, a merchant" The inclusion of man with merchant is redundant in English, but adds emphasis in Greek. The exact meaning of "merchant" is unclear. We do not whether the merchant was a trader (who would resell the pearl for a greater price) or a collector (who desired the pearl for himself). The later interpretation is preferred.

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus gave his followers these three parables about God's Kingdom. The first two gave a "cost-benefit analysis." The Kingdom cost everything but had the greatest value. However, the risk to obtain the Kingdom might escape our modern sensibilities. The contemporaries of Jesus might have considered the risk so high that only a fool would have taken it.

In the first parable, a worker found a treasure buried in a field. In a time without a sophisticated banking system, people buried their treasure away from their dwelling so save it from thieves. Occasionally, people did hear of others finding treasure. But, no one ever sold what little they had, regardless of the reason. (Never mind a field worker could never really raise the cash to buy the plot.) What did a person possess for financial support? In addition, simply owning the field did not guarantee ownership of the treasure. It merely insured access to the treasure. Ownership of the field and the treasure were two separate legal issues under ancient law. Why would anyone risk all to insure access to a treasure they did not own? [13:44]

The parable of the merchant and the pearl addressed the same issue. At the time of Jesus, pearls had the same status as gold and precious gems. The merchant in the parable made a livelihood from the buying and selling of pearls. Only profit motivated him. But, the sight of an exception pearl changed him. The merchant abandoned the ability to make a living when he sold all his assets. The merchant made himself truly poor, so he could possess that exceptional pearl. And, to return to his former life, the merchant would have to sell the pearl he gave all to possess. Why would anyone take such a risk? [13:45-46]

Jesus painted the absurd images found in these two parables to reveal the risk factor of God's Kingdom. God's Kingdom demanded everything from the believer. Loyalty to family or neighbors, the desire for financial security, the drive for political power, all came second. The believer must put God first in all things, even if he or she looked like a fool.

What are the risks to being a Christian? Have you ever risked looking like a fool to practice your faith? What happened?

47 Again the Kingdom of heaven is like a fishing net having been thrown into the sea and having gathered together every kind (of fish), 48 which, when it was filled, (the fishermen), having dragged (the net) on shore and having sat, sorted the clean into vessels and threw the unclean away. 49 So it will be in the end of the age. (God's) messengers will go out and separate the evil from the midst of the righteous, 50 and will throw (the evil) into a fiery furnace. There will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

13:48 "clean" and "unclean" are literally "good" and "bad." In the Jewish context of Matthew, the judgment of fish was most likely based on the dietary laws found in the Torah, not a judgment of taste or usefulness. Hence, the use of "clean" and "unclean."

13:49 "separate the evil from the midst of the righteous" could be a judgment on the world or on those in the Christian community. The direction of the judgment is unclear.

Jesus told the last parable as a counter weight to the fears people face when they consider the faith option. God's messengers would separate the bad from the good. Then, these messengers would punish the evil in a fiery furnace. Separation meant judgment, both human and divine.

On one level, the separation was a local judgment. The messengers (like the fishermen in the parable) preached to many people (like casing a great net into the lake). The message might attract great numbers, but which listeners had the will and the ability to join the community? This required the wisdom of the church elders (like the fishermen who kept the "clean" fish but rejected the others). [13:47-48]

On another level, the separation was God's final judgment. All people would gather. God would separate the evil from the good (i.e., those doing right). And the age of humanity would end. The dawn of God's age would begin. [13:49-50]

As past studies have intimated, the early Christian communities saw their ministry as an extension of Christ's Messianic mission. Jesus came into the world to announce God's Kingdom and gather everyone into the Kingdom. As Jesus preached and formed a Church, he scandalized others. The scandal he caused separated families and friends. In other words, as Jesus evangelized, he forced a choice and a judgment.

Like Christ, the drives of the local Christian communities to evangelize foreshadowed God's final judgment and, in a sense realized, that judgment. No matter who preached, the impact of the Good News united believers, but separated unbelievers. The Gospel itself had the power of God's final judgment.

How has your evangelization or Christian lifestyle attracted others? How has it repelled others? How has the evangelization or Christian example of others affected you?

51 Do you understand all these (things)?" They answered HIM, "Yes." 52 HE said to them, "Because of this, every scribe having been taught in the Kingdom is like a man, the head of a household, who brings out of his treasure (room) the new and the old."

13:52 "every scribe having been taught in the Kingdom" There are two interpretations of this phrase. First, the scribe could be an expert about the Kingdom. In this case, the scribe was a leader in the community. Or, second, the scribe could have been a learned man who submitted himself to God's rule. In other words, he was an expert in the Torah under God's kingdom, a Jewish scribe who became a Christian.

With the power to separate as he preached, the evangelist had to choose his or her words carefully. When those in Matthew's Jewish-Christian audience (those who studied the Kingdom) witnessed to their contemporaries (other Jews), they had to know the Law (the old things of 13:52), but present them in a new way. They had to have the knowledge of experts (scribes), in order to address the questions of the informed audience. [13:52]

How do you prepare yourself to share your faith? How has God helped you to bring out the "new" and the "old" in your discussions with others?

Catechism Theme: The Freedom of Faith (CCC 160-165)

Even in risk, we make the faith choice in the freedom God gave us. God based his relationship with us on love. Since love cannot be coerced, neither can faith. Because we are free, we can believe in a God who loves us.

Once we choose faith, however, we cannot turn our backs on the One we trust or the truth he reveals. The faith choice cannot be made in a haphazard manner. Indeed, the faith choice must be fed with God's Word in Scripture and the wisdom of the Church, in prayer, and in works of charity. For without a well-nourished faith, we slip away from God.

Evangelization as judgment has a flip side. When we say "yes" to God, we walk closer to him. We trust in him. In turn, he nourishes us with his very life. In this sense, faith begins our journey to eternal life. The life of faith we live invites others to join us on that journey.

Has faith imposed any risks to your way of life? Has choice for faith forced a change in friends or a change in priorities? Explain.

Faith involves risk. And changes. The risk and the changes that we endure influence others. Sometimes others grow closer to God. Sometimes we scandalize them away from God. The choice faith presents us has the power to unite and divide, to gather together and to separate. Let us use it wisely. Let us use it in love.

List the ways faith has changed you. Include the friends you have made and the friends you have lost. This week, plan ways to encourage your faith friends. And set aside time to pray for friends lost.