Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

[with apologies to U2]

Nearly thirty years of experience going to mass every Sunday (though I suppose the first few hardly count since I'm sure I spent the time squirming around under the pew in the fashion that I am constantly trying to discourage our offspring from doing) allows one to build up certain habits of expectation. Thus, after having heard a great number of sermons, one comes to realize that a sermon which begins, "When I was growing up, my favorite comic strip was Peanuts. And in one of my favorite Peanuts strips..." one is likely headed in for a rather disjointed ride. It's not Peanuts per se which is the problem, but that it often seems that when one starts out with pop culture reference chosen for its utter generality (Peanuts, Gilligans Island, etc.) the reason is that the homilist isn't actually all that sure what the readings are about, and so has picked the most general possible interpretation.

I am one of those people who, when he reads a book or sees a movie which fails to live up to the potential of its premise, can't seem to help endlessly revising the work in my head after the fact trying to figure out how it could have been good. Indeed, MrsDarwin and I sometimes spend rather more time discussing movies and books that were not quite good than ones that were. And so this week I found myself pondering the gospel reading rather more than I might have had the homily been more focused.

The parable of the treasure in the field has always struck me, despite its brevity, because as with the parable of the dishonest steward, we have here another story that essentially centers around crooked business dealings. In this instance: a case of insider trading. Some fellow is digging around in a field not his own and discovers that a treasure has been buried there. Obviously, it's not his, and he doesn't know whose it is, but he wants it. So he takes all that he has and buys the field. (One assumes that since the owner sells, the owner must not know the value of the treasure either.) The fellow thus turns a tidy profit because he knew more about the value of the field than did its previous owner.

Why bring up this not particularly honorable exchange?

Plato argues that no one ever desires anything other than the good -- and thus any object of desire must (at least in the mind of the desirer) be good. Thus, one can (and Christ in several parables does) take positive lessons from an otherwise negative example. Our treasure hunter may not be treating the field owner very honestly, but he has identified what is to his mind the greatest possible good: a tremendous treasure. In pursuing this good, he is ready to risk everything. He sells all that he owns.

Picture selling everything you own for a moment. I know the things I'd find hard to give up: my books, our furniture, our house, our computer. Picture selling absolutely everything you own, because you desperately want to have enough money to buy that field.

And keep in mind, our treasure hunter does not yet know for sure that the owner doesn't know about the treasure. He may refuse to sell. He may sell, but dig the treasure up and take it with him before vacating the property. Yet our treasure hunter is so focused on the good that he has found, so bent on owning the treasure, that he is willing to risk everything he owns on the chance of attaining the treasure. He sells everything.

The owner does indeed sell, and the hunter attains the treasure that he desired. He is now far more rich than he ever was before, and can buy back the possessions that he sold -- or even better ones. Yet now we can, as Christians, flip the story around and ask ourselves: Was this enough for him? Now that he owns the treasure, is he permanently and abidingly happy? Has he found his purpose in life?

It seems to me that the story cuts two ways.

On the one hand, the example of this treasure hunter spurs us on. He was willing to risk up everything, sell every possession that he owned, in order to attain the treasure. If we believe, as our faith tells us, that the prospect of eternal life in heaven is before us, should we not be equally ready to offer up all that we own, all that we hope for, in order to attain the Kingdom of God?

On the other, there seems to be an implicit contrast between this man's treasure and the eternal treasure that we are called to seek. He was willing to give up everything he owned, and yet what did he get? Gold? Silver? Precious stones? Just some cold hunk of matter that sat on a shelf. Like the treasure hunter, we are often ready to make great sacrifices in work, time and money for material gain. And yet, no amount of material gain will permanently slake our thirst. Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you.

And so even as we admire the utter devotion with which the man in the parable sought after what he imagined to be the highest good, we must ask ourselves: Is this kind of intensity to be lavished on things which will not, in the end, make us truly happy? And so we also recognize that the treasure hunter's zeal is misplaced. Our greatest efforts and sacrifices should be directed towards, not some treasure buried in the ground, but what will happen to us after we are buried in the ground.


Daddio said...

Great post. I like how if the homily is no good, you just write your own.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

The tension in 'morals' is, I believe, due to this being an example of the 'qal vahomer' (if I'm remembering aright; in my halakhic law class I kept wanting to call it the 'Val Kilmer'). It means something like 'how much more so' and is a legal as well as an interpretive principle. The concept is one of 'a fortiori': if you, who are vile, wouldn't give your child a stone instead of bread, how much more will God, who is good, give His children good things? The contrast is deliberate, to show that what's true for the lesser, must therefore be truer for the greater.

Many of the odder parables make better sense when you've read lots of Talmudic examples of the qal vahomer: the corrupt judge and the widow, the unjust steward, and the opportunistic man gunning for the treasure in the field, among others.

The problem is, we call all of these 'parables,' even though they're not parabolic in our usual sense of being direct illustrations of spiritual principles. So they leave us wondering how the Lord or the sincere disciple can be symbolized by what seem like fairly iffy characters.