What would make you most happy? If given the chance, would you ask for an understanding heart, as Solomon did in today’s first reading and which the disciples claim to have at the end of today’s Gospel? Is happiness something to be sought, or does it find you? There is no end to how-to books and Web sites that tout surefire steps to achieve happiness. The American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, however, reminds us that “happiness is like a butterfly, which, when pursued, is just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
Today’s Gospel offers three short parables about how one attains not only happiness but the even deeper gift of lasting joy. In the first instance, a person unexpectedly finds buried treasure. Perhaps he is digging a well or a hole for a fence post, when suddenly he strikes a hoard of coins left behind by a previous owner who, for some reason, was unable to reclaim it. The digger is likely a poor peasant, a hired day laborer at the bottom of the social scale. The parable emphasizes how overjoyed he is at this unexpected find that will change his life. With reckless abandon he sells all he has in order to acquire the field with its treasure.
The second parable takes us to the other end of the social spectrum. A merchant in search of fine pearls would have been a rich man, most likely making his money on the backs of the poor divers in his employ. Merchants are generally depicted negatively in the Scriptures (Sir 26:20; Is 23:8; Ez 27), as avaricious and corrupt. The surprise is that even such persons as this could come upon the reign of God and be moved to sell all they have for this pearl of great price.
If there is discomfort among the hearers of Jesus’ parables that both a poor peasant and a rich merchant could be found in the reign of God, a third parable, about a net that pulls in all kinds of fish, asks disciples to suspend judgment about who is wicked and who is righteous, leaving the sorting to God’s angels at the end of the age. There are many verbal and thematic similarities here to the parable of the weeds and wheat (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43). The parable is also evocative of the call of the first disciples to be fishers of people, for which they abandon all else (Mt 4:18-20).
There is an element of surprise in each parable, whether concerning the manner of finding or who is to be found in God’s reign. A further surprise is that the resultant joy leads to giving up all else. It is a paradoxical path to happiness. When it finds you, any instinct to hoard this treasure evaporates; what surfaces instead is the desire to divest oneself of everything.
The metaphors of the treasure and pearl break down, however, when they imply that the reign of God can be bought and owned. The startling message Jesus preaches is that happiness in God’s reign cannot be purchased in any way—not by good deeds, nor with any other commodity. Rather, it is an astonishing, free gift, attainable by all. While it cannot be bought, it costs everything. The price is not paid out of obligation or guilt but is a totally free self-surrender to irresistible joy. This is an old story, not to be kept locked in a storeroom, but meant to be told anew by each person who has been set free by joy.