Buried Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price

SCRIPTURES & ART: On the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear three short parables on the Kingdom

Left: Sir John Everett Millais, “The Parable of the Buried Treasure,” ca. 1860. Right: Andrey Nikolaevich Mironov, “The Parable of the Merchant and the Pearl,” 2020.
Left: Sir John Everett Millais, “The Parable of the Buried Treasure,” ca. 1860. Right: Andrey Nikolaevich Mironov, “The Parable of the Merchant and the Pearl,” 2020. (photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Gospel’s reading of the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13, begun two weeks ago, ends today. We’ve heard the parables of the sower and seed, of the wheat and weeds, and of the little things that produce big results, like mustard seeds and yeast. Today’s parables conclude with lessons about priorities.

In comparison to the last two weeks, today’s parables are rather short. I say parables because, in fact, we hear three, each with a slightly different take on the question of our approach to the Gospel, our reaction to the offer of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first is how sometimes God’s Word comes to us as a complete surprise. A man is ploughing a field. In the course of his arduous work, he uncovers a buried treasure. He recognizes its value. Convinced nobody else knows it is there, he reburies it, goes off, buys the field, and makes it his.

Jesus is not telling us a Treasure Island story. Israel sat on the main route between two cultural centers of antiquity: Egypt and the Fertile Crescent civilizations of Mesopotamia and, later, Persia. Lots of people marched through it. Lots of people buried their goods (including servants entrusted with their master’s talents they didn’t want to lose). Lots of those people got killed, died, or taken into slavery. Lots of that treasure was subsequently found by people who never knew anything about it.

As a moral theologian, would I wholly approve of this action? No. When a buyer acquires something, he should be fair in justice about the value to sellers, just as sellers need to disclose disvalues to buyers. (Neither caveat emptor nor caveat venditor are Catholic principles.)

That’s not the point of the parable, any more than the parable about the workers who went into the vineyard at different times but were paid the same is a model for collective bargaining agreements. Like the parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus is not saying “cheat your employer.” But, like that parable, he’s saying: “Notice how some people will do anything to ensure their welfare? Why don’t people show that same determination, the same singlemindedness when it comes to what matters, their salvation?” Recognize the value — and pursue it!

The second parable ignores the element of surprise. Jesus speaks of a pearl merchant. He’s spent his life in search of pearls. One day, he encounters the pearl of a lifetime, the finest pearl, the “pearl of great price.” What does he do? He doesn’t just say, “nice, but I can’t afford it.” He is resolute. He takes everything he has, sells it, and buys that pearl. That one pearl outstrips, outweighs everything else he has. He’s willing to part with all that other stuff to acquire that “pearl of great price.” I love the verb: when he finds that precious pearl, he “goes” (ἀπελθὼν) and does whatever he has to do to make it his.

Is there any better illustration of the singlemindedness of which Jesus speaks? Is there any “pearl of great price” more valuable than the Kingdom of Heaven? 

The final parable harkens back to the parable of the wheat and tares. Fishermen set out for a day’s work. They spend their day on the water in the backbreaking work of hauling nets for the day’s catch. At the end of the day, they return to shore, empty the nets, and sort out the catch. The good fish go into buckets to be sold in the marketplace, the bad — Charlie the Tuna — are “thrown away.” 

Like the wheat and the weeds, what is harvested contains the good and the bad. The Last Judgment is a time of separation, a time of judgment. What is good is kept; what is not is “thrown away.” There is a heaven. There is a hell.

Matthew 13’s parables conclude with the image of a “good steward.” A good steward is he who knows what is good — both what is new and good and what is old and good — and has the prudence to know which should be “brought out of the storeroom” when. Ahead of this fall’s Synod, it is a model to which Church leadership should aspire.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by two artists. The Parable of the Buried Treasure is depicted by the 19th-century English artist, Sir John Everett Millais. Millais, as has been pointed out, worked on the parables in the 1860s, most extensively as a series of engravings for a book on the parables. Today’s painting, held by the Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland, depicts the moment when buried treasure is discovered. 

A man is out in the field with two oxen, plow. As his plow turns the earth, he must have heard something jangle. Behind him, in the hole he’s just made, lies some precious goods — silver from the looks of them. He takes a closer look, holding a piece of it in his hands. His expression shows his incredulity: this is his lucky day. His ship has come in! Unexpectedly, Tevye is a rich man!

Now, what to do? He quickly buries what he’s found, and will take steps to secure title to it. He’ll buy the land, even if he has to put up everything for it — because it’s worth it.

Millais painted this scene around 1860, about the time he was beginning to work on his engravings of the parables. Unlike the engravings, this watercolor is not in black and white. I want to underscore what a master of the miniature Millais was: this painting is only about 5 by 4 inches, yet note the detail: the physiology of the man and animals, the details of the furrowed land, the multiple colors, shades and hues across the landscape.

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price is illustrated in a 2020 oil painting by a contemporary Russian artist, Andrey Nikolaevich Mironov. Притча о купце и жемчужине (The Parable of the Merchant and the Pearl) depicts the moment when the buyer has acquired the object of his desire. Five men gather in a business. The sales table, illuminated by a candle, is at the painting’s center. The transaction has just been consummated. The seller, on the left, counts his coins; the buyer, pearl in hand, is enjoying the moment, rapt in the prize he’s finally won. Each man is focused on what he values most. Mironov makes a point about the buyer’s right hand being off the table and his posture, already looking away from the table. He’s already distanced himself from what he gave up, recognizing its inferiority to what he’s gained, in contrast to the seller’s fixation on the mammon. “For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8), the genuine pearl of great price. 

The central figures’ wing men add support: an old man behind the seller looks at the money on the table while the man standing behind the buyer adjusts his glasses to take a closer look at the pearl of great price. Another man looks out the window. Is he making sure things are safe? (Mironov says he is beckoning others to share the Good News, which is why the doves/pigeons flock outside the window.) The painting is a curious blend of time, with both traditional and more Russian dress featured. It’s clearly not the biblical world: the kinds of paper and books shown in the painting didn’t yet exist. 

What are my priorities? What is my “pearl of great price” for which I would give up everything else? The First Reading speaks of “wisdom.” For the Bible, wisdom is not book learning; it’s knowing how to live rightly, first of all, to live rightly vis-à-vis God. That means getting your priorities right. Am I wise? Shouldn’t I, like Solomon, pray for wisdom?