When I was a student at the Scots College quite a number of years ago we were visited by an English Conservative Member of Parliament, Norman St John Stevans. I found myself sitting with him amongst a group of students, he was telling us that he was an art collector, he liked apparently to buy paintings, statues, pottery and the like. A number of years previously, he said, he had been browsing round art shops in Rome and eventually a painting caught his attention of a cardinal whose face he recognized but he was sure the art dealer had no idea who the Cardinal was. He feigned disinterest and eventually bought the painting, he said, very cheaply. He purred like the cat who had got the cream. The painting was of no less a person than the brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Henry Cardinal Duke of York, who had been a prominent Cardinal in the late 18th and early 19th Century and was actually like Bonnie Prince Charlie a pretender to the throne. The painting was from that time and, as it turned out, was very valuable.
I think the MP was quite proud of himself, but I remember being a bit queezy (being a bit young and idealistic in those days) at the deception that was involved: the sleight of hand, the fact that he pretended that he didn’t know who the Cardinal was and knew all the time who he was, the fact that he knew he could get the painting cheaper if he kept silent. Maybe now I might not be as uneasy, age makes you less idealistic, maybe I suppose that is just the cat and mouse nature of the game that is often played out.
A slight bit of deception also seems to be involved in the parable that we’ve listened to today at Mass. Someone finds treasure in a field and before others get their hands on it, the person who finds the treasure sells all he owns and buys the field. He has no intention of telling anyone else what he has found, he has no intention of trying to seek out the person whose treasure this might infact be. No, nothing will do but he gets his hands on this treasure and he will even sell all he owns to get a hold of the field.
Jesus tells the story of the parable not to commend the deception or the slightly shady double dealing that is going on. But the story is told to emphasise of course instead the eagerness to possess a treasure (the thing of great value) that the man would give everything he owned to possess, the desire takes hold of him to possess something of infinite value that he will give up all he posses to own, to hold, to call his own. Its easy to see the point that Jesus might be making to possess a great spiritual treasure, a person might wish to give up everything he posses to get hold of it.
As if to underline this story he then tells us about the merchant who acts in a similar way: the merchant who knows the value of pearls, find the best and greatest or perils and would sell all he possesses to own it, to get his hands on it. He also wants to get his hands on the treasure.
In life we know that there are people who get that fever. ‘gold fever’, they pack up all their possessions, spend all their money and go off to make their fortunes, having heard that there is ‘gold in them hills’. They pour their money into things that they think will make them a fortune. Often it doesn’t turn out well, financial ruin comes and they are disappointed. A person gambles everything on the turn of the cards, throw of the dice in the hope of winning a fortune and loses everything. Sells all their possessions to gain something greater and ends up with nothing, it turns out be fools gold or complete folly.
Jesus tells a slightly risky story here in this parable and maybe it wasn’t lost on his listeners. Everyone knows now and then too of the gamblers, the people who will gamble everything in order to win all, the people who will take the great risks, the people who are not prepared to live comfortable lives but who want to fly high and who sometimes crash and burn. Great when it works out not so good when it doesn’t. He adds to the story a note of uncertainty and potential disaster. The story seems to be about gamblers, risk takers, the reckless, those who live on the edge, those who toss the coin in the air, who risk everything to gain everything.
Cautious, conservative, narrow is sometimes things that people say about people who have faith. But this parable seems to saying something different: that we are reckless, that we are gamblers, that we are risk takers, that we fly high, not content with what life offers we are looking for something more, the peril of great price, the hidden treasure.
What is pictured here is not a comfy idea of faith, but faith as risk taking, as the great gamble, as giving away everything to possess something more, something better, treasure beyond our imagining.
The parables very often give us not answers but they leave us often with more questions than answers. Here is a question: are we a Church of the comfortable or a Church of risk takers?