“Again, the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a treasure that a man found stashed in a field. He stashed it again, then joyfully went and sold everything he had and bought that field.” (Matt.13:44, Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)
It is commonly accepted that this parable illustrates the surpassing value of the kingdom of heaven, and this is certainly a legitimate aspect of it. However, the deeper implications are lost on us if we don’t understand the principles of disputed ownership in the Oral Traditions, which has been handed down in the form of the Mishnah.
In the section which deals with disputes of ownership, there are distinctive rules governing the establishing of rights pertaining to items, based on oaths and claims. Consider the following commentary from Rabbi Baruch Epstein, of Chabad, during his teaching series, “An Introduction to Talmud”:
“One says ‘I found it and (therefore) it is all mine’, and the other says, ‘I found it, and (therefore) it is all mine!’…Why not just state: ‘I found it.’….The term ‘I found it’ might have been explained as denoting ‘I saw it’, (implying) that merely seeing it entitled him to claim it as his possession. Therefore the plea ‘It is all mine’ is added, so as to make clear that seeing alone does not constitute a claim…Does not Rabbanai say that the phrase ‘and thou hast found it’ means ‘thou hast taken hold of it?’ The scriptural use of the word “found” implies having taken hold, but (in) popular language…on seeing something, one might use the term “found it” (the belief being prevalent) that one acquires (an item) by sight alone…(But if the Mishnah had not qualified this claim by an oath), the conclusion could be drawn that mere sight constitutes a claim to possession. For this reason the Mishnah states first “I found it” and then “It is all mine”, so that we may gather from the additional clause that mere sight does not constitute a claim to possession.” (emphasis mine)
This type of legal framework and thought has much to do with the teaching of Jesus here. The Oral Traditions of his day (which eventually came to be incorporated into the Mishnah, and ultimately, the Gemara) dealt with such rulings and judgments, and would have formed the natural backdrop for his audience to understand the meaning of this parable.
To review, Jesus proposes a scenario in which a man finds buried treasure in a field. Rather than simply taking the treasure outright, he reburies it and then seeks to acquire legal ownership of the field. Rabbi Epstein continues:
“The Gemara therefore concludes that it was necessary for the Mishnah to word the cases in a peculiar way, to teach us that in both the cases of “I found it” and “I bought it” the court will require you to swear. According to Rashi, this is because you need to establish ownership; according to Tosafot, it is to dissuade potential thieves.”
Based on the above legal precedent which the Master is invoking (which we may miss but his audience would not have), we see that an important emphasis of the parable is that it is not enough to merely “see” the kingdom of God. It must be “gained” as a possession, and further, it must be acquired by legal means. The man in Jesus parable therefore accomplishes an important distinction; though he did not “earn” the treasure, he did establish the integrity of his claim, legally.
This carries some weighty implications. For instance, does this mean that there are “works” for us to do to secure our salvation, and that it isn’t enough simply to have “faith”. Yes, apparently. Can we find support for this idea elsewhere?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matt.7:21-23)
No one can “slop” their way to eternal life, by simply “claiming” that they are part of the kingdom “by sight”. Remembering what we just learned from the Gemara, to merely confess Jesus as Lord is the equivalent to “seeing the treasure in the field”. There is more which must be done to establish legal ownership.
It would be a mistake, in other words, to assume that Jesus is merely communicating a principle or sentiment concerning the kingdom, with no real application. The truth is that we are to learn something significant in this parable about how to enter the kingdom of God.
But what about grace? Well, what about it? Is “grace” a license to sin? Heaven forbid!
“What use is it, brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (Js.2:14)
To paraphrase this verse to fit the Lord’s parable of the buried treasure: ‘Of what use is it to find a treasure in a field if you can’t make it your own? Can that man access a single ounce of that treasure?’