Here is a desire new and old: ask for anything in the world and it will be yours! Usually, in fairy tales and legends, three wishes are granted. Then, after poor choices (or ambiguously worded requests), the truth is discovered about what really matters. Lessons are learned the hard way. The First Book of Kings presents us with a somewhat similar scenario, but with the storied wisdom of young king Solomon on display. God “appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’”
Because of Solomon’s love for God and his own profound humility, he proclaims himself God’s servant and requests from God only “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” The king of Israel asks for the ability to serve God and the people of God.
Solomon discerned not just superficial desires, but the deepest longing of the heart attuned to the desires of God. Wisdom allowed him to see that what was best for his kingdom and his people was also best for him; Solomon was not foregoing true joy, he was experiencing it in full. In response to this one request, God granted Solomon “a wise and discerning mind” and two other things: “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life” and “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life” (1 Kgs 3:13).
Even if Solomon was able to see beyond earthly pleasures, many of us faced with the same situation might ask for riches, honor and a long life and, as an afterthought, promise to spend some downtime seeking wisdom and discernment. Solomon’s kingdom, full of riches, honor and a long life for him, was a passing earthly kingdom, soon to disintegrate, which is why Solomon’s search for wisdom points us in a new direction. If earthly wisdom is desirable, how much more desirable is the wisdom to seek an eternal kingdom?
In two of the parables that appear in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus presents this new wisdom: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
There are two aspects to these parables: the great value of the treasure or the pearl, to which the kingdom of heaven is compared; and the willingness of the ones who find this treasure or pearl to sell “all” to acquire it. Both aspects are important: first, that one recognizes God’s kingdom as surpassing all earthly value and, second, that one “sells all” to “buy” that kingdom.
Like wisdom, but unlike riches, honor or a lengthy human life, the kingdom of heaven can be shared without lessening or diminishing it. There is always more of the kingdom of heaven to share, to offer, to purchase, which is why the image of buying it is both shocking and humorous. You buy something so that you can possess it, make it your own; but there is no less of the kingdom of heaven after you sell all you have to buy it, and anyone else can still buy it too. And most shocking of all, after you buy the kingdom of heaven, the joy of the purchase never diminishes. There is no buyer’s remorse.
Jesus ends his sequence of parables by asking his disciples if they have understood all he taught them, and they dutifully answer yes. Yet Jesus ends his teaching on parables with a new sort of parable. Jesus says that “every scribe who has been discipled for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Jesus has indeed been discipling his disciples, and this teaching itself must be the true treasure, but what is the old and what is the new? Most scholars would agree that the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible is the old and the wisdom of Jesus is the new. We are called on to draw treasure out of both.