St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel—Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a, I Kings 3:5-12
I still remember the moment—I was not quite 25 years old—when I became sadly aware of what might be called the “road not taken” syndrome. To choose . . . is to exclude. When I decide to do one thing, I necessarily decide to not do something else. And life is a series of choices, of roads taken and roads not taken. Most of the decisions we make on a daily basis are relatively inconsequential—like whether to wear gray socks or blue socks, or to drink orange juice or grapefruit juice for breakfast. We normally don’t sweat these decisions too much; we just make them. The higher the stakes, though—that is, when there’s a lot at risk if we make the wrong decision—the higher our anxiety.
Sometimes we are confronted with choices that we did not ask for. They just come as part of life’s routine, apparently by chance. You’re in the grocery store, and there’s your favorite cut of meat, with the price “reduced for quick sale.” You weren’t planning on buying any meat this trip, but there it is, and it’s a bargain. You’ve got a choice to make. Is the enjoyment you’d get from that piece of meat worth blowing your grocery budget? Or the phone rings and it’s an old college friend in a distant city. He’s trying to fill a job—a good job for which you are well qualified—and he’s thought of you first. You weren’t looking for a job, and you’re happy where you are, but it’s appealing. You’ve got a choice to make. Are the potential rewards of the new job worth the risk of uprooting and relocating?
This is the position of the man in Jesus’ parable who discovered a treasure buried in a field. He wasn’t looking for it; he just happened to find out it was there in the course of his everyday activities. We’re not told just what the treasure is, but the implication is that it’s quite valuable. The man has a choice to make. If he were the owner of the field, the buried treasure would be indisputably his property. Will it be worth the price of acquiring the field?
On other occasions, though, the decisions we are faced with come because we’ve sought them. Maybe you’ve devoured consumer information publications for several months as you’ve shopped for a new car. You’ve gathered all your facts, weighed all the pros and cons of the various options, and now the moment of truth has come. You can’t buy them all. You’ve got to choose one. Will you make the right decision? What if you don’t?
This is like the man in the next parable who searches the world over for fine pearls. He knows a good pearl when he sees one, and he’s only interested in the best. But the best is costly, and when he finally tracks down the pearl beyond all pearls, he has a decision to make. How badly does he want that pearl? Is it worth what he’s going to have to pay?
So whether the major decisions we face, the choices we make that have far-reaching consequences, arise as if by chance, or are very much of our own making, they are nonetheless difficult. They are difficult because what they promise is so appealing. They promise to bring us satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, a sense of well-being. The perfect school, the perfect job, the perfect car, the perfect spouse—if we make the right choices and achieve perfection in enough of these areas, it will all add up to … the perfect life.
And that’s nothing to take lightly.
Jesus compares the treasure buried in the field, and the pearl of all pearls, with nothing less than the Kingdom of God. To have them is like having the access code to the gates of Heaven. It is to know oneself to be a friend of God, to have daily communion with one’s creator. What blessing can compare with a deep sense of being on God’s side, of moving the way the way God is moving, of being an instrument of his will and a channel of his love? What can compare with having the void in our hearts, the hunger that we are all born with, filled by the one who alone is capable of satisfying it? This is exactly what Jesus offers us when he invites us to follow him and be his disciple!
But true discipleship carries a cost. There’s an apparent risk involved, and it calls for a decision, a choice. To be a follower of Jesus is to be willing to risk drastic action. In our Lord’s parable, the man who stumbled across the buried treasure, and the one whose exhaustive search led him at last to the perfect pearl, were both faced with the choice of either giving up on what they had discovered, or taking drastic action to obtain it. The drastic action they were required to take was to liquidate all their other assets, to sell everything they owned in order to raise the cash they needed. In the Kingdom of God, apparently, there are no leveraged buyouts, no using other people’s money. We have to put ourselves—all that we are and all that we have—right on the line.
For the young king Solomon, the drastic action was to ask God for wisdom—the ability to unfailingly discern right from wrong. God offered to grant him any request. He could have asked for great wealth, or long life. But Solomon counted friendship with God worth the risk of poverty or early death, and he asked for wisdom. (As we know, of course, he got wealth and long life along with the wisdom!)
What drastic action is required of us if we are to take our place in the Kingdom of Heaven, to move where God is moving? It may not mean selling all that we own, but it surely involves realizing that we don’t, in fact, have anything to sell, because we’re stewards—trustees, caretakers—not owners.
Stewardship is drastic action. I can remember my first job, the summer before my senior year in high school. A couple of my co-workers and I were verbally spending our paychecks, and I mentioned—quite casually, as I recall—that 10% of mine, off the top, would go to the Lord’s work. They looked at me like I’d just arrived from another planet! Stewardship is drastic action.
So is chastity. The message we get from our society is that a person who is physically capable of a sexual relationship, but chooses not to have one, is somehow mentally ill. Abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness in marriage … is drastic action.
So is trying to love people you’re not legally or morally obligated to love. Within the kingdom, we have the strange notion that the water of baptism is thicker than the blood of family ties, and that we are connected to one another in the one body of Christ. Christian community is drastic action.
These and a thousand other forms of high-risk behavior are some of the drastic actions that Jesus Christ invites us to take for the sake of participating in the Kingdom of God. We would not be normal human beings if all this didn’t make us pause and just think about the decision we’re faced with. There is, after all, a good deal at risk: material wealth, sexual fulfillment, personal freedom. We’re like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—the law closing in from behind, and, ahead of them, a deep ravine with a swiftly-flowing river at the bottom of it. Jumping into that ravine was, obviously, a risk. But they counted the cost, and decided that the potential reward—in their case, life and freedom—was worth the risk. The movie ends with them taking, quite literally, a “leap of faith”. I don’t know what I would have done in Butch and Sundance’s position. It looked like rather long odds!
Fortunately, we’ve got indications of a somewhat surer bet with the leap of faith required to become a disciple of Jesus. Let’s face it—just being here on a Sunday morning, when we could be somewhere else, is in itself drastic action. It’s a good start. It primes the pump for the more personal drastic action each of us needs to take. Whether we’ve stumbled across the gospel of Christ by chance, as if it were a buried treasure, or found it after a long spiritual pilgrimage, what a pearl it is!
May the Lord open our eyes to see its value, and give us the grace we need to take drastic action.