r m p






Forgotten Trove


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 19:7-14

New Testament Reading: Matthew 13:44


Consider for a few moments the parable of the treasure hidden in the field. Here it is as we read it in Matthew's version: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a 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."

I cannot help but ask myself just what the digger is doing in that field in the first place. My guess is that he is not a treasure hunter. He is not digging in a place marked out on an ancient map. Maybe he is a laborer on a construction project. I imagine he is bored with and tired of the work, but he feels lucky to have the work at all.

Possibly he is a day laborer working for a farmer, trying to rid the field of stones before the plowing can begin. Or maybe he is digging a foundation for a new house. All he expects to find in his shovel is dirt, and rocks, and more dirt and rocks. And then he is surprised to find his shovel bringing up gold denarii, or maybe he hears a sharp smack as his spade hits the metal lid of a box.

He shades his eyes from the harsh mid-day sun and peers into the shadow of the recess he has been hollowing out all morning. There is a tell-tale sunlight glint on gold. He quickly lifts his eyes, tries to hide his excitement, looks about him to make sure no one else has noticed. Then he begins surreptitiously to dump spadefuls of earth back into the hole, like a grave digger burying the casket.

Perhaps he is lucky, and the workday is nearly over. Or perhaps he has to make up some excuse why he must leave. Or maybe he just pretends to dig the rest of the day. But all the while he is inventorying his meagre possessions in his mind. Suppose he sells his own debt-ridden farm plot, his cattle, his seed corn. And visits the loan shark. Can he scrape together enough to buy the asking price of the lot?

Once home he finds he does indeed possess the sale price. Perhaps it is a buyer's market. Maybe the field is undesirable and is going for a low price. But at all events he buys it, explains only vaguely when the seller asks why he wants it. One can picture him making his X mark on the deed with trembling fingers, his wife and the seller alike shaking their heads in puzzlement. Seward's Folly, they think. But then the deal is done and the man begins to dance with glee. They are sure he is mad--till he grabs the shovel he had cast aside and displaces the thin veil of soil. Hoisting aloft the treasure casket, he exhibits his shrewdness with triumph. His wife loves him again, and the man who so lately relinquished the property begins to look for a loophole.

I say the man did not have a treasure map. He was surprised at finding what he would have looked for had he known it was there. Had he possessed a treasure map he might have discovered his treasure years before. And I would suggest to you that we are this morning doing what he would have done. In reading the Bible, in seeking in its text some spiritual gem from which we may profit, though others may think we are mad for doing it, we are reading a treasure map, on the trail of coveted loot.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been in the news again in the last couple of years. The Scrolls are a trove of documents from first-century Judaism. Who wrote them remains a mystery. Some think the Scrolls are the literary remains of the Essenes. Some think the sect of John the Baptist penned them. Others think they are the writing of the Jerusalem church under James the Just, the brother of Jesus. We are much farther from agreement than we were some forty-five years ago when they were first discovered.

One of the Scrolls, the Copper Scroll, is a treasure map. It is a list of hiding places, apparently, for the treasures of the Jerusalem Temple, hidden away in anticipation of the fall of the city to the Romans. Unfortunately we can no longer identify the places mentioned. Maybe someday someone will find them and strike it rich.

But what strikes me is that this particular Scroll has come to serve as an allegory of reading for the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. The treasure itself is either gone or obscure, and the book that tells of the treasure has itself become the treasure! The Scrolls themselves­ are a treasure trove, a buried treasure that tells us much of what we did not know about ancient Judaism and Christianity.

And in the same way, I want to suggest to you that the text in which we read the parable of the treasure hidden in the field has itself become the treasure as well as the field in which it is buried.

The Bible itself, which exists in so many copies, bought but unread, which is available in so many editions and translations, certainly seems to be regarded as a treasure. We gild its edges in gold leaf, we clothe it in leather, we print its words on fine India paper. It is a jeweled casque, a treasure chest.

But do we fear that whatever treasure may lie within will spoil on contact with the air if we should open its covers? Do we think it such a rare book that we won't risk opening it? Some book collectors buy books they will never dare open for fear they will no longer be in "mint condition." Is your Bible like that?

Perhaps we think its message, once vibrant and alive in the ancient world, will be a beautiful but useless antique in this, our world. Like one of those gem-encrusted Easter eggs. Is that what the Bible is?

Here is another version of the same parable, this time taken from the Gospel of Thomas: "The kingdom is like a man who had a treasure in his field without knowing it. And after he died, he left it to his son. The son did not know about the treasure. He inherited the field and sold it. And the one who bought it went plowing and found the treasure. He began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished" (saying 109).

The evangelist Thomas tries to provide the hypothetical background for how the treasure happened to be there and how the man happened to discover it. It does not quite match Matthew. In Matthew the last owner buys it only after he knows about the treasure.

But I suspect Matthew's version does assume that the treasure was forgotten. Someone had buried it on his own land and forgotten about it or forgotten to tell his heirs about it. Someone had a valuable possession but no longer knew its value. It took someone else to discover the treasure.

Have you forgotten what a treasure you have in the Bible? I will not even speak of the other troves you have but have never discovered, the many other books like the Koran or the Gita that harbor treasures you could be profiting from. The Bible is right under your feet! If you opened it you would profit from the gems of wisdom you would find there. But you have forgotten.

Maybe in your youth you knew you had a treasure there. But you were like the Prodigal and spent recklessly. That is, you may have believed silly, immature things about the book, things that embarrass you now. But it doesn't have to be the inerrant Word of God to be a treasure!

You may have believed in silly things that you found in the Bible. And now you feel you know better, and you feel it is safer to leave the book shut. You did silly things the Bible or its self-appointed interpreters told you you had to do. And you blame the Bible for that.

Stop before you make the opposite mistake! Because once you imagined the Bible could do no wrong, and now you know better, does that mean you should go on to conclude it's got no value at all? Why, you're still a fundamentalist! Like Falwell, you think the Bible's just a fraud if its not 100 % inerrant! The only difference between you two is that Falwell thinks it's inerrant; you think it's a hoax. Each is an absurd distortion.

Come on! Get real! You used to ignore all the bad stuff. You couldn't afford to admit it was there. Now are you going to ignore all the good stuff?

Chances are, you have probably never discovered a buried treasure chest left by pirates. But you may have had the thrill of sorting through another, but no less real kind of treasure chest: a trunk of old items left from grandparents, or left behind in an old house you bought.

When you sift through the contents you find that a lot of it is old junk. You can't for the life of you figure what anybody saw in it. Its like looking at somebody else's slides or home movies. They can hold no interest for you. Just so many strange faces.

But here and there is a real find, something that excites you. Perhaps a bit of trivia or ephemera as those who left it regarded it. An old magazine, maybe. An old coin. But now the antique charm of age makes it a treasured relic of that lost time. The Bible is like that old trunk in the attic. Don't be so sure it is filled with nothing but mementos sacred only to the dead. Some things in it may be just as valuable as they were in the old days. Other things may have become much more valuable, much more revealing and relevant than they ever were before. Like certain notes struck here and there about women doing the work of apostles and prophets, for instance. For most of church history, those texts made no sense. Now they have come into their own. We know what to make of them now.

The Kabbalists had a doctrine that while the Torah would never pass away, in the new age of the Messiah a hitherto invisible letter would appear in the text, changing the meaning of everything. In fact the text does read differently in every age. We read it with new eyes, in new circumstances, with new questions.  And the Bible is a different book.

In my study I have an old Bible from the 1800s. It was my great great grandmother's Bible. It is a very different Bible, and not just because the translation and the typography are different. The Bible was a completely different book to her in her world. It was the Good Book, and she read it as a true history of the world created in six days, a sure guidebook on the way to the Celestial City. A compendium of information on heaven and its wonders and hell. To me it is an altogether different book, a record of the myths and the meanings created by ancient Israelites and Christians. I cherish it as she did, but I cherish a different book.

The Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter was once foraging around in the Genizah of the ancient Cairo synagogue. This was a kind of manuscript graveyard where old, worn-out copies of holy books were abandoned. They contained the name of God and so could not be incinerated, but they were so brittle and faded as to be useless for study or worship. So they were relegated to this textual Sargasso Sea. Holy trash, a sacred junkyard.

But by the time Rabbi Schechter went spelunking in it, age had transformed trash into treasure. There were old Jewish documents, including copies of books that some years later would be discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Tischendorf, the great text critic, was traveling about the Middle East in search of ancient manuscripts of the Bible. Staying at Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, he noticed that the wastebasket was literally lined with leaves of a 4th century vellum codex of the Bible. It turned out to be what we now call Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Have you consigned the Bible to a Genizah? You haven't actually thrown the thing out, but you have left it on the shelf to gather dust for years. If you have, you are not that different from the monks of Saint Catherine's, because the book might as well be in the trash.

I have a friend who doesn't care a fig for the Bible. And yet he reads he Hazelton meditation books as if they were the Bible. I wish him well. But I think he is selling a field that hides an unsuspected treasure. I wish he would do a bit of digging in the field first.

I am challenging you at the beginning of a new season, a new church year together, to read the Bible. Not all of it. Forget the niceties of Numbers and the recipes of Leviticus. They were never meant for you anyway. But read Proverbs, the Gospels, at least. I can make more specific suggestions if you want. I will read and discuss it with you if you want.

Try to read it without expectations. That is, try to take off the colored lenses that filter and recast what you read. Don't assume it will be noble or edifying or believable. It may not be. But don't assume it is irrelevant and obsolete either. Don't be put off by the first thing you read that you don't like.

If you find yourself clashing with the text, ask yourself if it is possible the Bible writer is right and you are wrong. Is it your moral standards or perhaps your guilty conscience that the text offends? I don't know. I don't have any definite expectations as to what will happen as you read it--except that something will happen. And who knows? You may strike it rich!




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