In a final grouping of parables from Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew, we hear three parables that don’t seem like they belong together.
Our Lord preaches, “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” (Mt 13:44).
The burying of treasure in the middle of a field was one of the ways that belongings were protected in Israel during Jesus’ ministry. The man finds a treasure. Note that it is not his own and that he wasn’t really looking for this treasure. He runs out to buy the field, spending all that he has, precisely because his purchase means that he inherits this treasure.
“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” (Mt 13:45-46).
Unlike the previous parable, the merchant does not happen upon the pearl. He is scouring every market looking for this pearl of great price. Yet like the accidental finder of treasure, he sells everything that he owns to inherit it.
The last parable makes a turn away from treasure.
The kingdom of heaven is now a net thrown into the sea, collecting an assortment of fish, both good and bad. Here, our minds should be brought back to the initial call of the apostles, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).
But the emphasis here is on the Last Judgment, when the unnamed fisherman will throw away the bad fish (not back into the sea!) and keep the good.
Thus, we have two parables that deal with desire, with those who are willing to sell everything they have to inherit the kingdom of heaven.
And a last parable that acknowledges that there are those who, perhaps, won’t have this desire at all — who aren’t interested in the kingdom of heaven.
The grouping of these three parables is important for us to note. The finder of the treasure in the field wasn’t searching for it. He happened upon the treasure. But once he discovered it, he was willing to give everything for the kingdom of heaven.
Indeed, there are many in the world who are not looking for the Gospel. It is not because they’re bad fish. No one has told them about this treasure. Our task as disciples is to preach this Good News to them, to make them aware of the treasure in the field made available through Our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are also those who are looking for the Gospel, willing to sell everything for it. They know what they’re looking for.
The last parable makes clear that we are not yet capable of making a distinction between those who are “all-in,” those who are “intentional disciples” and those who are not.
For the unnamed fisherman, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the only one who can judge between the good and the bad fish.
We proclaim the treasure of the kingdom of heaven. We announce that we have found the pearl of great price. Many will follow. Some will not. At least not yet.
We must have the same patience as our divine fisherman, awaiting the judgment of the ages that is not ours to perform. In the meantime, there’s treasure and pearls to tell people about.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.