Monday, June 04, 2018

One Verse, Two Interpretations

One little verse in Matthew 13 …

It’s not the only kingdom parable in our Bibles told in a single verse, but it manages to pack eight or more possible points of correspondence with an important spiritual reality into thirty-something English words, depending on your translation.

Thus it’s long enough to be interesting, but short enough to mull over in a blog post rather than a book.

Treasure Hidden in a Field

So here’s the verse:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
Off the top of my head, here are eight (very tentative) terms in the parable looking for points of correspondence in the spiritual world: (1) hidden treasure; (2) field; (3) man; (4) found; (5) covered up; (6) goes; (7) sells all that he has; and (8) buys that field.

Any expositor who can assign meanings to a reasonable number of these details in a way that makes for a consistent picture of the kingdom of heaven just might be on to something.

Interpretation #1

Why look, here comes one right now:
“What is the kingdom like? It is like hidden treasure. When a man finds it, he then hides it again, and in his joy he goes and sells everything in order to buy that field. This is a kingdom mystery — it is like the purloined letter in Poe’s mystery. The treasure in this instance is hidden in plain sight. The seller gives it all up, not knowing the value of what he is giving up. The buyer relinquishes everything he has elsewhere in order to obtain that which has value beyond reckoning.

So who is the seller here? I take it to be the nation of Israel, not knowing the value of their field, or the treasure contained within it. Although they did not know the value, their ignorance was culpable. They ought to have known. The buyer — Gentiles from east and west — abandons all he used to have, gives it up, and comes into his new possession, well knowing the value of what he now has.”
Okay, I’ll be generous: our first interpreter gives us precious little to work with:
Term Interpretation
hidden treasure kingdom of heaven
man Gentiles from east and west
seller nation of Israel
Maybe you can find more equivalencies, but that’s it for me. Our expositor supplies us with one additional point of correspondence I didn’t mention, in that he elects to identify a seller for us, but since Jesus doesn’t even mention the seller explicitly, I hardly think resolving that mystery can be critical to understanding the parable. At very least it is not the Lord’s main point.

Our expositor does not stop to identify the field (it cannot be the world, as it is in the Parable of the Weeds in the same chapter, since in this interpretation the nation of Israel is said to own it). Nor does he explain how the Gentiles came to value the kingdom, what it means that they hid it, how the transaction for the field was negotiated, or what it was they sold to Israel in order to purchase it.

Your mileage may vary, but I find that a fairly unsatisfactory take. We are not necessarily hoping to find a one-to-one correspondence with spiritual reality for every single term used in the parable, but this amounts to a mere two of eight. Further, it is not at all clear that this interpretation is congruent in any meaningful way with Paul’s teaching in Romans, which is that the Gentiles are temporary beneficiaries by grace of the place in God’s purposes originally occupied by Israel. While there are individual expressions of faith toward God by Gentiles in the Gospels and Acts, on the whole, the Gentiles sought nothing and bought nothing, though they were certainly joyful recipients of the gospel when it was preached to them.

Maybe, just maybe, we can find ourselves a better interpretative fit.

Interpretation #2

From William MacDonald’s Believer’s Bible Commentary:
“We would suggest that the man is the Lord Jesus Himself. (He was the man in the parable of the wheat and tares, v. 37.) The treasure represents a godly remnant of believing Jews such as existed during Jesus’ earthly ministry and will exist again after the church is raptured (see Psalm 135:4 where Israel is called God’s peculiar treasure). They are hidden in the field in that they are dispersed throughout the world and in a real sense unknown to any but God. Jesus is pictured as discovering this treasure, then going to the cross and giving all that He had in order to buy the world (2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Jn. 2:2) where the treasure was hidden. Redeemed Israel will be brought out of hiding when her Deliverer comes out of Zion and sets up the long-awaited Messianic Kingdom.”
Interesting, though a little esoteric for some, not least because it doesn’t tell Christians anything much about themselves. That really bugs some modern believers. But all the same, let’s try that little correspondence chart again by way of comparison with our first interpretation:
Term Interpretation
hidden treasure believing Jews before and after the Church Age; the godly remnant of Israel (Psalm 135:4)
field the world (Matthew 13:38)
man the Lord Jesus
goes left heaven (Psalm 40:7-8)
sells all that he has emptied himself by taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:10)
buys that field potentially reconciled the whole world to God at the cross (1 John 2:2)
In terms of corresponding to actual events recorded in scripture, this seems a much better fit. Even the “finding” and “covering up” of the hidden treasure nicely echoes the passage of time between the first explicit mention by Isaiah of the godly remnant in the days of King Hezekiah and the redemption of the world to purchase that remnant as recorded in the Gospels. The “treasure” was not instantly purchased but concealed in the world for more than 700 years while God continued making the necessary preparations to redeem both the godly remnant and untold millions of others in the person of his Son. “They shall be mine,” said the Lord of hosts about the remnant through Malachi. Today they are. Like the Jewish tribulation remnant to come, they have been purchased by the blood of Christ.

Taking Our Best Shot

Is MacDonald’s suggestion the only reasonable interpretation of the parable? Maybe not, but it’s certainly highly credible. I’m open to better suggestions if they exist out there.

Ultimately, any conclusive explanation for these kingdom parables (other than the ones the Lord explained to his disciples) probably awaits the kingdom itself, but while we’re waiting, it’s appropriate that we take our best shot at understanding the truth the Lord Jesus revealed about his kingdom. There will be folks (like our first interpreter, presumably) who disagree with such an interpretation, but the onus is on them to explain why theirs is a better fit both historically and theologically.

Good luck to them, I say.

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