• TJ Neathery

The Parable of Treasure Hidden in a fielD – What's Your Field?

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field (Matthew 13:44).


The kingdom of heaven is like treasure. When a man found it, he sold all he had and bought that treasure (Not a real verse).


The parable in italics is the original (NIV) parable found in the gospel of Matthew. The version below it, however, is the one we often hear in church sermons on a typical Sunday morning. The short version strips ambiguity from an already simple two-sentence story. It’s the version one that leads into a practical call to believe in Jesus Christ and a tidy reminder about setting spiritual priorities.


Parables, however, despite their vivid imagery and succinct storylines, rarely lend themselves to tidy interpretations. Small details complicate three-point, 30-minute sermons. And so, pastors will often shape parables to fit a simple theology, not the other way around where the parables deepen their theology. For example, contemporary evangelical theology has a tendency to reduce salvation to the Sinners Prayer. The focus of salvation becomes that heightened moment of emotion during the altar call when the individual, once and for all, repents and gives their life to Christ. The theological emphasis of the last 100 years, at least in America, has focused on the precise moment of salvation, a split-second change after which eternal life is secured.


Misinterpretations of the Parable of the Field


In this sense, the parable treats the kingdom of heaven as the act of entering the kingdom of heaven, i.e., the moment of salvation. Following the logic of the story, the kingdom of heaven is a treasure. It’s something to possess. Treasure is something you can hold in your hands. Therefore, the parable really isn’t about the treasure. It’s about buying the treasure, i.e., the transactional moment. A common interpretation of the parable of the field can be summarized like this: “A man hears the gospel and realizes that believing in Jesus is the way to salvation. In response, he immediately repents and believes, giving up financial concerns and worldly ambitions as well.”


I’m not arguing against this interpretation. I don’t think it’s wrong, just lacking. The parable does convey a sense of immediacy. The man realizes the value of what he’s found and changes his entire life in order to possess the treasure, but while an immediate response is clearly one aspect of this parable, it leaves out important details. I believe these details are so important that a simplified version can cause harm and confusion who use it for their own, narrow theological ends. Parables are mysteries, not theological flash cards. While Jesus explains some parables to his disciples, he also leaves the disciples to stew in bewilderment.


And if we read the parable in its entirety, there is some bewilderment to work through. When I read the parable, I have to ask, “What do we do about this extra field business?” Furthermore, if the kingdom of heaven can be reduced to an instantaneous moment of salvation, then why mention the tedious process of hiding the treasure, selling everything, then buying the field outright? The act of believing in Jesus does not require running errands beforehand. The gospel writer could have simply left the reader with the parable of the pearl that immediately follows if the message was meant to equate the kingdom of heaven with a valuable pearl one can buy outright.


But the parable was written as it was written, and so we should consider the meaning of the field.

Before exploring the meaning of the field, it’s worth saying that traditional interpretations of the kingdom of heaven don’t conflate it with the singular moment of believing in Jesus. The term “kingdom” points to something far broader than a specific, individual action. I am not a kingdom nor more than you are. A kingdom is made up of many people with, of course, a king. Scholars will point out that the kingdom of heaven is a broad concept that includes God’s sovereignty over creation past, present, and future and the relationships between the human beings that live there. The kingdom of heaven also indicates a new era of Christ and his church. As Jesus and John the Baptist say, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Despite the 21st century’s emphasis on the individual’s response to the gospel, the kingdom of heaven isn’t usually restricted to such an individualist interpretation.


What do we do about joy?


In addition, we can’t start talking about the field until we address another often misinterpreted part of this parable: joy.


Joy is a touchy topic in the American church. A Protestant work ethic, runaway materialism, and Jesus’ command to take up our crosses and follow him lead to an awkward relationship with joy. We’re often told that happiness and joy are not the same. Don’t even try to bring in pleasure. Caught between respectability and self-denial, we we’re told to find joy in suffering and hardship. The pilgrims came to this country to escape persecution. The pioneers eked an existence on the prairie. We must find joy in suffering as Paul did.


Joy becomes particularly complicated in relation to money. This parable includes both. Not only does it include both, the parable connects them through a cause and effect relationship. Oftentimes, we link, consciously or unconsciously, the parable of the field to the story of the rich, young ruler. The rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus says to sell all he has, give it to the poor, then come and follow him. The obvious lesson is that we should give up worldly goods and follow Christ. While this is a legitimate reading, an overemphasis on leads to moralistic condescension.


The disembodied voice of Billy Graham shouts, “Are you willing to sell all you have in order to truly follow Jesus? When will the young folks give up their pop music and wayward dating life and embrace the self-denial of the gospels?”


Perhaps I’m just tired of the pointed fingers and guilt. Perhaps this is why I seek a different interpretation to the parable of the treasure in the field. But perhaps the emphasis on self-denial also undermines the parable. It seems quite insidious to point to the man’s joy and say, “This man gave up everything for Jesus. You haven’t. Why are you holding back, you hard-hearted sinner?” Might we read this parable with joy placed in the forefront? Might this joy then go on to spur our devotion and sacrifice rather than our self-denial somehow carving out some forced morsel of joy? Joy causes the man to sell all he has to obtain the treasure. Not guilt.


The Parable of the Treasure VS The Parable of the Treasure Hidden in a Field


The parable needs the field, I argue, in order to express both the full meaning of the kingdom of heaven and a healthy relationship to joy. Meditating on the field might reshape the point of this parable if we let it. For many Christians, the question is not whether we should seek to obtain the kingdom of heaven. It’s how. What does it look like to participate in this kingdom over the course of an entire lifetime?


First, notice that the field serves to locate the treasure within physical space. Although Jesus makes sure to distinguish the kingdom of heaven from a literal earthly kingdom, the kingdom of heaven is not a synonym for heaven or belief in God. Through the gospels, the kingdom is referred to as being near (Mark 1:15). It is also within you, and you are a living, breathing, person (Luke 17:20). Another translation suggests the kingdom is among you, within a human community. While the kingdom of heaven will always carry its spiritual elements, it’s not entirely removed from our daily lives. Even the disciples, when asking Jesus about who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven, knew that this kingdom was not some abstract concept on an ethereal plane. Finally, we might also point to Jesus, God incarnate, for a sense of how this kingdom exists – fully God, fully man, reconciling the two.


In this sense, we shouldn’t separate the treasure from its being hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is not the treasure alone, but the hidden treasure. The treasure is inseparable from its hiddenness within the field. This makes a big difference in how we read the parable.


What's Your Field?


The field asks us to consider, “Where is the kingdom of heaven hidden in your life?” Look around you and consider where you see God working. It’s probably not where most people would look. In fact, most treasure-laden fields will be irrelevant and obscure to most people. Otherwise, the thing of value would have already been dug up and put on a stand shining for all to see. You might even imagine that this is your treasure to find, your unique way of encountering the kingdom of God; and that the treasure was placed there with you in mind. I know this idea of purpose isn’t presented directly in the parable, but it contrasts the interpretation that relies on guilt-ridden moralism.


The moralistic interpretation is used too often to shame people into believing in Christ. We’re told that the righteous know the true value of the truth while sinners can’t be bothered with Jesus. The righteous will take the time to dig up the treasure; the sinners are too lazy and self-centered. But this misses the point. The treasure is hidden. The man, for all we know, finds it by accident. There’s no blame cast upon others who don’t dig up the treasure. Casting blame when no blame exists snuffs out the parable’s focus on joy.


Let’s not forget joy. The man is happy enough to purchase both the field and the treasure within. The man embraces the context in which he finds the treasure, the ordinary, dirty, looked-over field.


An admittedly loaded term for this idea is “mission field.” But simply put, a mission field is the place where one is called to live and the people whom your heart feels called to serve. And it’s where one finds joy despite hardships and frustrations. Paul, even in the midst of his trials, found great joy in his mission field. We see an overabundance of emotion when he writes to his friends scattered across the Mediterranean. He longs with all his might to return to see the people he loves. Mother Theresa in Calcutta comes to mind as mind. Calcutta was her field, that worthless plot of land for which she sold everything. And of course, Jesus embraced the field of Israel to conduct his ministry. For reasons mysterious, he did not appear to the entire world. He limited his purpose to the places God led him and bore with the foolishness of disciples, crowds, and pharisees. And yet he loved them and found joy nevertheless. There are places and people that draw us with supernatural peace.


But to address the issue of “mission field” and all its negative connotation, I’ll say that this parable does not emphasize the man’s duty to accomplish anything. Participating in the kingdom of God simply means to embrace the field with its hidden treasure. The parable doesn’t say, “And then the man resold the field because it was worthless to him.” No, all we know is that the man joyfully purchases the field along with the treasure within. He isn’t asked to make a profit, cultivate the field, or show the field to others. He’s simply overjoyed to have both in his life. Similarly, the man doesn’t do anything specific with the treasure. We can even assume that the treasure is valuable beyond how the man sees it. So, be careful before drawing dividing lines between the treasure and its being hidden in the field. The broken and overlooked aspects of places and people might even be part of the treasure itself. Remember, the kingdom of heaven is part and parcel like treasure hidden in a field.


That said, let’s think about what parts of life might be our fields. These are the places where treasure is hidden and where we encounter the kingdom of heaven.


Physical Spaces


Physical spaces are an obvious parallel to the overlooked field. Unassuming, abandoned places might be exactly where the spirit is moving you to be. A local nonprofit might be one of these places. An underfunded school might be another. Underappreciated physical spaces are what draws some of us to Hallmark movies. If the main character just gave the small town a chance, then they’d see just how magical and heartwarming the place can be. Of course, real life can be much more challenging than a Hallmark movie, but how would our country change if we dug up the treasure hidden in our neglected spaces no matter who passes through or whether the short-term outlook is trending up or down. Hot real estate markets don’t indicate where the kingdom of heaven is hiding.


Time


Time is another type of field. Many of us have hobbies or volunteer positions that seem like a waste of time to most people. But for some reason, we keep doing them anyway. I also want to push us to look past the American idiom, “Time is money.” The kingdom of heaven doesn’t depend on profit or accomplishment. Follow God’s will, not the hustle to do spiritual things. For example, the Christian mystics spent long hours meditating and searching for God in solitude. On the surface, this meditation doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. It’s not “productive.” But if you feel an inexplicable sense of purpose or joy in how you spend your time, then perhaps this is your field.


Art and Creation


As a writer, I think about the field of creation a lot. Writing is my field. I’ve sacrificed significant time wealth for this calling. But more often than not, I doubt what it’s all worth. The paralysis can be crippling. I start to believe the devil’s words in Kris Kristofferson’s song, “To Beat the Devil”:


There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind Who were crucified for what they tried to show And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time 'Cause the truth remains that no one wants to know.

Still, writing where where I find unexplainable joy. As I write, I feel a sense of peace and purpose, not to mention I hope that others feel inspired and understood when they read my work. Sometimes I’ll pray and ask God what I’m supposed to do with my life. Sometimes the only answer I receive is, “Write.” I don’t always like this answer; it’s quite vague. But it’s the answer I get.


If you’re an artist of any kind, creation might be your field. You see value in that painting, short story, or graphic design and feel a deep drive to continue creating.


Work and Career


My wife runs a music therapy business that serves kids with developmental delays, learning disabilities, and traumatic backgrounds. She and I are both entrepreneurs and have conversations about money as we grow our businesses. But her therapy practice is a field that often goes unseen by the world’s standards. The business isn’t a silicon valley tech startup, but it hides a great treasure.


America loves money and our culture instinctively looks down on careers that don’t lead to large salaries and fat 401ks. But not everyone should be a Fortune 500 CEO. Economically, that wouldn’t be possible. If you’re a barista, admin assistant, small business owner, etc., and wake up most days with a sense of joy, don’t feel pressured to find a “good job.” Customers likely feel your impact and appreciate what you do for them. Your job has meaning, and you may have very well found your field and the treasure hidden inside.


Community and People


Communities are another possibility for a field. I can only imagine Jesus seeing his disciples as little fields. These men were sometimes frustrating and cowardly, but Jesus knew that with a good deal of digging, they would be the initial catalysts for His worldwide purpose. These weren’t begrudging relationships either. We see Jesus experience great love for his friends in his speech before the last supper.


Moses and Israel are another example. Yes, Moses was reluctant to confront pharaoh after God approached him at the burning bush. Yes, Moses became frustrated with the Israelites on multiple occasions, but he cared about them passionately and pleaded for their wellbeing before God. Imagine how other nations viewed this ragtag community stumbling through the desert for forty years. “Hidden treasure” is putting it lightly.


In this way, treasure may be hidden in the struggling Bible study, the small town, the online chat forum, or the local philosophy club. We’re all struggling, traumatized people navigating life. Commit to a community that sparks your interest and you might just see it bloom.


Concluding the Parable of the Treasure Hidden in a Field


Fields are the spaces where we come into contact with God’s kingdom. They are both physical and spiritual locations. They are worth cultivating and protecting no matter how discouraging some seasons may be. Don’t throw yourself at discouragement out of a misguided sense of cross bearing. But if you feel joy when thinking about a place or community, if you see value in something that’s overlooked my most other people, and if , then give up other ambitions and buy that field.


In the end, the parable says that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. I hope I’ve made it clear that the field is a necessary part of the illustration. The discovery of the treasure and purchase is not a one-time action. Rather, it may be a continual cycle. The field cannot be discarded after it’s bought. The parable does not go on to say, “And then the man resold the field because it was worthless without the treasure.”


No, all we know is that the man accepts both the field and the treasure. In order to embrace the kingdom of heaven, we must embrace the physical places where it lives. Though Jesus tells us the act of communion is spiritual, it’s grounded in the reality of his flesh and blood body. God became incarnate in order to atone for our sins. Likewise, the kingdom of heaven hides itself away in the dirty, passed over fields of this world.


Then again, we might not even be the man in the parable. Maybe we are the field, the overlooked, full-of-hidden-treasure people that no one else notices. For all the joy we might feel at discovering a slice of the kingdom of heaven, that joy is reciprocated by a God who loves us and works for our good. In the end, it was God who joyfully gave himself up to ransom you and me. That is good news.

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