Texts: Genesis 29. 15-28; Romans 8. 26-39; Matthew 13. 31-33, 44-52
In the book of Genesis we read of a man named Jacob, who looked upon the daughter of Laban, his uncle, and loved her. In return for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Jacob agreed to work for Laban seven years - great price by any standard, particularly when one remembers that in the ancient near-East, it was usually the bride’s father, not the groom, who paid out the money. Daughters were considered expensive liabilities to have around the household too long, so the sooner they could be married off, the better, and the bride-price was considered a worthwhile investment towards achieving that end. Nor was the youngest of daughters ever, and I mean EVER, married off before the older – as Jacob discovers when he wakes up from his marriage stupor and discovers Leah, not Rachel, lying beside him. So we are left with the overwhelming impression that Jacob loved Rachel more than anything else in the world. His love, it seems, made him a little mad, mad enough to put aside his rights as an eligible bachelor and his reputation as a man of considerable rank in the community. Mad enough to put aside his self-respect and work like a slave for 14 years in order to finally secure the one whom he treasured so very dearly.
When Matthew recounts Jesus’ parables of the treasure and the pearl, I am sure he has exactly that quality of devotion in mind. For Jesus speaks of people who, like Jacob, stumble upon a treasure that so captivates their devotion that they are willing to forsake everything they have in order to obtain it. One is a peasant, working as a farm-hand in somebody else’s field. He is very poor, one who works for another because he has very little property of his own. But one day, as he works the plough, clunk! He finds a treasure. We are not directly told what the treasure is. But we are told that the treasure is so valuable that the man daren’t move it. Instead, he hides the treasure in a deeper hole and goes off to sell everything he has in order to buy the entire field. Clearly the treasure is worth far more than everything he owns! The second parable is similar. It tells of a merchant in search of fine pearls. One day he comes across a pearl which absolutely captures his imagination with its beauty. So great is its value that the merchant is prepared to sell everything else he owns, a very considerable estate, in order to buy that one pearl. So here is that madness again, the madness that is able to drive a person to renounce all that they are and all the many things they possess in order to obtain the one thing that has claimed their heart. The psychiatrist, I am sure, would call the madness an ‘obsessive-compulsive’ disorder and warn us that the condition is quite irrational and very dangerous!
But these are stories about God. Like the treasure and the pearl, and like Rachel in the Genesis story, God is one who takes our hearts captive in a moment of irreducible wonder. Suddenly we become aware that God is all in all, that God is the heart that beats behind every heart, that God is the still-point at the centre of a turning universe. And we realise, perhaps for the first time, that nothing but God actually matters. So much so, that we are compelled to consider all else we possess, or all else that we long for, as mere rubbish beside the incomparable vision before us in that moment of recognition. In his great work which is, in many ways, a simple commentary upon these parables, Soren Kierkegaard notes that it is the desire for one thing, and one thing only, that is able to purify our lives and our hearts. The advertisers are out to sell us many things, to make us desire and long for everything under heaven. Our society would like us to be good citizens which, these days, means being a good consumer of all the pretty things that we don’t really need. But the beatific vision of the pearl or the treasure compels us to turn aside from all that and desire the one thing that is of more value than all the wonders of the worlds put together. God.
Make no mistake. The love of God is a kind of madness. It can make you obsessive, it can make you sick - at least that is how many others will come to view what you may become or what you may choose to do as a disciple of Christ. I have a deep admiration for the monastic orders of the church in this regard. For the monastics are people who have taken the word of the gospel quite literally. They leave everything behind— family, possessions, status, career—in order to devote themselves to the praise of God and the service of other human beings. And there, in the secret life of prayer, these men and woman also seek to lose even their very selves, that they may know the surpassing beauty of knowing God. I believe, with Martin Luther, that there can be a monasticism for ‘ordinary’, workaday, people like you and I, a genuine following of Christ in the midst of the secular world, if you like.
The secular monk is simply a disciple, one who has learned from Jesus that their land, their possessions, their skills, their talents, everything they have and everything they are, is for God. Imagine what freedom could be ours if we really believed that! That terrible anxiety we all experience with regard to our possessions and property would no longer be there. We would be free to praise God for what we have, and to share it willingly and joyfully with whoever is in need. And we would no longer hoard our gifts and talents as though they were ours alone. We would no longer hide our lights under bushels. We would offer them to everyone out of love, and for the praise of God. But most of all, we would no longer be afraid to talk about God with one another. The anxieties we all have, in contemporary Australia, about being branded religious fanatics or irrational obsessives would evaporate because, in the joy of a genuine relationship with God, we would be happy to take the yoke of Christ, to become his ‘fool’ for the sake of love and of the gospel.
Are you catching the vision? Can you climb the mountain and see the promised land? How blessed is the one who sees visions and dreams dreams! How blessed are they that glimpse the pearl of great price and treasure the vision in their hearts! For that vision is like a beacon of hope when troubles and persecutions come, as they inevitably do. When Paul wrote about the things that try to separate the disciple from the love of Christ, he was speaking from personal experience. Paul was one of the many thousands of mystics and prophets and saints who knew the gritty, dirty, reality of discipleship—hardship, distress, persecution and famine for the sake of the gospel. Yet for Paul, as for many other saints, the vision that sustained him was the sign of the cross, the sign that God withheld nothing of himself from us, but had reached out to us in God’s own fit of madness, to love with the gift of his very own son. For people who know this deeply, who have meditated upon that sign in the dark light of prayer, the ‘trials’ of faith become a participation in God’s own suffering love. And so they are counted as a privilege, tangible signs that Christ is present and active in the world as love. In this perspective all things, all things—even those things that seem to tear the world apart—may be seen to work for good. And, for that reason, even the greatest darknesses can be embraced with a deep sense of thankfulness.
So . . . I have a question for you all this day. What vision dominates your horizon? Is it the vision of financial security? Or perhaps the vision of an easy retirement, basking in the reflected glory of your children’s achievements? Or perhaps the dream of professional success, and the admiration and respect of your peers? Or . . . is it the vision of God— that pearl, that treasure of great price? How willing are you to renounce all that, for our contemporary world, makes for commonsense and security and good management in order to obtain it? How mad are you willing to become for the sake of Christ and of his gospel? Only you know the answer to these questions. You and God. Remember that God is always at the heart of you, calling and whispering, calling . . . and whispering. How will you respond when you hear that gentle voice today?