Jesus said to his disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)
One of the beauties of the Gospel, is that we can read the same lines over and over and receive equally legitimate yet different truths from it. God reveals different layers of truth to us depending on what we need. In reading the parables from this week’s Gospel I was drawn to its themes on detachment. The parables teach us that through God’s grace coupled with our own will efforts, we can disconnect from our natural, concupiscent urges and impulses and gain dominion over ourselves and thus can act most perfectly in accordance with that which we recognize to be good and true. Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, uses two particular parables to illustrate this need for detachment. Through the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Value he insists that detachment must be achieved at whatever cost that we may obtain the single greatest gift that exists in the universe: the knowledge and love of God.
Let us look at the parable of the pearl of great value. Here we have a merchant, whose life is tied up in commerce. His entire livelihood consists in those objects and materials that he uses in trade as tools of commerce. Consider the heft of the idea that he would be drawn, single-mindedly to a single pearl, a pearl he has no intention of trading. Not only does he willingly trade all of his possessions, he is surrendering his means to survive out of faith to God. Using our imaginations to extend the parable, then we see a man who does not even know how he will provide for himself.
The single glorious realization that he comes to is that this pearl is of greater value than anything he can buy or sell. This pearl is the means to true life, a life beyond simple buying and selling. “The merchant reflects Jesus’ first disciples, who left everything to follow Jesus, and he beckons us also to prioritize the kingdom above everything else”. (Commentaries 183)
It’s important that we recognize the practical nature of these parables. The first argument against the validity of these parables is that we, especially the laity, being a population that are supposed to have personal possessions, cannot simply give up everything we have to follow Jesus. It simply isn’t what people do. That is correct, it isn’t what most people do; that’s why in this last Sunday’s readings we were witnesses to Solomon’s prayer.
Solomon, a King who had more wealth, responsibility and opportunity than any of us could ever imagine, went to the Lord pleading for one thing, for that one pearl of understanding that he may better know and serve God. Thus, to say that we are giving up all that we have in pursuit of this one treasure or pearl, is not to say that we literally give it all away (although in the case of those who pursue a religious order, that is in fact true) but rather we must prioritize, very practically, and place God above all else in our lives. He must be the foundation upon which we build our homes and possess our goods. Without his blessing, without his understanding, these goods are just things, purposeless things, much like ourselves, that do not bring any fulfillment to God’s kingdom.
The first parable, of the hidden treasure, brings all of this full circle, for in that short parable we see a man whose purpose for his wealth is to buy a single parcel of land that contains a treasure far greater than any wealth we can accrue through worldly means. He sells everything, not that by selling it he can accrue enough worldly wealth to purchase that field, but rather that he may detach himself from those goods, and make God primary in his life. Once he has disposed himself properly to the Lord, he then has the currency of humility with which he can purchase that single parcel of God’s kingdom.
To quote one of my favorite blogs that explores our life in faith, detachment “is like going against a current; hence it is a hard tiring task which can be accomplished only by strength of will. We must oppose the inclinations of nature and make ourselves do what is repugnant to nature. This is, however, a sweet task for a soul in love with God; it knows that everything it refuses to self is given to God and that, when it has reached the point of renouncing self in everything – of selling everything – God Himself will give it the precious pearl of divine union” (St. John of the Cross – Principles for Detachment)
Notice that the principle of detachment is not something that applies simply to our wealth. In fact, the quote above comments almost entirely about proper dominion over ourselves, that we may dispose ourselves to the grace of God. St. John of the Cross says that we must be inclined “not to the easiest thing, but to the hardest; not to the tastiest, but to the most insipid; not to the things that give the greatest pleasure, but to those that give the least; not to the restful things, but to the painful ones; not to consolation, but to desolation; not to more, but to less; not to the highest and dearest, but to the lowest and most despised; not to the desire for something, but to having no desires”
This is detachment. It’s not about selling our house and our car. It’s about pleading, through our prayers (like Solomon) and our deeds (like the first apostles) for the grace of God, that we may sincerely embrace Him as having dominion over our lives. When we finally embrace this truth, we build on top of that a relationship in which we advance and grow in our faith. The energy with which we go about our day becomes a gift from God. The way that we commune with others, the way that we read books, see the world, enjoy art, celebrate life: all of it becomes informed by our divine union. The treasure that we acquire is that gift which allows us to see God first in everything.
Logan Amster is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.