“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” – Matthew 13:44-46 (NRSV)
If the kingdom of hell has its roots in that which is worthless, it’s no surprise to hear the kingdom of heaven compared to something valuable. But upon closer examination, it’s not the pearl that’s directly compared to the kingdom here. It’s the merchant.
The merchant is actively searching and finds what he’s looking for. Is the man in the field doing the same?
When I hear buried treasure, I picture somebody’s uncle on the beach with a metal detector. But some biblical scholars believe the man in this story wasn’t necessarily looking for what he found. Eugene Peterson uses “accidentally” to describe the find in The Message; Eugene Boring, a professor at TCU’s divinity school, puts it this way in The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary:
“The plowman is doing his regular work, not looking for or expecting anything special, when he comes upon the treasure quite by accident. The merchant is actively seeking, knows what he is looking for, and still finds something beyond all his expectations. The kingdom can become real in either way.”
Those who seek will find. But you might also stumble upon it.
When I first became a pastor 11 years ago, I was deeply indebted to the woman I followed. RuthAnne had served four years as pastor to the community of five small churches I was inheriting in rural southwest Virginia, and she went out of her way to convince both me and probably the people of those churches that a 24-year-old kid from Knoxville would be alright.
She moved to serve churches about 10 miles south on a map, but neither crows or cars flew over the mountain between my new home in Ceres and hers in Rural Retreat. But not too far into my first year there, I remember running into her at the center of our shared universe: the Wal-Mart in Wytheville, Virginia.
I’m never looking for the kingdom at Wal-Mart. I’m looking for the staple items of the Shelton household (which are like 70% milk and Mountain Dew), and then I’m looking for the exit. No one makes eye contact; if they do it’s usually fueled by rage. The kingdom of hell, maybe. But not the kingdom of heaven.
But RuthAnne dares the eye contact. She was in the pharmacy, but wasn’t picking up medication. She was carrying on conversation with a number of people who were. When I asked her about this later, she told me she regularly came to the pharmacy on the 1st and the 15th. That’s when she knew those in her congregation, and many who weren’t, would receive their checks. And she knew this would be one of their first stops.
For pastoral visitation, it’s a great catch-all; I used to do something similar at the check-in station on the first day of deer season. You go where the people are. But this was more than just an efficient solution to visitation.
There is all kinds of life happening in the pharmacy line at Wal-Mart, all of it in some form of need. Some of it routine maintenance, some in prevention or recovery, some of it abuse. Some hoping this will be the answer and some knowing deep down it’s not but standing in that line anyway. And in this vast field, God sows.
The kingdom of heaven is there in the midst of need – in the midst of just life – like a merchant looking for pearls. So is RuthAnne. And in this way, others just might stumble upon it too.
Eugene Boring also makes a connection between the plowman and the merchant in Matthew 13 with two other stories in Matthew 9:
And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” – Matthew 9:2 (NRSV)
Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. – Matthew 9:20-22 (NRSV)
Those carrying the mat and the man on it aren’t necessarily looking for forgiveness. They’re looking for healing, and in this story Jesus will grant that too. But in their love and care for their friend, they bump up against something else. Something more.
The woman is actively, desperately seeking something she already and specifically believes about Jesus, so much so she thinks even his cloak will do. And it does. She seeks more directly, and she finds as well. And both find reason to take heart.
The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer scattering seed everywhere, even in the weeds. Its work is slow and sometimes hidden beneath the surface. But you can find it anywhere.
RuthAnne says she still visits the pharmacy. The kingdom is in the sowing, in the searching. In us, and all around us. Thanks be to God for folks like her, who help us find it even when we aren’t looking.
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